Documenting refugees in the 21st century

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, reports on Birkbeck’s recent Documenting Refugees event, which combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story.

Kate Stanworth’s photo of Salma, who travelled from Syria to Germany.

Wednesday 20 June marked World Refugee Day, an event through which the UN seeks to show governments the importance of collaboration as a means to accommodate forced migrants all over the world. With the global number of refugees being at an all-time high, this year stood for commemorating their strength, courage and perseverance. In light of this message, Birkbeck lecturer Agnes Woolley hosted ‘Documenting Refugees’, a thoughtful evening discussing the way in which refugees are represented both in the arts and media.

The event combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story, both of which reveal an intimate portrayal of refugees and their stories. For Stanworth, the focus lies on personal narratives and the psychological survival techniques used by refugees during the most difficult times. In addition, her portraits reveal how reaching the final destination (typically Germany or the UK) is still very much the beginning of the long journey forced immigrants have got ahead of them.

A similar idea is conveyed in Another News Story, where Wallace and his team follow both the refugees and journalists portraying them on their challenging journey across Europe. While the documentary offers an excellent balance of mixed narratives, the character that stands out most is Syrian mother Mahasen Nassif. Not only is her excellent English, positivity and strength while travelling alone completely overwhelming; her story also shows how getting to Germany is not where the refugee experience ends. When, in the panel discussion afterwards, director Wallace is asked about her he admits that she is finding it challenging to be living a slow-moving life in a remote town in Germany, endlessly waiting for documentation. A side of the story we hear a lot less often.

What is also special about the documentary is that it was shot without any kind of plan, with the main characters being simply those they kept running into. Finding a repertoire of narratives was therefore an entirely natural process, Wallace explains. And ultimately this has led to a uniquely nuanced documentation of a phenomenon that is predominantly being told through the biased and sensation seeking media. The documentary title already hints at this, but insights given by Bruno, a Belgian journalist and recurring character in the film, make it all the more evident: the news is wherever the media is – be that refugee camps at the Hungarian border or the Venice film festival.


‘Another News Story’ teaser

Both during the screening and discussion afterwards, the main issue with documenting refugees seems to be the fact that it is ongoing. As Ahmad al-Rahsid, a forced migration researcher at SOAS who fled from Aleppo in late 2012 comments, the Syrian conflict is considered by critics to be one of the most documented conflicts of humanitarian history, yet it took the picture of one little boy to finally cause a shift in political and public responses. People don’t typically respond to just another news story, and with crises without a beginning or end that is a very big problem. The refugee crisis didn’t start nor end in 2015; it is a long-term humanitarian issue that needs as much attention now as it did three years ago. Events like this are needed to help us realise that.

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How can cognitive neuroscience build resilience in breast cancer patients?

This post was contributed by Bethany Chapman, PhD candidate at Birkbeck. From October she will be working with the Building Resilience in Breast Cancer Centre (BRiC) to investigate ‘The efficacy of neurocognitive training on improving the processing efficiency and long-term quality of life of breast cancer survivors returning to work.’ Bethany attended Professor Derakshan’s Birkbeck Science Week talk on Thursday 21 June.

Breast cancer and its impact on emotional and cognitive health

Breast cancer is the most prevalently diagnosed form of malignancy amongst women, with recent figures revealing that a new case is diagnosed every 10 minutes in the UK. Given, its exceptionally high prevalence (75% increase since 1970s) breast cancer is currently considered across the world to be one of the most leading causes of health concern. Interestingly, evidence has denoted a significant increase in the number of younger pre-menopausal women being given a diagnosis. In particular, younger women appear to be diagnosed with more aggressive forms of breast cancer reflective of a higher grade (higher rate of cell multiplying) and stage tumour.

At present, breast cancer is targeted by a diverse range of interventions and treatments including, surgery (mastectomy), chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy as well as endocrine therapy. Whilst these interventions have greatly decreased the mortality rate most women that enter breast cancer survivorship following the completion of active treatment experience both emotional and cognitive vulnerability.

Professor Nazanin Derakshan revealed that women frequently report experiencing a range of emotional symptomologies (vulnerabilities) including:

  • Chronic anxiety and depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Intrusive thoughts regarding breast cancer recurrence
  • Poor quality of life (provoked by social isolation)

and cognitive dysfunctions (commonly known as ‘chemo-brain’) including:

  • Difficulty with concentration
  • Everyday memory loss
  • Difficulty retaining information
  • Poor Processing efficiency (i.e. slower responses)

So, is there a relationship between cognitive vulnerability and emotional vulnerability?

Crucially, Professor Derakshan divulged during her fascinating Science week talk that her team at Birkbeck have identified a directional causal relationship, in which cognitive dysfunction highly exaggerates the severity of psychological (or emotional) vulnerabilities (i.e. anxiety) experienced by breast cancer survivors. Furthermore, she stated the team extended their research to discover that this relationship is moderated by the grade of breast cancer diagnosed. For instance, women diagnosed with a higher grade (grade 3) of breast cancer exhibit a stronger relationship between cognitive vulnerability and emotional vulnerability.

Taking, all this novel research into consideration Derakshan raised an interesting point promulgating that it is imperative for future research to examine the cognitive health and emotional health of breast cancer survivors in unison, a previously problematic issue within the field of psycho-oncology.

How are researchers at Birkbeck aiming to build resilience to cognitive dysfunction and emotional vulnerability?

Neuroimaging research has shown structural and function changes in the brain related to the cognitive dysfunction(s) experienced following the completion of anti-cancer treatment, such cognitive dysfunction(s) is described by researchers as a ‘hidden cost’ of treatment as there are no significant behavioural differences observed when performance is compared with a control population. Interestingly, cognitive neuroscientists have evinced that breast cancer survivors recruit additional cognitive resources in order to compensate for the inefficiency (dysfunction) of their chemo-brain, this process is known as ‘compensatory effort’.

Furthermore, clinical research has reported that psycho-therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are ineffective in adequately reducing the severity of emotional symptomologies encountered by the breast cancer population. Taken all this research into consideration, Derakshan and her Birkbeck laboratory in partnership with the BRiC centre are experimentally analysing the effect of exercising cognitive function through the use of neurocognitive interventions including, the Adaptive Dual N-back Training on emotional vulnerability—with promising results already being discovered.

One captivating study highlighting these incredible that was discussed by Derakshan during the talk, revealed that women that received 12-days of Adaptive Dual N-back training presented with significantly reduced levels of anxiety and distress, with these effects being sustained at the 14-18-month follow-up. Additionally, the study also showed a decrease in women’s rumination at the final follow-up, 14-18-months post-training. Derakshan disclosed that one possible explanation for these highly promising findings is that exercising cognitive function through adaptive training increased the fronto-parietal connectivity by enhancing the process of myelination and/or strengthened the synaptic connectivity.

In sum, Professor Derakhshan presented a highly insightful talk, outlining the incredible role that cognitive neuroscience has in promoting sustained cognitive and emotional resilience in women diagnosed with one of the most prevalent malignancies in the world.

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Categorising ‘Public Engagement’

Mary-Clare Hallsworth, Public Engagement Manager at Birkbeck, University of London outlines the College’s approach to categorising public engagement for the inaugural Public Engagement Awards.

Recently at Birkbeck we ran our first ever Public Engagement Awards. The aim of the awards is to showcase and reward the great public engagement with research that goes on in our College. Thankfully there is plenty of it to reward so we didn’t need to overcome that particular challenge but instead we needed to make sure that the breadth of engagement practice was well represented and colleagues felt there was a category that they could apply for.  A lot of thought went into what our award categories should look like. There is quite a variety of models out there for categorising and dividing up public engagement. You can group PE by who is doing it, who it is being ‘done to’ (!), who is involved, reasons for the engagement or methods used – this is even before we start arguing over the nuances of the various definitions for public engagement (what should/shouldn’t be included?!).

Personally I like to avoid defining public engagement as a ‘thing’ altogether and prefer to think of it as an ethos – an underpinning way of conducting yourself and your research. This breaks the need to ask things like ‘does a blog count as public engagement?’; the answer to this is always ‘depends how you use it’, which is an irritating response. Instead, thinking of public engagement as an ethos enables us to think about the plethora of methods available as tools and choose the ones most useful and relevant to both the research and the community involved.

Bearing in mind then that we are trying to promote an ethos, not a tick-box ‘thing’ we looked at options for dividing the categories for our awards: by School/Department, by career level, by levels of involvement/influence in PE, and by engagement ‘type’.  We decided that, however we divided them, the final categories should adhere to certain principles. They must:

  • Reward the engagement work and not just individuals
  • Allow academics and researchers from every School/subject area to be able to apply
  • Be open and fair to all career levels
  • Showcase and reward the full spectrum of engagement activity at Birkbeck

To narrow down potential categories we looked at awards run by Queen Mary, University of London, University College London (check out their experiences!),  Oxford University and, of course, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). We also looked at definitions of public engagement from RCUK, the Wellcome Trust, NCCPE and various categorisation of public engagement within reports, the most enlightening being:  Reviewing Public Engagement in REF 2014 by NCCPE, The State of Play Report commissioned by Wellcome and RCUK and the Factors Affecting Public Engagement by UK researchers.

Because the language we use about what we really mean by public engagement is not universal and differs significantly by discipline we also had to take into account the language we used to describe each of the categories (full category descriptions at the end).

After all this we ended up with the following categories:

  • PhD and Early Career Researcher Award
  • Communicating Research
  • Collaboration
  • Engaged Practice
  • Transforming Culture or Public Life

On the whole I think these worked well. We did receive a good number and range of applications from all the Schools in the College for all of the categories. There were noticeable gaps though. Applications to the Engaged Practice category were a little low for my liking. Additionally, pockets of some departments were completely missed. Our Geography department, for example, does some great work which I would put firmly in the ‘Engaged Practice’ category but there was not a geographer in sight. We clearly didn’t get the messaging and language right for them – definitely something to think about for next year!

Categories – Full Descriptions

  • Communicating Research

This award recognised excellence in communicating research projects and ideas through stimulating or innovative activities. These activities aimed to: Inspire wonder, curiosity and learning; challenge conventional wisdom or provoke scrutiny and debate amongst their targeted publics. Classic forms of communication may have been used for this work including talks, workshops and media work (such as contributing or creating TV, film or radio content, appearing as a ‘talking head’ in factual programming), as well as publishing articles in non-scholarly outlets. Innovative use of websites and social media for communication were also considered in this category.

Applicants were asked to note the distinction between activities which are ‘publicly available’ as opposed to communicating to the public. Publicly available activities are scholarly activities such as conference talks or lectures that are made available to the public rather than those specifically designed for a particular non-academic audience. Publicly available activities did not fall within the remit of these awards.

  • Collaboration

This award recognised engagement based on an active collaboration and a two-way relationship with an external partner(s). Collaborators might have included museums, charities, schools, individuals and artists, arts organisations or social enterprises who work with the researcher/s to reach their public/s. Collaborations in this category often resulted in the development of new pieces of work, exhibitions, performances or resources. This type of engagement usually looks to prompt new ideas and ways of working, build skills/ knowledge on both sides of the collaboration, whilst providing publics with access to research and opportunities to get involved.

With these types of projects the true engagement could be said to be with the collaborator rather than the public, although the outputs of the collaboration often add an additional level of engagement with a wider public.

  • Engaged Practice

This award recognised research that has participation and involvement of publics as a core approach to the creation of research. Projects in this category could be described as community engagement, participatory research, co-production of knowledge or socially engaged practice amongst many labels. This type of research works directly with a community of place/interest in order to: empower the subjects of the research; use dialogue and deliberation to influence the research; build networks; develop skills or improve the health and well-being of those involved. This form of engagement often takes years to establish relationships enabling publics to share their knowledge and expertise and can often contribute to issue-based awareness, support activism or take a ground up approach to policy change.

  • Transforming Culture or Public Life

This award recognised research engagement activities which aim to stimulate change within our culture and society. These projects tend to work ‘behind the scenes’ to influence organisations, professional groups or policy makers. Activities were designed to: inform decision making; encouraged scrutiny and debate; galvanise change and influence the behaviours and practices of organisations or groups who work in the public realm.

Common strategies for affecting influence might include: commissioning artworks/film/theatre; input/creation of think-tanks and advisory groups; workshops for professional groups and policy makers; collaborating with businesses/communities to provide a service or influence a change in practice.

Note: Collaborations within this category tend not to produce single new pieces of work but rather change the way in which a group/organisation approaches work.

  • PhD and Early Career Researcher Award

The Early Career Award recognised the public engagement work of doctoral students or early career researchers (ie Post-Docs in their first two years in post). This included projects where the applicant has spearheaded a project or contributed significantly to a larger project.

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Arts Week 2018: The Corners

Lynsey Ford, an alumna of Birkbeck, discusses an Arts Week event looking at architecture and pedestrians with photographer Chris Dorley Brown. 

Documentary photographer and filmmaker Chris Dorley-Brown visited Birkbeck Arts Week at The School of Arts on Friday 18 May to discuss his 30-year career as a freelancer. The talk coincided with the release of his new publication entitled The Corners by Hoxton Mini Press, which examines his photography between 2009-2017 across East London street corners, industrial buildings, landscapes and architecture.

Initially trained as a silkscreen printer and print finisher, Chris branched out as a freelancer in 1984. Living and working in the East End for over 20 years, Chris began his media career working as a camera assistant for Red Saunders studio. His comprehensive slide show of his street photography at Birkbeck discussed his initial work building a photographic archive with the London Borough of Hackney.

Chris quickly started to develop his own digital techniques to create narratives; working with multiple exposures taken over an hour, Chris’s images have used around 100 shots taken at different times. These shots have been constructed to resemble one definitive image creating a surreal, dreamlike narrative of the urban landscape. The stillness, composition and colour of all his images adopt the look and feel of an oil painting. Notable shots include a police evacuation where the police sealed off the streets after the discovery of a bomb from World War 2. A boy is seen in disbelief holding an apple near the sealed off area, whilst a faceless young lady, oblivious to potential danger, cannot help but investigate, walking towards the tape. Other images perfectly capture the cynicism of city life, from the street voyeur, a homeless man, who emerges from the hidden corner of a local high street, facing off at an unseen Chris behind the lens. Old pedestrians ‘collide’ with the younger generation of cyclists across the traffic junction emphasising at the inevitable ‘changing face’ of the landscape. Chris also revisited his photography capturing ‘Drivers in the 1980s’. The slideshow perfectly expressed the conflicting emotions of Londoners, from a spaced-out businessman alone in his thoughts inside a red double-decker bus, to the visibly frustrated faces of motorists, caught between shots and the intermittent traffic lights during rush hour.

The talk provided a nostalgic look at London life and Dorley-Brown’s work is a great testimony to a skilled media professional who perfectly captures the history and architecture of the East End.

Further material from Chris’s career can be obtained through the public collections of The Museum of London and The George Eastman Museums.

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