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Local documentary photographer will get to Kyrgyzstan one T-shirt at a time

'These stories that we do, they really affect you. They really resonate. I've been really impacted by some of the things that I've photographed.'

Vanessa Tignanelli has big humanitarian travel plans for later this year and her backers are hoping "all you get" out of supporting her is the lovely T-shirt seen above.

Award-winning photojournalist Tignanelli returned home to live in North Bay after years away with a goal to tell our local stories to the world, to find balance in her personal life, and for a quiet place to work and reflect on the harrowing life conditions her keen eye and lens have captured.

Tignanelli has many successful projects in the can since her return, including freelancing for outlets such as the CBC, The Globe and Mail, and Maclean's. She has also spent time independently producing short films and photo essays about local talent and initiatives to help put North Bay on the national stage. Her work has been recognized by the Royal Family, NPAC National Photographs of the Year Awards, Duke of Edinburgh Awards, and InFocus Photo Exhibit and Award.

A few years after moving home, Tignanelli yearns to get back out into the world with her gear, off the beaten path, to tell more stories that are dear to her heart. Just for a couple of weeks and all dependent on the COVID-19 pandemic, of course. 

In 2017, Tignanelli embarked on a life-changing trip to The Gambia, West Africa, with the non-profit Photographers Without Borders organization. There, as a volunteer, she photographed the Ageing With A Smile Initiative and associated glaucoma crisis (see photo gallery).

"I've seen how the photographs can help," says Tignanelli, referring to her experiences in The Gambia. With the crisis documented, "they were able to open a few health centres for folks dealing with glaucoma in rural communities. They reached NGO status, too, they became an official charity because they were able to show the photographs."

Fast forward a few years to the present day and Tignanelli tells BayToday she has received the "enormous honour," from over 50,000 photographers worldwide to lead a Photographers Without Borders mission this November. Tignanelli has been chosen to shed a light on the plight of people living with Down Syndrome (DS) in Kyrgyzstan.

The plan is for Tignanelli to spend 10 days this November embedded with a family with two children with DS in Kyrgyzstan while documenting the conditions both inside institutions and in the general public for people living with DS. She says she is more than willing to self-isolate according to all regulations on both legs of her trip, if necessary. "It is an honour to be given this opportunity and continue to use my visual storytelling expertise to spark global change," she says.

The mission of the Sunterra Foundation is to protect the rights and interests of people with Down Syndrome, to enhance education and development resources for children with DS, and provide psychological and informational support for parents and families of loved ones with DS. 

"I've always loved learning about different people and cultures, that's why I'm in journalism in the first place," says Tignanelli. "I also believe in the process of rehumanizing — working with organizations that are activists against dehumanization — I really believe that I can use my skills to help their causes."

According to Sunterra, there are few education or employment opportunities for people with Down Syndrome and they also face social exclusion in Kyrgyzstan. Due to widespread stigma and cultural attitudes of mother-blaming, plus a Soviet precedent of institutionalization, many children with DS remain hidden at home or are encouraged by doctors to be abandoned at birth.

A documentary photographer's focus on a cause can make all the difference in effecting change.

"I've seen how it works — how it helps — I've been a fan of documentary photography forever and the education that it inspires. That's why I got involved," says Tignanelli.

Tignanelli is also a practicing artist, musician, poet, and filmmaker and has received fundraising support from the local art community. She is so appreciative The FARM, Creative Industries, Silver Screen Press, and local artist Maddy Young have collaborated to produce a T-shirt to help her raise money for the project.  

The volunteer aspect of Photographers Without Borders means the photojournalist must come up with the funds to cover travel, food, clothing, camera equipment, travel and equipment insurance, extra baggage fees, and more. The photographer donates thousands of dollars in research, equipment, time, skills, travel costs, photographing, editing, and providing strong images to the NGO to use for promotion. 

Tignanelli is a graduate of the studio art program at the University of Guelph and the photojournalism program at Loyalist College. A stretch living and working in Toronto established her as a talented event photographer but still, Tignanelli sought to grow professionally. It was a professor at Loyalist College who directed her focus to the Photographers Without Borders program.  

She acknowledges a working photojournalist based in northern Ontario is a bit of a rarity as most gravitate to major centres — as she once did — but the draw of peace and quiet, family, and a renewed sense of belonging in her hometown proved to be too strong a force to withstand. 

"I love taking those assignments abroad but you do miss home," Tignanelli shares. "These stories that we do, they really affect you. They really resonate. I've been really impacted by some of the things that I've photographed."

Now that Tignanelli has her feet and heart rooted in the same community, it's time to get out on the road again knowing it won't be long before she is returning back home.

Stu Campaigne

About the Author: Stu Campaigne

Stu Campaigne is a full-time news reporter for, focusing on local politics and sharing our community's compelling human interest stories.
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