How to improve the image of refugees in the media?

Does the mainstream media reliably inform us about everything that we should know about refugees? Or maybe media shows these people only in a bad light because sad news is more catchy? It’s time to look at refugees through their eyes, to understand who they are and how their lives really look like.

How refugees can build their better image in the media, and how they can improve their self-esteem at the same time? To find answers to these questions I talked to Marie-Louise Diekema and Tim Olland, designers of “Reframe Refugees” digital platform. The Dutch duo was one of five winning teams of WDCD Refugee Challenge, a contest that was a part of What Design Can Do international conference devoted to social aspects of design. The event run at the turn of June and July in Amsterdam.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity. To listen to the original conversation conducted just after the announcement of the winners of WDCD Refugee Challenge, press play on the video embedded below. If you find this material interesting, you can, literally, buy me a coffee, wherever you are. You can find all details about the donation at the bottom of this page.

TrendNomad.comWhat problem do you try to solve?
Marie-Louise Diekema: During our research, we noticed that in media refugees are pictured the same. They are all hopeless and victimised. Photographers are being sent to the camps with professional gear and they take photos that all look the same.
Tim Olland: Refugees are not portrayed as people. They are shown more like objects and numbers invading our countries. We want to try to reframe that image.

Sad news dominates the headlines, because bad news sells very well.
M.-L.D.: It’s true. Sad news sells.
T.O.: I always prefer good news.
M.-L.D.: Finally good news are just around the corner. They are really easily accessible for news agencies, or people like you and me.

Have you found a solution?
T.O.: I wish we had a complete solution. Media show only one side of the problem. They are not lying, but they don’t show everything. We want to show the other side as well. Refugees are people. They have human connections and families in camps.

Good things are happening as well in refugees camps. These side is not shown in the media at all.

M.-L.D.: We want to show ambitions of these people and inventive ways the refugees live in camps, despite the fact that they live in horrible conditions. As Tim said, they are people, they have feelings, they are just like you and me. So why not let them show us that?

What is “Reframe Refugees”?
T.O.: “Reframe Refugees” is a stock-based photo website with pictures taken and uploaded by refugees, accompanied by their stories. Refugees can show their side of the problem. We sell their photos to different media and blogs.

How to convince refugees to use this platform? Is it only about the money?
M.-L.D.: It is not about the money. The sad thing is that as long as they don’t have asylum, they are not allowed to earn any money. They don’t have anything to do over there. We wanted to give them an opportunity to get some sort of self-appreciation. If their photo was used in media, they would get a notification. They would have a sense of: „WOW! My photo is in a big newspaper!”.
T.O.: Social media shows us that everybody likes to share his or her photos and stories. People want to tell the world how they are doing, and how their life is looking. You want to do it anyway, and now you can do something good with it as well.

Reframe Refugees platform

What does happen with the money you collect online?
M.-L.D.: It’s a form of a donation that helps refugees. Money goes to charities that give aid to refugees. Media companies can choose where they want to send the money. We make sure if the money goes to the charities helping refugees.

What kind of devices refugees must have to be able to use this platform?
T.O.: 90 percent of refugees have a smartphone. What’s the better way to reframe their image than reframing themselves with photos taken with their smartphones?

Is the quality of a picture taken with a phone good enough to be published in a printed magazine?
T.O.: It’s not about the quality of a photo. It is about the story the picture is telling. It doesn’t have to be HD, crispy and sharp. It’s about the subject of the photo and what the author is trying to tell by it. A photo taken with a new smartphone can be easily used for print.

It has more to do with the skills of the photographer. The National Geographic has photography schools in camps across Europe. We want to connect with them and make people living in camps enthusiastic about taking photos and reframing their own image.

Is it useful only for new refugees? Can people who came here ten years ago also use it?
T.O.: People who came here ten years ago could also share their stories.
M.-L.D.: Maybe they don’t feel as comfortable as they should. They can take their image into their own hands as well.

Who will have an access to the photo library and be allowed to buy pictures?
M.-L.D.: Everyone will be able to see the photos, buy and download them. The main audience is the media companies, but everyone can purchase a photo if it is to his or her liking.

WDCD Refugee Challenge credits TrendNomad
Marie-Louise Diekema and Tim Olland personally collected the award at the stage of What Design Can Do conference in Amsterdam. Photography by

What will you do with the money you have just won in the WDCD Refugee Challenge?
M.-L.D.: The funding we have just received, 10,000 euros, will help us to start. Experts will help us to make a business plan, and to contact with new partners. We can really make this work.
T.O.: We will be working on a prototype. We must find a way to reach out to refugees and make them aware of our idea. It also takes some money.
M.-L.D.: We need to build the platform. We need a help from many people. If anyone has an idea or can offer any form of help, reach out to us.

If you have any thoughts about “Reframe Refugees”, please email Marie-Louise Diekema and Tim Olland directly.

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