A politician, a concert pianist, an artist, a surf lifesaver, several chefs and multiple entrepreneurs from countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Vietnam. They may seem to have little in common, judging just by their portraits. But the title of this exhibition reveals all: they came by boat.

The I Came By Boat campaign is primarily an awareness-raising poster project that brings the humanity back to the asylum-seeker and refugee debate by giving them faces and voices. But the campaign’s organisers decided the photographs were so good that they belonged in a gallery.

Founder Blanka Dudas is a refugee herself. She sought asylum in the UK in the 1990s from Yugoslavia, when she was 19. After six years there she moved to Australia and set herself up as a successful make-up artist. It’s the recent government-stoked ill will towards refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers that has driven Dudas to instigate this campaign. She has been extremely lucky, and she wants to give back.

This is an attention-grabbing public campaign, so the portraits themselves, by photographer Lucas Allen, are straightforward and to the point.

Shot by Lucas Allen, the subjects are mostly photographed in their work outfits, standing proudly and defiantly as Australians. The only hint of their pasts is provided in the accompanying statements. They’ve witnessed unspeakable horrors, been robbed by pirates and spent weeks on leaky 12-by-3-metre fishing boats, hoping to find safer land.

Munjed Al Muderis, for instance, is an orthopaedic surgeon from Iraq. He fled his home when the military murdered his boss and ordered him to disfigure and dismember captured deserters.

Al Muderis is warm, funny and enormously successful in his profession. He talks me through the 1951 Refugee Convention, which he can quote verbatim (so we can be sure, as well, that he’s not illiterate). He arrived in Australia in 1999, and was sent to Curtin Detention Centre in the Kimberley. He was released from detention about a year later, and has built a life and a family here.

“I’m very passionate about getting the word out,” he tells me. “A lot of refugees move on with their lives, and want to forget the past, but the past is what builds the present and the future, so it’s important to get the story straight,” he says. “Especially if the story is wrong.”

I Came By Boat is at 9 Glasshouse Road, Collingwood until May 22.

iamaboatperson.org.au/i-came-by-boat

The campaign is also raising money to bring these photographs and stories to bus shelters and train stations. You can make a donation here.