Canon Europe: A visual voice in international development

Canon Europe: A visual voice in international development
The Miraisha programme aims to promote job opportunities in Africa by offering workshops to photographers, videographers, film-makers and print business owners © Richard Sanya / Uganda. Canon Miraisha Programme

Canon Europe’s Stuart Poore and Katie Simmonds met with Government Europa at European Development Days 2018 to discuss how imagery can support the implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The theme of this year’s European Development Days – which Government Europa attended in Brussels in June – was ‘Gender equality and women empowerment’. One of the exhibitors at the event, Canon Europe, used this event to showcase how it is utilising the power of imagery to support livelihoods, give young people a visual voice on implementing the United Nations’ SDGs and drive gender equality.

GEQ met with Canon Europe’s sustainability director Stuart Poore and his colleague Katie Simmonds (manager of the Miraisha programme, which aims to promote job opportunities in Africa by offering workshops to photographers, videographers, film-makers and print business owners) at the event to discuss the role imagery can play in tackling some of the issues that the European Development Days event had been established to highlight.

A thousand words

Poore explained that Canon Europe is firmly of the view that, quite simply, imaging offers a different angle on stories and issues in a way that spoken words or written words cannot. He said: “An image is worth a thousand words and can bring fresh perspectives on issues, and Canon’s Miraisha and Young People programmes are great examples of that. These initiatives provide young people with the opportunity to develop a visual voice and to show the stories that are important to them. That is testament to the power of imaging to create change.”

Indeed, imagery – whether photographs, film, or animation – is often a medium through which powerful ideas and stories can be portrayed. Yet, for the photographer, film-maker, or animator, many of the stories a Western audience may find interesting can be seen as mundane, as they are often simply a part of their everyday lives.

Simmonds expanded on this: “The idea that what is happening around them is almost boring is one of the things that participants on the Miraisha programme sometimes struggle with, especially when we are setting assignments in which we want them to capture daily life that is happening in their communities.

“But it is through programmes like Miraisha and the Young People Programme that we are able to help participants to develop their storytelling skills; the stories can be told locally by local people, because they have better access than anyone else; they also see things differently, and what is of concern for a young person might not have even been noticed by an older person, or a person from another country or region. As such, it is by enabling the communication of these different perspectives and, of course, via the people we are engaging in our programmes to develop their skills so as to be able to communicate more effectively, that we can perhaps effect change.

“In addition, the younger generations are becoming increasingly creative; if you think of social media, everyone is influenced by it, whether it’s through still imagery, moving imagery, or a combination of different things,” she concluded.

Adding to this, Poore said: “Social media channels have also provided a new opportunity to grow awareness around issues through imaging in an exponential way and in a way that wasn’t available previously.

“Often, a visual story is a conversation starter, as much as anything, and so taking an image or a film into new places with new audiences and discussing the meaning behind them, what sort of issues they generate, and what solutions they might stimulate, demonstrates the fact that imaging is as much facilitative as it is an end in itself.”

The Miraisha programme has certainly generated numerous great examples of imagery of important social and environmental issues being brought to life by visual storytelling and which have gone on to stimulate a dialogue around them.

Instigating policy change

For Poore, this type of imagery can be used as a powerful tool to create policy change, which is one of the big objectives of both the Young People Programme and the Miraisha programme. He said: “We want these visual stories to open up dialogue with decision makers on issues that will affect young people in the future, because at the moment there seems to be something of a disconnect and they feel a little isolated and disenfranchised. We want to take the power of this imaging into policymaking spheres and use it to promote the voice of young people; we want to give them a voice where it really matters most, and so that is the next stage for our programmes.”

Through the Miraisha programme, there is scope for this dialogue to be initiated via the way in which the initiative promotes the work of its participants. Simmonds explained: “For instance, we work in collaboration with film festivals, where videos are filmed as part of the festivals line up itself. We also run educational programmes during those festivals, and also create exhibitions.

“These activities are all designed to raise the voices of the participants by showing off their work and profiling them within the community. Of course, we are also able to invite guests along to these events as well, which adds to the exposure we can offer.”

Social media also plays a significant role in terms of being able to use various channels to communicate the work that is taking place in the programme.

The work of both programmes is already receiving attention at this level, with the Young People Programme collaborating with the UN’s SDG Action Campaign. Commenting on this, Poore told Government Europa: “The UN has become interested in what we are trying to achieve; I think they can see the connection between the SDGs and visual storytelling and how that can help young people connect with these issues. And that has a lot of potential for us in terms of connecting at an international level with policymaking. Indeed, we have also had direct interest from government departments around these issues in the UK, Poland, and Belgium.

“In the UK, for instance, we work in partnership with the Ideas Foundation to facilitate a conversation between young people and parliamentarians around mental health issues, while in Belgium in partnership with Plan Belgium we have worked to facilitate a meeting with ministers around the current programme, which is surfacing issues around girls and women feeling safe in cities, and that has got quite a hard policy edge to it – it is the sort of thing that decision makers would be really interested to hear because it is politically relevant and socially significant. As such, I am not at all worried that we won’t find ways to engage with policymakers; it is perhaps more about scaling things up.”

Public funding

When it comes to securing public funds for such programmes as those being undertaken by Canon Europe, it would appear that sources are somewhat scarce, at least for the time being. Yet, this is not something which Poore or Simmonds believe to be a significant problem for them as the more pressing issue is to understand what Canon Europe can invest in in a way that creates proof of concept. Then, moving forwards, they can, with a view to scale, perhaps begin to unlock public money which will enable them to progress further.

Poore said that at Canon Europe, “the more exciting opportunity – and one of the reasons why we are at the European Development Days event – concerns engaging other businesses. We would like to be able to find business partners who share our interest in intelligent social investment. We know there are others who are engaged in activities not dissimilar to ours, but we are often just slightly misaligned.

“I am therefore interested to hear from businesses who are working in the same way and who believe they could partner up with Canon so that our joint output can be greater than the sum of its parts.”

For Simmonds, it is currently more important to continue with the highly structured courses that Canon Europe is making available in Africa via the Miraisha programme. She said: “It is important to ensure that there are courses which are specifically dedicated to photography or film making, and so it is crucial for us to be able to work with educational boards to create syllabuses at university level.

“This will mean that people can then go on to a fully dedicated photography or film making course because, at the moment, most of the available courses are mass communications-based, meaning that they include various elements such as photography, radio presenting, acting, and so on, but because of this no one subject is ever really taught any single area in great detail.

“This is where the Miraisha programme is helping, especially for those who are interested in photography, film making, and printing, because we provide them with additional skills so that they can invest in themselves to go on and make a livelihood and a career in the industry.”

The growing digital industry

And it is important to point out that this industry, and the opportunities it offers, is growing in Africa now; many African countries are progressing through the digital switchover, and new business opportunities are emerging as a wide range of businesses are looking for imagery to be created – to, for instance, enhance their brand identity with logos, or with menu designs for restaurants, or imagery needed for websites or social channels.

“There is definitely plenty of opportunity for people there,” Simmonds said. “And this is without even taking into consideration things like the rise of Nollywood in Nigeria, which is now the second largest content producer in the world behind Bollywood (and in front of Hollywood). There is thus both a need for people with these skills and opportunities for them; it is just about unlocking that opportunity.”

It is also important for Canon’s programmes to be flexible to some degree. Poore explained: “When you put these sorts of programmes together, you create a standard or formula and you try to stick as rigidly as you can to it, which is sensible from a consistency and continuity perspective. However, with the Young People Programme we are trying to not become too dogmatic about things, but rather be as fluid and flexible and iterative as we can, so that when people approach us with new ideas, we can adapt.”

Flexibility is also crucial in the Miraisha programme, not least because no two African countries are the same. Simmonds explained: “You can have an initial idea in terms of how to begin a programme or collaboration, but, especially with the Miraisha programme, we tend to base it on the needs of that country and the people who live there – where do they need support and development in the skills that they are looking for?

“As such, feedback is key to the workshops and educational collaborations that we establish, and so we source as much feedback as we can so that when it comes to delivering more collaborative workshops with an educational board, it is based on feedback from the students, meaning that we know we are giving them exactly what they want.

“Indeed, we listen closely to what our participants want, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why the Miraisha programme has been so successful; people are engaged with the work and they keep coming back. They also then tell others about the opportunities that are on offer.”

Professional development

Of course, it is also important that the academics and trainers are available with the necessary skill sets in order to deliver the programmes, and, as Simmonds highlighted, in Africa, at the moment, this is quite limited, with many existing teachers and trainers remaining somewhat behind current trends in areas such as digitalisation.

She also underlined another important issue: “Many teachers will also avoid teaching any areas in which they don’t feel particularly confident, which, of course, means that there are holes in the knowledge being assimilated by the students. To solve this, we are working to ensure that there is both a bottom-up and top-down approach in terms of the learning opportunities available, and we offer training and professional development for the teachers too, so that they are able to deliver all the elements of the programme confidently, and are not afraid to field questions from their students.

“This is achieved by inviting lecturers and teachers to our workshops alongside students and, especially in our educational partnerships, we always invite lecturers from the university with whom we are working as well as those from other university lecturers from around the city, and they typically emerge from feeling invigorated and ready to go and pass that knowledge on to their own students.”


Poore added: “Indeed, there is a massive role for us in helping equip teachers to train students, and within this we have learned the power of peer-to-peer training. In the case of the Miraisha programme, we have moved away from famous, very capable and advanced professional photographers training the students to actually training the trainers to teach the next cohort of students coming through.”

The peer-to-peer nature of the programmes, Poore said, also means that the creative process that the students are exposed to leads to them being able to challenge each other on what they are doing and what it means. Commenting on this in the context of the work that has taken place in workshops in the UK, he went on: “These workshops were held around mental health issues, and it was apparent that some ideas were working and coming through very powerfully as visual stories, and others were not so much; but it was the feedback from each other as much as, if not more than, that from the ambassador photographer or the Ideas Foundation (who were the partner) or even Canon that brought that home to the participants, leading to much more powerful output at the end.”

Explaining why peer-to-peer is also important for the Miraisha programme, Simmonds added: “This makes things seem more attainable; while it is great having professional film-makers or photographers coming in to inspire the students, often these people are seen as being so well-established and in such an elevated position that the students may feel intimidated and perhaps see this as being an unattainable level of achievement.

“But through the train the trainer programme, many of the trainers we have certified now were participants in the Miraisha workshops themselves who we helped to develop their skills and invested in, meaning that they are now helping us to deliver some of the workshops we are running in Africa.”

This is important because not only does it mean that the programmes become self-sustainable, but it also means that the knowledge stays in the country, and anyone who passes through the programme’s workshops thus always has someone they can contact locally to ask for advice.

The future for Canon Europe

Significant progress has been made by Canon Europe with regards to these programmes in recent years. Indeed, the Young People Programme has evolved from involving five European countries to over 15. However, moving forwards, Poore explained that he hopes this will continue to grow. He said: “Despite this growth, we are still only engaging relatively small numbers in those countries, and so finding ways to partner up with other organisations which will enable us to scale up is important.”

However, because Canon Europe is taking a digital approach to its activities, getting to scale relatively quickly online is not a cause for concern. What is more, the programme that Canon Europe is running in the Nordic region – and which may also come to include the Baltic countries – could enable them to achieve the kind of scale they want very quickly.

He added: “I am looking for as many digital acceleration programmes as we can possibly achieve over the next 12 months; it is crucial for us to get that voice heard amongst the policy community because, otherwise, it runs the risk of being just another conversation that fails to make a difference.

“With the help of the UN SDG Action Campaign and our local partners, our message will go viral through our digital approach and I hope and expect that we will start to see a dialogue happening.”

Simmonds added: “The future of the Miraisha programme is about scale; currently, we are operating in seven countries throughout Africa, but we started with just two back in 2016. We certainly want to continue to expand into more countries and to further export the impact we have been having thus far.”

Programmes run by Canon Europe are not, Poore concluded when he met with GEQ, simply an exercise in corporate philanthropy; there is a business case here, and, as he explained, “as a company, we at Canon have a vested interest in promoting the power of visual storytelling and the power of images more generally, and that is why we are conducting these activities; and I couldn’t think of a better business to be in that position than Canon – if we aren’t there then I don’t know who would be.”

As sustainable development will remain high on the agenda for years to come, and as regions such as Africa continue to develop, digital skills will be crucial moving forwards, and it is encouraging to see companies such as Canon Europe actively helping communities to similarly grow by providing young people with the necessary skills and experiences to play an active role in growing their economy by telling their stories and engaging with the digital industries of the future at a professional level.

Stuart Poore
Sustainability Director
Canon Europe

Katie Simmonds
Miraisha programme

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