Greenish hues. Faded blue skies. Vacuous streets. Roofing sheets used as walls... Tanya Rex flicks through the series of grainy photographs that offer a glimpse into the life of a teenage girl in Sudan. The often empty streets and weathered walls, among others, tell the story of 14-year-old Marwah Bashir’s life during quarantine at the K26 refugee camp. Told through the lens of a disposable camera, you see the sandy path she uses to tread to school every day, her daily meetups with friends and her encounters with animals – a slice of life of a teenager during the pandemic.

Diffused light from Tanya’s screen casts a dim glow on her face as she closes the tab containing pictures from Sudan before opening a new folder that she has just received. This one contains vignettes of the life of two brothers in the Netherlands at the beginning of the pandemic. The almost vintage looking scenes of a boy lying on a trampoline, home-schooling, resonates with the kind of life the Dubai-based photographer and her family experienced most recently.

Saved online in folders are 27 more sets of photographs from almost across the world that tell a visual tale of the kaleidoscopic lives of teenagers’ during the pandemic.

The genesis of the project

A South African expat, Tanya found her life came to screeching halt at the beginning of the pandemic last year. As a lifestyle and beauty photographer, she suddenly found herself in a ‘claustrophobic’ situation without work. She was initially fully booked for photographic assignments for months ahead but out of the blue found herself cooped up in her home without any clue of when she could take pictures again. While the mother of two found the initial days of lockdown ‘quite exciting because the world started to unify’ with celebrities conducting free concerts, she quickly found being sequestered at home ‘a big shock’ to her system.

Tanya says seeing the photos for the first time brought her to tears. “Being invited into somebody’s home to experience their reality was such a gift.”
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"You could see a more realistic side of a life that you would never normally be invited into. I jumped on that bandwagon. I knew I had this need to connect to other people and possibly make a difference in somebody’s life," she says.

As she was drifting off to sleep one night, she had an epiphany. In a phantasmagoria of colour the idea of visualising quarantine life of teenagers from around the world and transforming their experiences into coffee table books started to develop in her mind. By the next morning, she had a plan. "I called it the ‘Quaranteen Project’," she says.

It involved enlisting 30 teenagers from around the world to take pictures that captured their quarantine experiences and sending them to her. The plan was to put them together on her Instagram page (@the_developing_story) in a kind of exhibition to portray life of teenagers around world during the pandemic. To that end she bought 30 disposable film cameras and sent them off to teenagers in Afghanistan, Brazil, South Africa, Latvia, and India, among others, instructing them to take a pictures of their lives during quarantine and return the cameras to her. Her plan was to get the negatives developed in South Africa and the images sent to her digitally. "I think if I had seen them as prints, I would have cried for hours because I loved them all so much."

Nargis from Kabul used a disposal camera for the first time, but described her work for the project as an amazing experience
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For the teenagers, handling a camera very different from the ones they have been used to – like those on their smartphones that produce instant results – was a new experience.

"Although managing a film camera was a bit out of my comfort zone, it was fun and I thoroughly enjoyed it," says Jada Lydia Mcleod, 15, from South Africa who was a part of the ‘Quaranteen Project’ too.

Another participant, Mary Cynthia Nduba, 19, from the UAE agrees. Pressing the shutter button of a film camera was an ‘amazing’ and ‘satisfying’ experience, she says. "Waking up every morning and having the camera right next to me made me the happiest."

Olivia from USA said the project helped show how the pandemic built new similarities into everyone’s life
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A reason Tanya decided on using disposable cameras for her project was to ensure that the images she received would not be enhanced in any way by means of filters or apps. "I noticed, some people were apprehensive of using a camera that didn’t have filters. The fact that they could not choose the best pictures they could send me was another challenge that many found hard to accept," says the 47-year-old photographer. "In fact a lot of teenagers didn’t want to take part in the project because of it."

While convincing people to participate in the project was one hurdle, Tanya faced difficulties regarding cost and logistics as well. Guided more by her heart than her head when she began the project, she had not envisaged the myriad issues that could crop up.

For one, she had a tough time couriering the cameras to some countries where postal systems were affected due to the initial lockdown. Even getting the cameras back from the participants in some countries was no easy task as she had to wait for restrictions to be lifted. Getting a camera to a teen in a refugee camp in Sudan, four hours from the city by car was a mammoth task too. "I had to contact a charity named ‘The Idris Foundation’ to help reach Marwah," she says.

To compound her problems, the sudden floods in part of Sudan last year nearly washed away her dreams of getting the pictures back from Marwah. "We thought we had lost the camera," says Tanya. "But miraculously I received a message three months later saying the girls were back at school and Marwah would be shooting the photos and sending the camera back soon."

In some instances, the cameras were stolen from the teens while in a few cases film rolls came back extremely under- or over-exposed.

Then there was the issue of budget. "I didn’t realise how much the courier fees were. Maybe I was a little naive when I conceived the idea, but I knew I had to do it, so I persevered," she says.

Despite the challenges, Tanya is happy in the way the project has been developing and the feedback she has received from participants.

Jada wanted to make viewers feel they were looking at something in front of them rather than a picture
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"A few teenagers mentioned it was so nice to be included in a project at a time when they felt so excluded," she says. "They weren’t seeing their friends, going to shops or even going to school. When you receive such messages, you feel (the project) was worth the financial costs," says the mum of two.

Olivia Whitford from USA, who contributed to the project, says the idea of sharing a glimpse of her life along with a bunch of amazing teens internationally, excited her. "When I got to see my photos as part of the whole project, it felt like a piece of the puzzle we all had made, and once it was complete it showed both the differences between our lives, and how the pandemic built new similarities into everyone’s life," says the 16-year-old.

Tanya remembers her husband telling her that she should not expect too much because chances were she would only get five rolls of film back that were usable out of the 30.

"I went into it with no expectations so anything that I did get would be amazing." With a radiant smile Tanya says: "When I got the first roll of film back, I started crying. It was so beautiful. Some of the pictures portray everyday life but being invited into somebody’s home to experience their reality was such a gift."

In a flash, she is transported to the moment she saw the pictures from Afghanistan. "The pictures from Afghanistan were overwhelming. It was like a gift nobody thought of giving me and yet I received it."

"The project taught me how amazing people are. The fact that 29 strangers trusted me and my vision, with their images that they have never seen, was amazing. It taught me that people can help you to extend your vision and make it beautiful."

Even though she faced many bumps along the road she felt the project not only made a difference to a few of the children involved but it impacted her too. "I’m very much a control freak. I love to know what’s going on, what’s going to happen, how it’s going to look. But with this project, I knew nothing. It really taught me to let go. [Quite like how] during Covid we just had to let go because we couldn’t control the situation. So that point of growth for me has been incredible. I think that the experience of letting things happen and trusting that things will work out without intimation of the outcome has been the best lesson I’ve learnt on this project."

Tanya is trying to help people see the world in a new light through the project. "Even if you go on a holiday to a country, you would see a tourist view of the city. You would not see what everyday life is like there, like what the teenagers captured."

Through her Instagram feed, she is also trying to encourage people to zoom out and look at the big picture during Covid-19.

Mary Cynthia says the project taught her there is a lot that can be told through one photo
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"I have been fortunate to not have lost any loved ones this year but even in that, if I take that step back, so much good has come out of quarantine like being closer to my family and getting this project off the ground. Similarly, if you look at the Instagram feed, you don’t often see what the picture is if you look at it on a post-by-post basis. But as soon as you step back and look at what is now my art gallery on Instagram, that’s how the story develops. That helps you to see the big picture."

What's next

She is looking forward to having an exhibition displaying the images as part of the ‘Quaranteen Project’. She also plans to expand the Developing Story online (thedevelopingstory.com) to shed more light on the reality of people in different spheres of life.

Tanya, who shot a set of pictures for a major athleisure company, says she has also been inspired to take on a new project about body positivity and inclusivity. The project is one that is extremely close to her heart, which aims at removing the stigma of criticism and self-judgement in society.

Marwah wanted to show there is much to life even in a refugee camp
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A project which offers a peek into the real life of mothers is also on the anvil. "I think a lot of us feel the need to make life look like it’s all rosy and that our children are amazing. Sometimes it’s really difficult showing the realness of being a new mum or a mum of a teenager," she says.

Nargis Attaiee, 17, Kabul, Afghanistan

Why did you decide to take on this project and capture your life on film through quarantine?

I wanted to show a different side to my community in Afghanistan, one beyond what is seen in media. I wanted to tell the people of the world to stop criticising us for not staying at home instead of working during lockdown. Because if we didn’t die of Corona, we would have soon died of hunger.

How did you find your experience as a part of this project?

Using the disposal camera for the first time, asking people for permission to take their pictures and their kind reaction as compared to what I expected, were amazing experiences.

What message did you hope to convey through your pictures and what story did it tell?

My message is, if you take a closer lens or a deeper look into every society, you will find more positivity than negativity.

Marwah Bashir, 14, K26 Refugee Camp, Sudan

How did you find your experience as a part of this project?

To start with, hard because I was not sure what to capture. I did not want people to see us as sad, but I wanted to show them we can have a full life even in a refugee camp. It is not easy life, but we are grateful.

What message did you hope to convey through your pictures and what story did it tell?

We are all the same. We all have dreams, ambitions and struggles.

What have you learnt from this project?

To not think a lot and let the image speak.

Jada Lydia Mcleod, 15, Cape Town, South Africa

Why did you take on this project?

It was to keep me busy during lockdown. I also like the idea of sharing my perspective of the world with others.

Your thoughts behind the pictures you shot?

I wanted things to look natural; to make viewers feel they were looking at something in front of them rather than a picture.

The message you hope to convey?

Feelings of comfort and family were what I wanted to portray. A lot of the imagery, if you looked at it with a mind of pre-Covid times looks like it had been taken years back before the pandemic. So, in a way you’re getting a chance to escape this situation for a while.

What have you learnt from this project?

Trying new things can lead to great opportunities for growth and enjoyment.

Olivia Whitford, 16, Seattle, WA, USA

What message did you hope to convey through your pictures?

I hoped to communicate my appreciation for my family, how we worked together to accommodate our busy schedules. The time I spent with them helped make up for everything that was no longer safe to do. I also wanted to share how new everything felt in the house I have lived almost all my life in.

What have you learnt from this project?

I learned how to use a film camera, and what photos from a film camera look like compared to those that I am used to seeing. I learned a bit about the lives of other teens around the world too. I learned, how people interpret photographs... I learned that photos could give context to words, and vice versa. I was also reminded of how you can’t see a full picture from just one perspective, and of how beautiful that full picture is.

Mary Cynthia Nduba, 19, Sharjah

What were some of your thoughts behind the pictures you shot?

I wondered if they will ever understand my emotions through some of these pictures.

What message did you hope to convey through your pictures?

There was one particular picture that really stayed on my mind, and it was one where we came together as a family to pray. And through this I learned, no matter the situation it’s best to pray together.

Why did you take on this project?

I felt it was an amazing experience... to show the world what I can do with a camera.

What have you learnt from this project?

A lot can be told through one photo.

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