‘A Crisis of Empathy’: Mathilda Della Torre’s Conversations From Calais

As the creative behind Conversations From Calais and design studio On The Mend, Mathilda Della Torre is no stranger to using her art for activism. Our multimedia designer Sophie Parsons spoke to Mathilda about understanding your role as a designer, the importance of empathy and her global poster project.

Activist and author Toni Cade Bambara once said “the role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible”. Mathilda Della Torre is no stranger to this concept. As the creative behind the poster project Conversations from Calais, Della Torre’s practice as a designer has come to blend activism and art in a way that has gone on to inspire more empathetic conversations around Europe’s migrant crisis. The heart of the project, Della Torre says, is “re-humanising the refugee crisis” – a narrative that is often amiss in media coverage. 

Can you start by detailing how you began combining activism with design?
I don’t think I have a simple answer to this question because for so long I wasn’t sure what parts of my work were activist and what weren’t, which forced me to think about what activism meant for me. I now define it as taking action to intervene in social, political, economic or environmental reform with the aim of creating positive social change. This small shift in perspective made me realise that most of my work was already activist.

There’s an image on your Instagram of a scribbled note from your masters that reads ‘Is this design or activism – I’m confused’. Did you ever find the answer to that question? And what do you think of the relationship between the two?
I remember writing that in my notebook in the uni library and feeling so lost about what my work was about and who I wanted to be as a designer. I spent most of my masters questioning everything I thought design and activism were. I grew to dislike the design world and really questioned what I was doing in this course and this career. I consequently redefined my practice as a designer who brings people together through creative exchanges and to place marginalised voices at the centre of our stories. So all in all, my answer to that question I wrote in my notebook is that my work is both design and activism, and for me that’s the best kind of design.

How did Conversations From Calais begin? You’ve gone on to capture hundreds of global stories, with each one offering such a necessary insight into the reality of so many people’s situations. 
I had been volunteering in Calais on and off for a year and a half, and every time I came back, I felt the need to share what I saw, heard and experienced there. I wanted to focus on the conversational aspect of telling stories and document what I had witnessed for migrants living in Calais. I adopted a method of deconstruction: breaking down the stories I’d heard from migrants into conversations that would fit onto A3 posters. I wanted to break away from how migrants are conventionally portrayed in mainstream media by remembering, documenting and commemorating banal but intimate and relatable conversations. I immediately wanted to find a way to share it with a wider audience, and so became a disseminator of stories, creating gallery spaces and newspaper pages of the walls around me and using Instagram as a visual archive of every conversation. I would love to take these conversations to billboards around the UK, also giving talks and workshops in schools or other educational settings that can inspire new narratives around migration – putting the stories in spaces where they are not talked about.

I remember the first time I spotted one of the posters around London and it made me physically stop to try and absorb what I was reading. Are there any stories in particular that have stayed with you? 
There are so many stories that stay with me, both that I’ve had myself or that have been submitted by other volunteers, it’s really difficult to pick one. This is one that often comes to mind:

“You asked me if the world knew this was happening, if the world knew you were here, if the world knew your tent was taken from you almost every night, if the world knew the police was spraying tear gas on you almost every day, if the world knew this was living hell. And all I could do was whisper yes, yes the world knows.”

It feels really relevant to how I feel about everything that is happening to displaced people in Calais and all over Europe right now. We can’t say we don’t know anymore, it’s no longer a valid excuse and we need to take responsibility for what is happening and hold our governments accountable. 

Recent media coverage of refugee crossings of the English Channel has caused mass outrage, with Choose Love calling it a ‘crisis of empathy’. The concept of empathy is crucial to the conversation; in sharing people’s narratives in the way that you do, are you hopeful that we will begin to see a shift in understanding?
I completely agree with Choose Love’s statement, this is a ‘crisis of empathy’. For me this clicked when I realised that where I was born, where my passport said I was from and which laws applied to me were all due to luck. The freedom that I have to move around the world happened by chance and I could have been born in a completely different situation. I understand that it can be difficult to empathise with the life of a displaced person living in Calais and trying to get to the UK; however, there are so many resources that can help start these conversations. 

It can often feel like as though, as an activist, you have to try to tackle everything – what is it about this particular conversation that caught your attention? 
This is very true and it can sometimes feel overwhelming, but this was happening in France, my home country, and less than two hours from London. I went to volunteer in Calais for the first time in September 2018 and after meeting and getting to know people living there, you can’t take the train back home, forget what you’ve seen and move on with life – or at least I couldn’t. So I guess this conversation came by chance, or by curiosity that led to shock that led to action that led to more and more action.

Can you tell us a little more about your design studio, On The Mend? The global pandemic has really shone a light on the world’s healthcare systems – what are your plans for the studio?
On The Mend is a design studio that targets social inequalities in the UK healthcare system, that I co-founded with Sophia, a designer and wonderful friend who I met in uni. We curate events that are playful, thought provoking and most importantly, call the general public to action. Our latest project was a collaboration with Imperial Health Charity and ITV: we designed an ITV ident that was based on NHS staff ‘mending’ the ITV logo as a metaphor for their role in our healthcare system. Running and filming that workshop really reminded me of the power of creativity and how that can bring people together in the most unexpected of ways – a career highlight for sure.

Activism can be all encompassing – is it important for you to be creative outside of that? If so, how do find those light moments of joy?
It is so important! I spent this afternoon decorating a vase with shells that I’ve been collecting this summer and there are few things I enjoy more than sitting somewhere new and drawing my surroundings. These moments of joy come from drawing and making just for the sake of it. I really love what I do, but I also find it so important to share the joy that comes from making something with your own hands, whatever that may be.

And finally, do you have any words of wisdom for those looking to combine their creativity with activism?
I’m not sure these are words of wisdom but the most important thing I’ve learnt in the past few years is the importance and power of coming together. Come together, combine your voices, work with others, share with others, listen and talk with those around you and far from you, build communities, collaborate, whatever you want to call it, just come together. I really think it’s the only way forward.


Read Mikaela Loach’s detailed look into how best to help with Calais’ refugee crisis.

Learn more about the causes and consequences of climate migration.

Discover how best to be a climate activist and use your voice for the planet.