PHOTOGRAPHER | INTERNATIONAL RESCUE COMMITTEE
How did the Vision not Victim (VNV) project begin?
I had been working with adolescent girls in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of an internship in grad school – working on some participatory media projects. One afternoon, as we were having a discussion, I asked the group of girls I was with who their role models were – who were the heroes that inspired them. After thinking for a few minutes, they went around the circle and each named a western man – Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King, etc. These men, these individuals they saw as role models – were extraordinary leaders who we can all look to, but there was a disconnect between their life journey and the obstacles these girls were facing in present day Congo. And in my time there, I had met so many remarkable Congolese women – entrepreneurs, artists, leaders who were my own inspiration – but their stories were not in the media and were not reaching this group of girls. After my internship ended, I came back to grad school and spent time analysing the media coming out regions of conflict and poverty. It was immediately clear that the spectrum of visibility for women and girls in this context are extremely narrow – that is, the women you see from these places are almost always portrayed as victims.
At that point, as I was transitioning into photography full-time, I decided I and wanted to find a way to create and highlight positive images of women and girls from places like the DRC – role models for themselves and others, who broke down stereotypes.
So I pitched an idea, the Vision not Victim Project, to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) who I knew was doing great work with women and girls. And they responded. We piloted the project in the Congo in 2013 as a partnership, and now I am working with them to expand the initiative – making it a much more robust program – and taking it to new locations.
What does the project entail?
VNV engages groups of adolescent girls in a creative process that supports them in designing a vision for their future, exploring their potential, and building skills they need to stay safe and pursue their aspirations. The project culminates in a photo shoot, designed by each participating girl, where she poses as her future self – achieving a goal. We then use these photos to spark conversations with her parents and community about keeping girls safe, and the importance of their education and ambition. We also use these images to advocate globally for initiatives that work to eliminate violence and inequality for women and girls.
Part of your responsibility at IRC is to expand the Vision not Victim project to new locations. What are your plans for the project?
I am currently in Jordan, implementing Vision not Victim with some outstanding Syrian refugee girls living in camps and in urban areas. My hope is that we will continue implementing the project in additional locations, including in the US with resettled refugees.
You started your career at FORGE, working both in Pittsburgh and Zambia. What were you doing for them?
In my sophomore year, I volunteered with FORGE and had the opportunity to spend my summer living and working in a Congolese refugee camp in Zambia. In a camp of over 35,000 individuals, many who had been living there for at least 5 years, there were no mass communication systems – no way for information to reach the whole community. I supported my Congolese counterparts in creating the Kala Camp News – a biweekly newspaper featuring everything from news in the camp, to sports, to health and education columns. The journal was distributed throughout the region and ran for four years until the camp closed in 2009.
I spent my senior year working for FORGE as their regional advocacy advisor – organising fundraising and advocacy events for university students in the area.
You have been involved in the Cairo from Below urban project since 2011. What does it consist of?
Cairo from Below is a forum for urban planners, activists, and citizens. It was born out of a research project I was a part of in grad school, and has grown into a vibrant community of passionate young people who contribute to discussions, idea competitions, and publications that advocate for more inclusive and transparent urban planning in Cairo and around the globe.
How did you train as a photographer?
I have no formal education in photography – everything I learned, everything that I continue to learn is done through practice… (and a few online tutorials).
Why did you decide to make international affairs your career?
I wanted to work to end gender inequality and violence against women and girls.
And I found it to be an incredibly complex field in which everything intersects – and therefore a space that is interesting and challenging.
You have a BA in Comparative Literature and an MA in International Affairs. How are they useful to your career?
My BA in Comparative Literature has taught me how to write, how to think critically and investigate language. It has spurred me to be more curious and analyse what I see and hear on a daily basis.
My MA in International Affairs enabled me to understand political, social, economic and even bureaucratic elements in the places I work. I suppose my BA helps me understand the micro and how to communicate with individual people, and my MA helps me navigate macro systems.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it that you still use now?
My first job was as an instructor at my undergraduate university. In my senior year, I wanted to take a class on international aid and ethics, but there was no existing course. So I asked if I could create one and teach it. I learned that you don’t need to be an expert or have the answers to initiate or participate in a conversation. As I learned from working with my students, knowledge comes from being in a group.
What advice would you give to a woman who wants to do a similar job to yours?
Trust your instincts. Practice curiosity all the time. Find an injustice that enrages you and fight it. Take great pleasure in listening to others and asking really great questions. Be creative. Be kind. Look to the fringes – great ideas happen when you are exploring intersections and edges.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?
The most rewarding aspect of my career is handing a girl a photograph that she has designed and posed in – as she looks down at her future and witnesses her confidence and potential in that moment.
The least rewarding aspect of my career?
Logistics. Photo shoots unfortunately are 5% photography and 95% organising logistics.
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
My greatest skill in everything that I do – photography, working with women and girls - is my ability to actively listen and make individuals feel comfortable and appreciated. I suppose this comes with practice, but also in committing to prioritise every individual you work with over the final outputs of any project.
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
There are things that you may work very hard on that end up being stuck in a drawer or dismissed. If nothing else, try to see them as steps in your own growth.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
For my first year out of grad school I could not find a full time job, and I struggled with depression. To cope, I tried to learn new things – whatever I could. I would watch lectures online about physics, economics, literary critique of Kafka – anything I could find that would keep my mind working. I grew to understand that it is in these moments – when you are knocked down – that you can come up with your best ideas.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I am proud of the risks I have taken – of finding an idea I loved and pursuing it.
Who are your role models?
Hundreds of them. The passionate people I work with who fight day and night for women’s rights. Mentors who have modelled how to be truly thoughtful and creative. The journalists I have met that travel into conflict zones where the threat to their lives is extremely high, so that the world will learn a piece of truth. The individuals everywhere who have experienced horrendous conflict and disaster and still make sacrifices for others.
Meredith Hutchison - Program manager and photographer for the Vision not Victim project at International Rescue Committee
Eight years' experience
CV in brief
Studied Comparative Literature, Comparative Religion at the University of Pittsburgh | Economic and Political Development, Communications at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs
Previously worked at Digital Democracy | Columbia Arts and Humanities project | Earth Institute | Institut de recherche et débat sur la gouvernance | Columbia University Graduate School of International and Public Affairs | Littlethings International | FORGE; | University of Pittsburgh Forbes Fellow Program
Find her online @merehutch
"I am calm. I don't like lying. I am generous towards others and don't like being provoked or teased. I am proud. A while ago, there was a woman in my neighborhood that had to have a C-section. I wanted to be able to help her and other women like her. That was when I decided I was going to become a surgeon."
"I am smart and inquisitive; I hope to be a professional photographer. In this picture, I am photographing a model for a fashion campaign. I love showing people their image - I love taking pictures of my friends and family and giving them a glimpse of how they appear, how others see them, how beautiful they may be."
Yvette’s mother reacts to seeing her daughter’s vision captured in a photograph. What followed were conversations about what it would take to support her daughter to achieve her dreams.