Game of Thrones knight Liam Cunningham is fighting a real-life war, that of ‘compassion’ against aggression

Game of Thrones knight Liam Cunningham is fighting a real-life war, that of ‘compassion’ against aggression
There’s a picture that, for Game of Thrones actor Liam Cunningham, perfectly encapsulates what he was trying to convey with his portraits of people displaced by the civil war in South Sudan.

“Basically what we wanted to show was the good news side of it … to give people a little bit of dignity,” the Irish actor says of the photos on display in Toronto this week to mark World Refugee Day. “There’s one young lady — I think she’s between 10 and 12 years old — and she’s in the air with a skipping rope. (She) has just got some of her childhood back … she’s got a beaming smile.”

Last year, the actor visited Juba in South Sudan and the Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda to meet and photograph some of the many people affected by the Sudanese civil war, which began in 2013, killed at least 50,000 people and displaced nearly 4 million before a ceasefire was declared in 2018, according to the website Global Conflict Tracker.

Fifteen of Cunningham’s photos are on display in Union Station today, Wednesday and Thursday, presented by World Vision Canada to draw attention to the estimated 68.5 million people around the world forced from their homes by conflict.

Cunningham knows his ability to advocate for these people is facilitated by the mammoth popularity of Game of Thrones, on which he played knight Ser Davos Seaworth for seven seasons.

“For the temporary notoriety and celebrity I have it would be unscionable — I just wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror — if I didn’t use that currency of celebrity to try and get this out,” he said on the phone from Spain, where he’s shooting a movie.

“We must defeat the warmongers and the way we do that is with compassion. Compassion is the enemy of aggression,” he added, sounding not unlike his peace-loving Thrones character.

“I’m eternally optimistic that the good of peace and fellowship … will overcome the cynicism of aggression and global politics from these besuited psychopaths we have in these offices around the world.”

Photography has long been “a very pleasurable hobby” for Cunningham, something the 58-year-old actor took up in his early 20s and developed as he travelled to various places for acting jobs.

But normally he didn’t show his pictures to anyone outside of his family — not until he perceived them as “a possible device to get the message across” about refugees.

He visited Syrian refugees in camps in Greece and Jordan on behalf of both World Vision and the International Rescue Committee before travelling to South Sudan and Uganda for about two weeks.

“We see so much in the media … we hear that millions of people have been displaced, millions of refugees. It’s very difficult to humanize that, which is part of the focus of the photographic exhibit that I’m doing,” Cunningham said.

Despite the ongoing crises for the South Sudanese, Cunningham was able to see firsthand the good that can be done with amounts of money that would seem small to first world donors.

That included the building of two small and inexpensive houses for two families — including that of the skipping girl — who had been sleeping in a graveyard in Juba because superstitious soldiers were unlikely to pursue them there and commit violence against them.

“When you see on the ground the little bit of work you’ve done translated, and you see smiles on people’s faces and their humanity returned a little bit, it’s enormously satisfying. And anybody that has given or is thinking about giving to charity, when they do it they should give themselves an enormous slap on the back; they’ve done something remarkable.”

Cunningham admitted with a laugh that it was nice to interact with the South Sudanese as just another human being and not as a TV star.

“I’m not a big star in South Sudan, that’s true,” said Cunningham, who already had a robust list of acting credits before Game of Thrones came calling.

“My accountant is inconsolable,” he joked about the series’ end. “It’s a thing that I will gladly have carved onto my gravestone. I’m enormously proud of the quality of the storytelling, the people that I was lucky enough to work with. It’s been glorious, but I’ve done a couple of jobs since then.”

That includes the National Geographic limited series Hot Zone with Julianna Margulies , which was partly filmed in Toronto.

“And I’m in Madrid now. I’m robbing the Bank of Spain; I’m doing a bank heist movie, so life goes on as they say.”

World Vision ’s Untold: Behind the Headlines exhibit, featuring the photos of Liam Cunningham and interactive virtual and augmented reality experiences, will be on display in the West Wing of Union Station June 18 to 20.
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