Q+A: UBC Grad student's Photovoice Exhibit highlights international students' experiences

In collaboration with the Global Lounge, UBC graduate student Virginia Dreier hosted an exhibit, Belonging at UBC: International Student Photovoice Study Exhibit & Presentation, featuring 24 photo narratives from five undergraduate international students at UBC on November 18. The photographs offered insight into the experiences of international students living on campus during COVID-19 — touching on themes of wellbeing, belonging and intercultural understanding.

The Ubyssey sat down with Dreier to talk about her hopes for the exhibit.

The Ubyssey: What was the process of putting this together like?

Dreier: “A lot of accommodations had to be made to do everything online. What really helped the process was that our participants were not just that, but were also active researchers. There was a lot of overlap between putting this event together and my thesis work — as lead researcher, I went over ethics, proposals and recruited online through residences. Over the summertime, the participants took the photographs and I compiled everything. The main feature that I really wanted them to focus on was community engagement — I wanted the photos to take place across multiple locations where students would be, as the main audience was, first and foremost, students on campus.”

The exhibit focuses on the perspectives of belonging as an undergraduate international student at UBC, and the othering that often comes with that. What are some of your expectations for this event? What do you hope people will take away from this event?

“Even though this event was put together from the perspectives of international students, I hope that the photographs and narratives engage all students. It’s a lot like going to a new place for the first time: as soon as you create a link, be it unknowingly or knowingly, the unknowns are no longer as foreign as they once were. The main goal is to know that people can see these photos and understand these people’s lives. Many of these photos are very intimate, and it takes a lot of courage to share that. It’s a very unique experience, for sure. We take photos all the time, but it’s different because these have an explicit purpose to demonstrate intimacy, othering, and everything else that springs from loneliness. Most importantly, I hope that viewers will look at these photos and name experiences for themselves, and recognize moments when they have felt joy, sadness and everything in between.”

"Many of these photos are very intimate, and it takes a lot of courage to share that."
"Many of these photos are very intimate, and it takes a lot of courage to share that." Isabella Falsetti

You’re currently a grad student at UBC — do you see much overlap between this photo project and your field of specialty?

“I appreciate what the arts can do for connection — I’m not a photographer myself, but the people that came to the study had a passion for photography. My passion is more about how the arts can connect emotionally to an audience. I wanted to harness this power and feature it in Photovoice. It has a very democratic nature to how its run, and as such, it has a lot of potential for engagement. I didn’t want to just do a survey to collect my information — I wanted a socially-just component to the research that allowed people to share their experiences through their art. It was that, more than the photography itself, that compelled me to pursue this. I strongly believe that art has the ability to answer complex questions, while provoking more questions all the same. There is a power in being able to claim things for yourself, and having collaborators and potential guests decide what photos mean to them. As a researcher, I don’t go back and say, “This is what this photo means” because that would defeat the purpose.”

Are there any other details that you’d like to highlight about the event?

“You might not always have your culture nearby, and for many international students, this is the norm. This in particular points to the strengths that come from international students. There’s something to learn from them, a set of skills and knowledge that come as a part of the exhibit itself. Most of the research on international students is about struggles and difficulty. I wanted to change that.”