One hand doesn’t clap: why the world is a better place when changemakers tell their stories

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A hand reaches towards the sky above the Coliseum. A chunky analogue watch and beaded bracelets are visible on the person's wrist. There is a wedding band on their ring finger. A sun flare bursts from between the ring and middle fingers.

Some award ceremonies are less about red carpets and more about red threads, and the United Nations SDG Action Awards is precisely this kind of event. Held every year it celebrates the people and initiatives that are driving positive change in the world. And in doing so, it brings them together, building a global network of passionate people doing remarkable things.

“There was zero competition in that room, only people coming together to learn from each other and to celebrate each other's success,” reflects Muhammed Muheisen on an inspiring weekend. The event saw Muhammed take to the stage in Rome to present Sabrina Dhowre Elba and Idris Elba with their Honourable Mention Award but also participating as a judge. And as founder of the Everyday Refugees Foundation and longstanding Canon Ambassador, he was the perfect fit to take the helm of the Canon ‘Leadership in Action’ workshop, held ahead of the awards. Through this, he helped to provide a space of reflection for both award finalists and judges in the run up to the big event. “That's the importance of such experiences, they bring all these changemakers into one place, which inspires and motivates many others.”

The Sustainable Development Goals (Or SDGs, as they are more commonly known) were adopted by all United Nations Member States as a means to reaching a more sustainable and equitable future by the year 2030. But these goals are by no means restricted to the actions of governments and the SDG Action Awards speak to the part we all have to play in uniting to act for our collective future. It is a place where those who are creating world-changing initiatives in the name of the Sustainable Development Goals are recognised and championed on an international stage. It was more than appropriate then that this year, as well as being part of the awards ceremony, the finalists and judges were invited to join Muhammed for a taste of the Canon Young People Programme, learning the essential skills of photography and storytelling.

Two women walk through the streets of Rome holding a yellow flag between them. The flag reads "World Cleanup"

“One day they are asking me ‘what's the aperture? What's the shutter speed?’ The next day there they are in Rome, with their flag, cleaning up in the city. They are people of action – a powerful group of women from Tallinn, Estonia who founded World Cleanup Day, true changemakers who have mobilised millions of people to join global one-day clean-ups.”

The assembled changemakers underwent an intensive workshop, learning the technical, ethical and creative skills required by photographers, and then had a day in Rome with their new knowledge and a Canon R6 camera to help them to create an image that told their story. There was no-one better placed than Muhammed to teach this very special group of people, as he has something of a unique understanding of the power of both visual storytelling and the need to connect people for the greater good. For the last decade he has been opening the eyes of the world to the realities of life as a refugee and telling every story he discovers with sensitivity and kindness. “I work in very vulnerable situations, with vulnerable people and communities,” he explains. “So, I always think about how I would feel if I was on the opposite side of the camera, in someone else’s shoes. It is both respectful and actually helps to document the story from a different perspective.”

On this occasion, it is the idea of perspective that is perhaps of the most value to Muhammed’s students, as an essential route to scaling up the work they do lies in narrative – telling their stories in the most authentic and powerful way possible. “Embedding visual storytelling and visual documentation into their daily lives and their initiatives adds another element of success,” he explains. “Documentation is so very important. I always say, if something happens and we don’t document it, it’s like it never occurred.” However, as an activist himself, he understands completely the scale of work and the feeling that there are never enough hours in the day. He shares the fearlessness of the changemaker and the drive that comes from an all-encompassing passion, steadfast determination and tenacity. He feels the same sense of relentlessness and knows that it is absolutely required to bring about change in the world.

A gold, heart-shaped locket lies on a background of a blood red fabric. The front opening of the locket is two wings meeting and one wing is open, revealing an old, fading photograph of a little girl.

“Paola of ‘Ecuador Says No More’ is a true believer in the power of joining arms and hands to make a difference. An amazing, amazing person. She’s the type of person who you immediately connect to. I heard her. I felt her pain, but I also felt her courage. She’s so courageous and inspires and empower other survivors. A true hero.”

And it is in this atmosphere of mutual understanding and shared experience that connections are made, networks are built and the groundwork for new ways of engaging with the world is laid. “Because these pictures are not just pictures,” explains Muhammed. “No, these are voices, messages, testimonies of people, of issues, of solutions.” In particular, the story and work of fellow awards judge and 2022 winner, Paola Andrade moved him to tears. With her R6, she took a simple photograph that was utterly captivating – a gold heart-shaped locket containing a photograph of a tiny girl, taken against a blood red background. “This is her when she was a little girl and she wears it around her neck as a reminder of where she was then and where she is today,” he says quietly. Paola is a survivor of child sexual abuse and, together with Ricardo Vélez, launched the ‘Ecuador Says No More’ campaign to encourage other survivors to speak up and uncover the many thousands of hidden victims.

Her image spoke deeply to Muhammed. “She is a survivor and a voice for millions of women. I felt her pain, but I also felt her courage. I could just look at her picture as a picture – the subject, the light, the background – but it is the emotions I feel that will make it live forever inside my heart.” The image connected with him in a powerful new way, and so it did with others, and will continue to do so. This truth-speaking is a key lesson that Muhammed teaches through the Young People Programme, beyond the tools and techniques. “It's about the process before. The responsibility of carrying a camera and going out to capture stories and images. It's about ethics, credibility, integrity. It's about not invading people's privacy, seeking permission, documenting with accuracy,” he explains. “When people trust you, they will open their doors to you, and this comes with responsibility. You must show them respect, portray them with pride and carry their voices to the outside world.”

In one short, hectic weekend, a world of changemakers came together to share their stories – and their photographs – and to Muhammed, it quickly felt like a family. Some were finalists in the same category, but you would never have known. They even shared their awards on stage, such were the familial bonds among those who understand that, ultimately, they share one goal. “On our first day, during the introduction, we were asked to share a wish,” Muhammed smiles. “Everyone answered that their wish is to make the world a better place. And these are just the people we managed to meet. There are many, many, many others out there who wish for the same.” In a world that can feel oppressively negative and filled with despair, just to know that so many people are living lives of hope and making a concrete difference in the world is genuinely uplifting.

And like nature itself, knowing that when they meet, they begin to form intricate networks, drawing on each other’s strengths, knowledge and creativity, it feels like there are no limits to what they can achieve when we unite to act. “It's connecting, it's inspiring, it's mobilising,” he continues. “What happened in Rome has inspired me to go further. You realise that, at the end of the day, each of us has a role to play. We didn't come to this planet just to waste time. I want to make a difference. I want to leave a mark and I want to join forces with others. To learn, inspire and be inspired.

One hand doesn't clap. We all need to come to come together to make a stronger impact.”

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