OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — How can a person turn trauma into triumph? The final session of BoF VOICES 2023 highlighted the experiences of creatives, entrepreneurs and scientists who have found hope and power in adversity, translating their pain into art and impact with speakers including photographer Misan Harriman, artists Rita Ora and Billy Porter and designer Diane von Furstenberg.
Power From Pain
When photographer and activist Misan Harriman was still extraordinarily young he was sent from Nigeria to boarding school in England.
It was childhood he described “as moment after moment of sustained trauma,” in his address. He found solace and safety in poetry, pictures and film, but it was only after the killing of George Floyd by a white policeman in May 2020 that Harriman picked up his camera to document the rise of an extraordinary civil rights movement.
His powerful imagery caught the attention of British Vogue editor in chief Edward Enninful, who tapped Harriman to shoot the cover of the September 2020 issue, the first Black man ever to do so. Harriman’s passion and mission continues to be to document and humanise the struggles of marginalised communities.
“We cannot have a society where we have to whisper or be silent about our most precious being harmed,” he said. “I use my lens to try and be their sword and shield.”
Coping Through Creativity
In a conversation with BoF CEO and editor in chief Imran Amed, artists Rita Ora and Billy Porter recounted their struggles to make it a music industry where neither fit the mould.
Originally from Kosovo, Ora fled to the UK as an infant to escape brutal ethnic persecution and has been an outspoken advocate for refugees. Porter grew up in the Pentecostal church in Pittsburgh where being gay was considered an abomination. Both turned to music to find a sense of belonging.
“There was that trauma after trauma after trauma after trauma, and the only thing I could do was sing,” said Porter, describing his experience growing up.
Both have had to carve out their own path in an industry that tried to make them fit or didn’t recognise what they stood for. But remaining true to themselves is also what has brought them success. Ora’s advice for anyone to make it in the industry: “You have nothing to lose. Just go for it … Do not look right to left or back … and never play the blame game.”
Adversity to Impact
At 27 years old, Sammy Basso is the oldest person in the world with progeria, a rare genetic disease that manifests as premature ageing. He’s also one of the scientists working to find a cure.
His story is one of extraordinary hope and perseverance against the odds. The average lifespan for those with the disease is just 13-and-a-half years. When Basso was born, there was no hope of treatment. But the discovery of the precise genetic mutation that causes the disease in 2003 means the picture today is very different. The first experimental drug targeting the disease was approved in the US in 2020 and in Europe in 2022. Progress on gene-editing technologies has opened the possibility for a cure, not just for progeria, but myriad other genetic afflictions.
“To be a patient and scientist is beautiful for me because it is a great antidote against fear,” said Basso. “Never think you are not enough to make a difference. So many people said it’s impossible to do research into such a rare disease. But now thanks to that, we are opening ways to treat so many others. We are making a difference.”
Like Basso, model Dennis Okwera has taken his struggles as a motivation to try and make change. Last year, he spoke at VOICES about his flight from Uganda to escape the violent life of a child soldier and how he is using his earnings from modelling to fund education for women and girls in the country.
He returned to the stage this year with an update: following his talk he was able to raise £36,000, which funded facilities at a local school that now serves nearly 1,000 children.
“I knew I was sharing my journey, but I didn’t expect such impact,” he said.
Designer Diane von Furstenberg nearly wasn’t born. Her mother was a holocaust victim who spent 13 months in Auschwitz and on a death march between camps before she was finally liberated in June of 1945. She was 45 pounds when she returned home and after her fiance returned some months later the doctor advised she would wait at least two years before thinking about children. Von Furstenberg was born nine months later.
“She taught me that fear was not an option,” she said. “Everything was about honouring life the day I was born, I had won.”
Though she’s known for creating the iconic wrap dress, von Furstenberg said it took winning a CFDA lifetime achievement award to think of herself as a designer. She went to business school, not fashion college, but fashion was her ticket to independence.
“I did not know what I wanted to do, but I knew the kind of woman I wanted to be: in charge, free, my own person,” she said. “The way I became that woman was a little dress … I invented the wrap dress, but really the wrap dress made me.”
The designer also interviewed Pakistani journalist and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, turning the tables on the director who has been making a film about von Furstenberg’s life.
Obaid-Chinoy started reporting as a teenager in Pakistan and her documentaries have helped change laws on honour killings and acid violence against women. She’s also directing the next “Star Wars” movie.
“Coming from a world where there are very few female filmmakers, there are three things I’ve lived by: never take no for an answer, if a door is closed for me, I think I need to kick it open. And I want to leave the door open for any other woman who wants to walk through it,” she said.
The session ended with a talk from brand strategist Jonathan Mildenhall, who responded the trauma he experience following the killing of George Floyd in 2020 by finding a way to change the narrative for Black and Brown people around the world.
His book, “A Colourful View From the Top,” was written to celebrate the excellence of business leaders of colour by telling their stories in a way that was raw and true. Mildenhall, who grew up on a council estate in Leeds in England, the only Black person in a white household, started with himself. But as he started to help the other executives featured in his book to shape their stories, he found a common pattern.
“Every single one of those leaders had a huge shameful relationship with something either because of ethnicity, culture, sexual identity, poverty or lack of education,” he said. “[But] every one turned shame into an asset.”
That ability to accept pain and vulnerability is critical for modern leaders. “Slaying shame and embracing vulnerability, what’s the net output? Authenticity,” said Mildenhall. “These leaders show up with a level of authenticity i believe is quite unprecedented.”
BoF VOICES 2023 is made possible in part by our partners Snapchat, McKinsey & Company, Porsche, Getty Images, Invisible Collection and Soho House.