U of G Grad Aims to Document Human Rights for Down Syndrome in Central Asia

Four years ago, U of G graduate and award-winning photojournalist Vanessa Tignanelli packed up her camera equipment and headed for West Africa on her inaugural volunteer assignment for Photographers Without Borders (PWB).

In Gambia, she captured numerous photos of people for the Ageing with a Smile Initiative community foundation, which aims to draw attention to needs of the elderly and people with glaucoma. The group used her work in books and grant applications and ultimately attained charity status.

Now, Tignanelli is preparing for a second PWB venture, this time to the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. She will spend about 10 days in November focusing her camera lens on families of children with Down syndrome.

PWB’s partner organization in Kyrgyzstan, the Sunterra Foundation, plans to use her work to raise awareness of numerous challenges, including ingrained stigma and lack of resources and supports for kids with Down syndrome and their families.

In Kyrgyzstan, says Tignanelli, “society is not kind to people with Down syndrome.” Many parents hide their children at home or put them up for adoption or place them into institutions, often on a doctor’s advice.  

While living with Sunterra’s founders, she aims to visit institutions to document the situation. She hopes her photos will resonate with viewers and lead to improvements such as education and more resources available to families and support groups.

She’ll take along her camera, of course. But Tignanelli says the storytelling assignment is about more than the equipment.

She will also rely on personal qualities that worked well in Africa, including inquisitiveness, compassion and an innate ability to make people feel at ease. “The cool thing about being a photojournalist is you can become a chameleon, you learn how to make people feel comfortable.”

Far from distancing herself from the subject – a coping mechanism often practised by photojournalists in tough situations – she expects to immerse herself in the assignment. “I run by emotion, I don’t compartmentalize,” says Tignanelli. “I believe the story is better told if I completely dive in.”

She allows that her approach can make her vulnerable to emotions. But referring to viewers of her work, she says, “It’s so important that people feel the same way I’m feeling as I’m standing there.”

An earlier trip took her to document former Nazi death camps with a Holocaust survivor. That experience cemented the idea that she needed to use her eye to return what the perpetrators had tried to remove from their victims.

“You realize what humans are capable of. We don’t see the person on the other end as a fellow human being. My task is to provide that humanization.”

For her PWB assignment in Gambia, she drew upon her experience with her grandmother, who was losing her vision at home in North Bay, Ont. “I cared deeply about the topic,” says Tignanelli. “I really brought my grandmother with me.”

She also had a schoolfriend with Down syndrome. “He was one of the best people I ever met. It breaks my heart to know that people don’t know how easy it is to embrace someone with Down syndrome.”

Growing up, Tignanelli wanted to become a veterinarian and expected to attend U of G. After discovering the arts in high school, she enrolled instead in studio art.

During her undergrad, she gravitated toward photography and videography. She also became involved with arts groups on and off campus, including helping to run U of G’s Fine Arts Network and art history symposium and working with local galleries. She also worked as photo editor and office manager for the Ontarion student newspaper.

Since graduating in 2012, she has shown her work in exhibitions and worked in photojournalism and film for clients including the CBC and the Globe and Mail.

In 2018, she completed a photojournalism diploma at Loyalist College in Belleville, Ont. Another alumnus there pointed her to the Photographers Without Borders program.

Tignanelli’s series of photos of transient people in British Columbia and Yukon, called Wilds of the West, was reviewed in 2020 among the top six Canadian documentary photo series by Ciel Variable magazine.

That year, she also worked with photojournalist Annie Sakkab on a short film, Hollie’s Dress, that was selected for a world premiere at the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto.

Now living in North Bay, she will return to U of G in winter 2022 to begin a master’s degree in art history and visual culture.

A story about Tignanelli this year in BayToday.ca said photojournalists chosen by PWB donate their time and skills to the organization. Participants must come up with their own travel funds; a T-shirt campaign by several North Bay groups is intended to help her raise money for the assignment.

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