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Kamila K Stanley - Declaring Independence 2022 - 5
Photography Kamila K Stanley

These photos explore what it means to be European today

Kamila K Stanley’s Declaring Independence is a photographic journey across the 27 member states of the EU

Photographer Kamila K Stanley was 24 when Britain voted to leave the European Union. As a British citizen with links to various locations in Europe, and a Polish grandfather who arrived in the UK as a war refugee, Stanley felt like it was “the destruction” of her identity. The broken pronunciation, misspelt names, warm Polish stews and faraway cousins that were characteristic of her diverse family were shamed by Brexit.

“But I figured it’s no one’s right to do that,” says Stanley of this creeping condemnation of her rich heritage. “A new blue passport can’t erase the complexities and truths that have built me. So, I started this project to untangle what ‘being European’ really is.” This project, Declaring Independence is a photographic journey across the 27 member states of the EU, shooting portraits of local residents, styled in British and European fashion.

“The pro-Brexit camp declared exiting the EU to be Britain’s ‘Independence Day’,” the photographer explains. “Declaring Independence steals this phraseology and repurposes it. I started this project for those who think we can do better. Our independence is to reject isolation and nationalism. This means reasserting values we perhaps took for granted before. The project is about being different but also part of something larger, a network and community sharing common values that go beyond borders, beyond men in suits and beyond politics.”

Away from the hallowed halls of influence in Brussels, Stanley searched for the more marginalised voices, focussing on women, the queer community, people from racial, ethnic or religious minority groups, individuals with special needs or disabilities and elderly citizens. In conversing with her sitters about their preferred outfits and the type of image they wanted to create, Stanley makes space for a new narrative that is directed by the individual’s own unique sense of what it means to be European.

Each participant has their own story. Stanley speaks of Anya, a Ukrainian student now living in Vienna, currently attempting to wire money back to her aunt in Kiev. And Kamil, a star player on his local football team in the south of France, but his attachment to his roots sees him supporting Algeria in the World Cup. She mentions Aurora and her father Kostas, who was imprisoned under Greece’s military dictatorship for performing Bertolt Brecht. He went on to establish a travelling theatre and drama school, and Aurora has since become an international actress.

The decision to integrate high-end British fashion into the images works on many levels. It reaffirms Britain’s attachment to Europe, asserting that it can take hold of a European identity despite exiting the EU, while also opening-up pathways for young, emerging designers to connect with Europe. “As borders close due to pandemics and wars, crossing them and building bridges is a rebellious act,” Stanley says. The fierce facial expressions, the triumphant outfits, the glorious sunlight of Declaring Independence does appear to be the sort of rebellion we need in these uncertain times. “Hate makes a lot of noise,” Stanley adds, “but through this experiment, I witness so much creativity and kindness. If my grandfather’s story taught me one thing, it’s that it’s always worth fighting for tolerance and peace. Today that mission has never burned brighter.”

See more of Kamila K Stanley’s work on their Instagram, and follow the Declaring Independence project here