“Right now, in Tallinn, we’re safe – and what’s important is that we’re being helpful. And that the children in Zaporizhzhia can feel out of the war, even if just for a few hours a week.”
Vera Pirogova is an Estonian photographer, filmmaker and student based in Tallinn. Together with Canon Ambassador Katya Mukhina, Vera has been spending every minute of her spare time on-board the refugee ship Isabelle, entertaining and teaching Ukrainian children the basics of photography.
Isabelle, a 35,000-tonne ferry docked in Tallin since the beginning of the war, has been converted into a temporary shelter for many of the 65,000 Ukrainians who have been fleeing to Estonia over the past two years.
And while most of them are now settled into homes and have jobs in their new country, for some the journey to a safe harbour is far from over. Isabelle has been that harbour for more than a thousand people at a time. Half of which are children.
Media reports of the number vary. Some say 2000 people, others say 1400. What is certain, however, is that Isabelle has been docked in Tallinn Harbour since April 2022.
Before the pandemic, it used to spend its days transporting people and goods between the Latvian port of Riga and Stockholm. But when Russia invaded Ukraine and many thousands of refugees headed to Estonia, the ferry did not resume its duties.
Instead, it set sail to Tallinn, which was struggling to cope with the huge numbers of arrivals into a relatively small city. At the time, finding residences and jobs for so many people was a huge challenge and this meant that, for some, this unusual floating village became ‘home’ to them and their children for many months.
It felt like an important step to support these young refugees face-to-face at a time when their lives have changed beyond recognition.”
As a result, what once was a lounge, a cafeteria, a restaurant, casino, or disco has been cleared out and repurposed with the needs of the new residents in mind.
A small conference area is now a classroom, where a couple of times a week, Vera and Katya are joined by more than a dozen children and young people for a few hours of entertainment and distraction. All with the support of voluntary organisations such as KINOcourse and OGOGO.
“When they are not at school, children are playing around the boat all the time,” explains Vera. “So, I think they have a lot of motivation and desire to try something new.
“It felt like an important step to support these young refugees face-to-face at a time when their lives have changed beyond recognition.”
During their time on the Isabelle, children and youngsters study via online classes from Ukraine or attend different schools in Tallinn. So in their free time, “something new” is the opportunity to get their hands on a Canon camera, learn how to use it, and take it around with them as they explore their surroundings.
“The idea is to encourage them to find a view on something that seems very familiar to them but is actually not,” says Vera, expressing the importance of encouraging a sense of investigation and challenging their students to examine their circumstances in new ways at every lesson.
“We have very simple tasks: to shoot a reflection, for example,” she recalls. “We realised how many reflections there are on the ship, how many interesting locations the ship has.
“The children understood how different every picture was and got excited – ‘oh look, I found this!’ Then they are smiling because they’ve found something no one else has. This is truly the point of our initiative.”
That has opened the teachers’ eyes to the real, broader value of their work.
“We’ve quickly realised that while our initial educational goal was to teach technical, compositional and editing fundamentals, there’s a far wider role to play,” she says.
“We’re not just here to learn how to use a camera. We’re here to put smiles on the faces of young people who are living with the kind of upheaval that the majority of us will never have to experience.”
Each class is a mix of ages, with older teenagers often trailed by their younger siblings of ten or eleven years old.
For the teachers, that’s an opportunity to explore different ways to support their students and their families.
“I’m proud that our programme is created that way. With the younger ones I can ask, ‘what do you see? How do you feel? What do you think about this man? Is he angry or happy?’,” explains another volunteer teacher, Valentina Korabelnikova.
We’re not just here to learn how to use a camera. We’re here to put smiles on the faces of young people who are living with the kind of upheaval that the majority of us will never have to experience.”
“But we ask the older ones more complicated questions: ‘how is this picture constructed?’. Either way, the team are encouraging new ways of seeing and the ability to speak about yourself and to talk with people using visual language.”
And while we may never know the full impact that the war is having on these children, the teachers feel comforted by the knowledge that the work they are doing is certainly helping – giving them a new language through which to talk about their world, as well as a distraction from a war that has absorbed their lives.
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