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Free, Not Free is a photography project that foregrounds queer refugees

Jack Owen’s work showcases a technical skill that mirrors the care embedded in his work

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"I am a rare piece of art who has found herself in a foreign land.

Never have I thought I would one day be referred to as a refugee, but now here I am.

Refugee Refugee

No one leaves home unless home is the cause of their worries.

No one leaves home unless home endangers their life." - B

Jack Owen

Photographer Jack Owen’s latest project, Free, Not Free, depicts queer refugees in a series of beautiful images. On his website, Jack explains that:

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 discriminates against asylum seekers broadly and LGBTQIA+ claimants in particular. The Act raises the ‘standard of proof’ required to demonstrate a characteristic that risks persecution in a country of origin, yet how do you prove your sexuality or gender orientation, especially if you’ve spent a lifetime concealing your true self?

Jack concludes that:

What is missing in all this is the voice of those at the sharp end.


"I thought I’d be dead by now as a queer woman in Nigeria. But it is a difficult process, a hard journey, trying to get your freedom and live your life." - Ebi

Jack Owen

That sharp end is, of course, the systemic but despairingly routine dehumanisation and subjugation of refugees.

Just this year, there have been protests from right-wing rioters at hotels housing refugees. Home secretary Suella Braverman has maintained a disturbing lack of basic support for refugees and asylum seekers. In order to continue its violent anti-refugee agenda, the government needs the media on board to convince people that refugees are dangerous, cockroaches, vermin, thieves, potential criminals. Both mainstream media and the government work together to carry out a sophisticated demonisation of racialised refugees.


"I would like people to understand that I’m Reina, I’m a feminine gay living an open life." - Reina

Jack Owen

Projects like Free, Not Free represent a robust challenge to the narrow view of migrants as a danger only. Jack Owen’s work troubles the relationship between both photographer and subject, but also between safety and danger. I spoke to Jack to discuss the technical elements of his work, and what he hopes the project will achieve.

Democratising space

Jack tells me that he’s a student of documentary photography at the University of the Arts in London. “It's my academic studies that have led me to think about the kind of work I want to do, and how to start thinking about power when it comes to making work. Essentially, how do we create photographs that are not just totally dominated by the unequal power relationships between the photographer and the subject?”

Jack’s interest in self-portraits comes from a place of “trying to democratise the space. That’s in terms of understanding how cameras work, how to take photographs, and how to think about what a photograph means.”

Free, Not Free is a series of portrait photos and testimonial reflections from subjects. It’s been made in collaboration with LGBTQ+ asylum seeking people living in Doncaster and Sheffield. Time To Be Out, an LGBT asylum support organisation in York, Spectrum Rainbow Community in Doncaster and The Sanctuary in Sheffield all collaborated or contributed to the project, whether through providing connections to queer refugees or otherwise.


"I have had a miserable time but can now be happy. I want to look after myself. I am thankful to be an asylum seeker. I used to be a chef in Iraq, and I want to work in the kitchen here too." - Dennis

Jack Owen

Each of the images in the series feature verbatim recollections from the subjects, a short poem or some direct words. Jack tells me that this felt important for the project, and he made sure to be as collaborative as possible.

“I spent time with folks making photographs, using my camera on a tripod with a cable release so people could take their own portraits. And then I'd then go away, put the photographs on my computer, send them over to people so they could review and select the shots that they wanted to have used.”

There was a particular reason for this. “I was trying to make a good effort for the work to be co-produced and for it not all to be about the aesthetic that I was interested in or the images that I thought were good.”

Jack recognises the utterly hostile political climate for refugees. “We hear very little from people that are at the sharp end. And so it was an attempt, a small attempt, to try and create a space for some of those voices to cut through a little.”

Extractive and colonial approaches

Some documentary photography has garnered quite a reputation for an extractive and colonial approach. For example, Steve McCurry is a celebrated photojournalist but there is growing assent that McCurry’s images are reductive. Teju Cole wrote:

A sequence of photographs, taken over many years and carefully arranged, however, reveals a worldview. To consider a place largely from the perspective of a permanent anthropological past, to settle on a notion of authenticity that edits out the present day, is not simply to present an alternative truth: It is to indulge in fantasy.

Of course, this fantasy Cole refers to is an Orientalist and racist fantasy that spins a blinkered vision of people from the Global South. Jack explained that he was aware of such a context in photojournalism. “I think often photography has sort of reinforced existing power structures, rather than challenged them.” Jack thinks “a lot of the language around photography betrays the power dynamics of it, such as shooting or capturing.”


"Most important for people to understand is that we are not taking something away from the taxpayer, we are not simply a burden. People are coming here suffering from political violence, religious violence, gender based violence, and much more besides, and we are looking for a new home and a new life. And in this system it’s not given freely." - Jason

Jack Owen

Such an approach shines through in Free, Not Free, where faces are obscured, blurred or otherwise intangible. Jack told me that some people were happy to be identifiable, while others couldn’t take the risk.

“From the beginning, I was interested in thinking, how can we do this? How can we create work which is meaningful without people needing to show their faces? In order to do that I was using neutral density filters on the front of the lens. To slow down, or to reduce the amount of light coming into the camera, I had an off camera flash to one side, and then we were using shutter speeds of around half a second or two thirds of a second, something like that.”

The effect is quite arresting. Jack says that in some of the images, “you can see how the flash has frozen something on somebody's face, but then you have that kind of blur through as the rest of the exposure leaves its imprint on the file as well. And at the beginning, the series was a mixture – some people were in quite a standard portrait style, and others were obscured. Then naturally, as it went on, it felt like the obscured photos were more interesting than the other work. And so we started to go down that road together in terms of thinking about, well what does it mean if you're partially seen, you know, how does that speak to your experiences as a person of colour seeking asylum in the UK? There's something in that which I thought was quite powerful.”


"Being an LGBTQIA+ asylum seeker, the hard part is proving who you are. You need proof because they will deny who you are. Please don’t judge my choices if you don’t understand my reasons." - Jessica

Jack Owen

Jack’s process for Free, Not Free is a statement – a statement that brings queer refugees to the forefront as people, first and foremost. The worst dregs of Western exceptionalism believe that queerness is the preserve of whiteness, but Free, Not Free challenges that assumption. But it’s Jack’s technique that transforms the images into a powerful treatment of not only how refugees are invisibilised, but also how refugees may well choose to hold parts of themselves for loved ones – and not for the state. After all, the ones we love are enemies of the state.

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