It began when she asked girls in Congo who were their heroes. They all named Western men: legendary figures like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a worthy role model. But there was no one from their own community they were taught to admire, let alone other strong women.
“There was such a disconnect between the lives of these men and what these girls were experiencing,” said Meredith Hutchison, who was in Central Africa working with a girls organization. “I was looking at and analyzing the media and how women from developing countries were portrayed and it’s almost always as a victim.”
She realized these young girls were rarely asked the most common question to Western youth: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
So first in Congo, and recently with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Hutchison partnered in 2012 with the International Rescue Committee to begin her Vision Not Victim project. She helps adolescent girls realize they can dream big. For several weeks she talks with them, figuring out what they are passionate about. She asks them to draw a picture of it. Then she dresses them up as their future selves and interviews them as if it’s already the future and their dreams have come true.
It’s not about playing pretend. It’s about helping them visualize a life outside their current circumstance.
Then Hutchison photographs the girls acting out the job, some dressed as doctors or scientists or artists, so they can preserve the image forever and use it to articulate their desire for a better life.
“We print the photos to have discussions with parents and community leaders about the potential of their daughters, the need to invest in their education, the need to keep them safe,” Hutchison said. “This is possible and this is what it would look like for your daughter. She has confidence, she can communicate herself, she is powerful.”
The project has encouraged parents to send their daughters back to school, she said. One girl under 13 years old was engaged to be married, but her parents called off the wedding so she could get an education.
For the Syrian girls in Jordan, some still displaced in the Za’atari refugee camp and others resettled in that country, they’re holding a lot of trauma — seeing homes shelled, loved ones killed, lives uprooted. More than 622,000 Syrians are estimated to have escaped across the border to Jordan. They’ve lost everything.
This project lets the young girls know they are allowed to want for themselves.
It gives them hope.
Meet some of the girls Hutchison has photographed and read in their words how they see themselves in the future:
Haja, 12 future astronaut
“Ever since we studied the solar system in primary school, I wanted to be an astronaut. I would imagine myself up in the sky discovering new things. I love being an astronaut because it lets me see the world from a new angle. In this society my path was not easy — many people told me a girl can’t become an astronaut. Now that I have achieved my goals, I would tell young girls with aspirations to not be afraid, to talk to their parents about what they want and why, to always be confident and know where you want to go.”
Fatima, 16, future architect
“I’ve always wanted to be an architect. Yet, when I was young people told me that this is not something a woman could achieve and they encouraged me to pursue a more ‘feminine’ profession. But I dreamt constantly of making beautiful homes for families and designing buildings that bring people joy. Now that I’ve reached my vision, I hope I am a model for other girls — showing them that you should never give up on your dream, no matter what others say.”
Mona, 10, future physician
“In this image, I am in the future and a well-respected physician at a major hospital in Syria. I am asking my patient about her pain and helping her get better. I feel very fortunate to be where I am today. My mother was born and raised in a village and didn’t go to school, but as a young girl I had the opportunity to learn and grow into a great doctor. People feel safe around me, they believe in me, and I use my skills and compassion to help many others.
Wissam, 15, future pharmacist
“Our neighbor in Syria had a pharmacy, and when I was younger I would go next door and help. As the war started, I watched this pharmacist help the injured. When I saw this I knew that this was an important job and what I wanted to do. Now that I am a pharmacist, I see myself as a role model for girls and a leader changing the world.”
Amani, 10, future pilot
“I love planes. Even before I had ever been on a plane, I knew I wanted to be a pilot. Flying is adventurous and exciting. When I was younger, my brother always told me that a girl can’t be a pilot, but I knew deep down this is what I wanted to do. I finished my studies and found a way to get to flight school. Now, not only do I get to live my dream, but I also get to help people travel, to see the world and discover new places.”
Muntaha, 12, future photographer
“Since I was a young girl I loved taking people’s photographs. I loved going to different events and documenting what was happening — both the good and bad. Now, as a professional photographer I use my images to inspire hope in others — to encourage love and understanding.”
Malack, 16, future policewoman
“I’ve always wanted to be a policewoman because the police not only keep people safe, but they also create justice in society. Every day I wake up, go to the station, and then head out into the city to see where I can help. I also work to inspire other young girls to become policewoman — supporting them to dream about their future and thinking about how they overcome obstacles.”
Merwa, 13, future painter
“In this image, I am a popular painter, working on a landscape in oils. When I was younger, painting was a hobby, but as I grew older I saw I had a great talent and went to art school. Now I have my own gallery where I sell my paintings and sculptures. My hope is that my artwork inspires peace in the world and encourages people to be kind to one another.”