From refugee to top model: Ajak Deng’s latest campaign hits home
Play for Peace
She's been on the cover of Vogue Italia and fronted campaigns for Marc Jacobs, but Ajak Deng's latest project is her most meaningful yet. Between walking for Givenchy shooting for Wonderland, the Australian model is back on home soil fronting The Body Shop's Play for Peace campaign. "This is bigger than anything I have ever done," says Deng of the campaign. Play for Peace is a partnership with NGO International Alert where every gift purchased from The Body Shop's seasonal gift collection throughout the Christmas season will help refugee children affected by war in Syria. The initiative hits close to home for Deng, who herself was a child refugee when her and her family fled from Sudan. "If I had had that as a refugee child..." the model muses, unable to finish her sentence. Samantha Ledlin sat down with the Aussie model export to talk about the powerful campaign, diversity in the modelling industry and the way Instagram has challenged the art of modelling.
Can you tell us a bit about The Body Shop Play for Peace campaign?
The Body Shop has teamed up with [NGO] International Alert to raise some money to help refugees and children affected in Syria. So I think it is a pretty great thing to support. There is a healing centre where kids can go and listen to music and play basketball, do theatre classes and things to get their mind off what is really going on in their lives. I think it is important for a child to play with others and to be distracted from reality.
You grew up in Sudan yourself and fled the country as a refugee. What does it mean to be supporting a campaign that you're so close to on a personal level?
It means the world! It's incredible; I'm so honoured to be a part of it. If I had had that as a refugee child I would have been happier and probably wouldn't have remembered most of the things I had to go through. If there is any way I can help give back then that is great. I'm sure there were other people [trying to] help me before, that's how I got here to Australia and what I'm doing now.
You have gone on to have an amazing career in modelling - shooting with Vogue, Harper's, working with Marc Jacobs to name only a few. Do you have a single career highlight?
Honestly, this [campaign with The Body Shop] is one of the pinch-me moments. This is bigger than anything I have ever done. Yes I have worked with great brands, photographers, shot for great publications, and that is all great, but I am the face of this. So this would be the biggest career highlight for sure.
And it is so much more than just a beautiful photo.
Exactly, it's not just a pretty face; it's about giving back, it's about caring and loving and supporting.
I want to quickly touch on something another model, Duckie Thot has spoken about regarding diversity in the Australian modelling industry, is this something that you feel that you have had to overcome yourself?
Yeah for sure; I am much more successful overseas. I haven't had as much success here, which sometimes can become a little draining. [I'm like:] 'It's my hometown and I was once loved there, why am I not loved there? Is it something I'm doing wrong? Is it my skin colour?' I think Australia is finally starting to evolve and involve other Australian's, and I think it is a great start. There are so many great models [to come] out of Australia - Duckie and Adut, and I'm so honoured [to have them follow what I do].
With working overseas comes a larger pool of models with huge social media followings. How do you feed about the way the modelling industry has changed these past few years as a result of social media?
It's terrible, I hate it. I wish I could lie but I can't do it. I don't like it, there is no art in it anymore. We're all obsessed with this 'fame' thing and followings on Instagram. What happened to actually creating something that people will remember about a brand? What happened to a photographer creating a very beautiful artistic long-lasting image? [Now it is about] what is Instagram-worthy. Do you think Instagram is going to last, because I don't think so. [I don't think] it is going to be here in the next five to ten years, and if it is, I don't know [what to do]. That's not who I am, I love to create, I love to be artistic. I am so grateful to work with artistic photographers like Mario Testino and Bruce Weber because they still have it.
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