'Art holds a sort of 'political mission' to smooth mindset or sharpen the mind'
Doctors Without Borders, Haiti
Doctors Without Borders, South Sudan
Doctors Without Borders, Iraq
Doctors Without Borders, Haiti
Sonia Guiramand is a Medical Laboratory Advisor (PhD Pharmacy, Master in Human Rights and Humanitarian Action-Sciences Po Paris).
After more than ten years as director of a medical laboratory, she has shifted her career to global health policy and regulatory issues, with a particular interest in migratory phenomena of the 21st century. Today, Sonia is a referent for the NGO Doctors Without Borders, working in conflict zones (Yemen, Mali, Ethiopia, etc.). She is involved in medical diagnostic and blood transfusion projects.
As a member of medical communities (Global Health Diagnostics, blood transfusion, HIV and Malaria Treatment & Prevention, she publishes research papers and participates in scientific conferences.
On a personal level, she is a collector of artworks and photo prints that reflect on crucial social issues of our time.
Can art foster social change - and what role can artists and their work play in this? Is there room for them to take a leading role?
SONIA GUIRAMAND: This is an interesting–and straight-forward–question!
To be honest, my daily work is about human issues that are pragmatical–shall I say, primal–: the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of global health diseases but, on the other hand, my position allows me an access to people, situations and countries not accessible for the common man. In that sense, art in its multiple components should play the role of testimony and advocacy for the rest of the world.
Yet, during my missions, I not only interface with professionals and practitioners of national programs, but also with policy makers. This brings up the importance of 'politics' in social issues. In respect with this, I could imagine that art holds a sort of 'political mission' to smooth mindset or sharpen the mind, thus bringing a possible change or twist in the community behaviours... Those that play a role in lack of precaution, delayed detection, or inappropriate measures to bring treatment to local populations living in conflict zones, for example. To this respect, I believe art–particularly fine-art photography– is a powerful mean to foster social change, even with no words, by simply raising emotions. Photo prints such as Mother and Child at the Korem Camp (Ethiopia, 1984) or Amak Cattle Camp (Southern Sudan, 2006) by Sebastião Salgado, or the series Flesh and Blood by Steve McCurry particularly touch me, echoing my work and mind spectrum. I am also very sensitive to the war photographer Lynsay Addario who turned her lens on the Western world during the COVID-19 pandemic: the circle is complete!
In the face of the radical upheavals and crises of our time, can we still hope for a better future? And what impact might "narrative" have on this future's construction process?
I have a very pragmatic approach of 'happiness', and I guess I must have a certain dose of optimism to do what I do... to make the future and health better –if not for all, at least for the ones in need.
I would like to quote one of my favorite artists, of whom I have a print edition, Peter Beard, describing what was left of Kenya only a few decades after he first travelled there in the mid-50’s:
'The beautiful play period has come to an end. Millions of years of evolutionary processes have been destroyed in the blink of an eye. The Pleistocene is paved over, cannibalism is swallowed up by commercialism, arrows become AK- 47s, colonialism is replaced by the power, the prestige and the corruption of the international aid industry. This is The End Of The Game over and over. What could possibly be next? Density and stress — aid and AIDS, deep blue computers and Nintendo robots, heart disease and cancer, liposuction and rhinoplasty, digital pets and Tamagotchi toys deliver us into the brave new world.'
He spent much of his time capturing the wildlife and retelling the stories of the local tribes. Such 'narratives' undoubtedly reveal a profound technophobic pessimism and offers no salvation for our planet or humanity. Yet, I believe these visionary artists while daring to take risks for themselves and speak loudly, can bear witness to a certain reality–often far from our self-egocentric worlds–and raise awareness of a larger or different world order. To my opinion, this helps walking the first steps to counter powers and activism which seem to me crucial in the process of building a better world that would not be just a 'Brave New World'.
What might be the premises of a transdisciplinary dialogue (between art, culture and other disciplines) capable of triggering social transformation? In your own work, what expertise or practices could go in the direction of such a transdisciplinarity?
In the context of my work, I must deal with a diverse range of expertise: diagnostic and healthcare at first, but also data science, engineering, logistics, and geo-politics... I truly believe in cross-disciplinary approaches, and not only in the context of global health that is mine. Social transformation would certainly benefit from a multidisciplinary knowledge to better understand how local societies live and evolve, how they use scare resources or envision their own future.
Besides, the last 170 years show us that cooperation is key to a better society. International Sanitary Regulations were first launched by the French Government at the end of the 19th century in order to standardize rules and guidelines for controlling the spread of infectious diseases at the time. Then came the World Health Organization (under the United Nations) in 1948. And furthermore, in 2000, the sign of the UN Millennium Declaration started the “grand decade for global health” with the rise of new players such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, or Stop TB Partnership, NGOs and private foundations.
So far, I could imagine a deeper and more sustainable dialogue between public and private actors, academics and practitioners, medical care and social science such as ethnology, architecture and politics.
Assuming it is possible to build a better world on the ruins of the old one - what do you think it might look like? What would you wish for a better world?
I would dream of a more egalitarian world for individuals and societies, more conscious and respectful of humans and the Earth. I particularly esteem the urgency to prevent and mitigate the human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed in a number of armed conflicts across the world.
A better world would mean: a higher level of education, a greater acceptance of differences, a fairer governance of States, and a higher level of generosity from what is considered the developed countries of the North towards the developing and poor countries of the South.
Migrations is a subject close to my heart, I have personally met people forced to leave their country, their home, their relatives because of a conflict; these people should be welcome and recognised as a true asset to our often sclerotic societies. Multiculturalism is the key for a word in motion.
It's often said that artists (and creative people) have this unique ability to endlessly search for the new, to start from scratch over and over again. When you start a new project, what strategies or rituals do you personally use?
When I start a new project, I always repeat myself as a mantra what my fellow teacher in Sciences Po used to say: 'You can imagine the most beautiful project or a game changer for the society, you may not succeed if you don’t deal with the historical, geographical, sociological contexts'.
It makes the difference... Even if my daily work is prescribed by a set of security rules, principles and practices. I always try to set up projects that will best fit the needs of local populations, with respect to a wide diversity of cultural, social, or political contexts, whether in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, or America.
The interview was conducted in July 2021.