Patterns of Home
Patterns of Home is a project created in collaboration with a women’s collective in Bidibidi refugee settlement in northwestern Uganda. Here 250,000 people live close to the border of South Sudan where they fled their homes during the civil war in 2016, now creating new homes in a place in constant transformation due to political tensions and climate change.
With most of the refugees being women and children and leaving during shootings at night their embroidered bedsheets called Milaya are often one of the few things they carried. The handmade patterns have been made in South Sudan for generations and the tradition of the Milayas continues in what has become their temporary home while waiting for the war to end.
After their first portraits were published in National Geographic in 2018 we founded The Milaya Project, a non-profit connecting South Sudanese refugees with customers who want to purchase beautiful hand embroidered pillows from the refugee camp and support the traditional art form. We’re running a online shop and all profits go to helping the women’s collectives scale-up their businesses and providing for their families in Bidibidi.
I remember my life in pictures. Many people just pick up a camera at special occasions, for me it’s important to document the everyday life like a special occasion. To put an image on those moments that for some people are normal and for other are hard to imagine. That’s what I believe images and stories are for, to create curiosity, a greater understanding and empathy for each other.
When I began working with the women in Bidibidi refugee settlement in Uganda in 2017 I was humbled to be welcomed by people who had to endure so much already. Fleeing their home, many of them for the third time in their life, but now letting me be around them and photograph their new homes and everyday is nothing I’d take for granted. It’s in these situations I want to be present and show sensitivity and where it’s so important that I don’t need to worry about my gear but fully focus on the people around me.
For me making the best images is all about failing, getting over the frustration and giving it another shot. Realizing that this wasn’t the right time, the right light, the right mood or the fact that I was to stressed. We need to try again, wait patiently for a goat to walk in or out of the background, or for the clouds to cover the sun.
The sisters Unia and Gaba have been patiently standing for portraits for many years. By now they can probably make an exhibition cover their walls with only their family portraits. Often we’ve talked about making a portrait for days until they’re decided on the dress and all the children are there. And sometimes I simply walk by and ask if we we can make one now because the light is so beautiful and everything is perfect.
So once a scene is set, everything needs to go fast; my autopilot and my Fuji. Switching easily between video and still and having an almost unlimited amount of preset options to choose from makes it easy for me to work in situations where multitasking is just one of the difficult parts.
I’m here for the people, somehow being a photographer is probably a bit of a selfish choice, it gives me a reason to constantly be curious. It is far from easy, but comes with many benefits. Hiding behind a camera is one of them. I’m not much of a extrovert, weirdly shy in many situations and surprisingly bold once I hold a camera. It’s fascinating how many faces we can have and what the right tools can make with us.
Working with the GFX medium format has given me the opportunity to try out new areas and expand my documentary projects into more artistic fields that I previously wouldn’t have explored. Both the rendering of the images and the file size made me look at new opportunities to reach a wider audience with the stories we had made so many times before and published in more traditional channels such as online and magazines. Now they’re printed on huge fabrics which not only gives the people in the picture the joy of seeing themself more then live size but also has changed the kind of pictures we create.
I especially enjoyed working with the 55mm lens since it brought me so close to the people again. In a place where both the dry season with sandstorms and the rainy seasons and humidity can make it difficult to change lenses, I’m grateful for a lens I want to keep all day. Thanks to the large aperture and focal length the 55mm has been such a great lens for both portraits in- and outdoors, no matter if low light or the high standing midday sun at the equator. It’s rare that I feel no need to change the lens during a whole day. And working a lot at low light during night, documenting the everyday life tasks such as cooking without any artificial light, it’s been amazing to see the outcome of pictures made in almost complete darkness.
Working in an environment where solar power is our only energy the batteries and capacity of the GFX have been striking. Not to mention the size of the camera being comfortable to both hold and carry around during the long days in high temperatures.
The image quality of the GFX is simply stunning. Working with such a wide range of clients, with everything from feature stories for National Geographic magazine, daily news and commercial assignments Sweden to long term projects with the Milaya Project, I always want to be able to make the most out of the images. Something that starts as a small idea might become an exhibition one day so at that point I’m grateful to have the huge files to rely on.
Nora Lorek is a documentary storyteller focusing on migration, culture, and human rights. Nora is the co-founder of the Milaya Project, a non-profit that started as an assignment for National Geographic and now connects South Sudanese women in Bidibidi refugee camp with customers who want to support their traditional embroidery artform.