I went to France again on Tuesday to spend some time in the refugee camps. I visited in December and wrote about it on my commercial blog. I am less inclined to put anything up there this time round just yet but I wanted to make a record of my thoughts about my role as a photographer somewhere.
One of the things that troubled me (as it did others I know) is the fact that there are many western photographers visiting those camps, sometimes as news reporters, sometimes as independents. There is an acute western gaze on people who are vulnerable, have nowhere to go or hide and virtually no agency over their lives once they reach those camps. We visual vultures are more than a nuisance to them. We are benefiting in some way from their distress, even if most photographers are present with at least some good intentions in amongst the self-serving reasons that send us there in the first place.
The letter in this link communicates the feelings of people who have frankly had enough of being looked at and photographed by people who have the freedom to come and go as they please. Even though I try hard to be respectful and always aim to chat to people before taking any photographs, especially where faces are shown, I am acutely aware that I am one of the pests to whom that letter was addressed.
So why did I go in the first place, why did I return and why I do plan to go again?
This is very difficult to answer. Yes, I was emotionally moved by stories I read, especially of children living there. To read about people suffering so much and being treated with so little dignity made me cry often. Perhaps naively, I found it incredibly hard to understand why the world we live in can be so cruel and harsh. By the end of last year it had got to the point where every time I read about the camps I ended up in tears.
But my tears were also, I know, borne out of frustration because the more I read about it the more I wanted to go over and do some photographic work there. What is happening is extraordinary and unusual – to have a human disaster on that scale on the shores of Europe so close to our apparently safe, homogenised, modern world is fascinating for lots of reasons. We are so used to seeing things like this happen far away (often in part due to interventions from the west that may have originated during times of Empire or more recently), and that separation protects us from the realities of life for so many on this planet. It interests me greatly to see that reality begin to intrude so physically into a western paradigm.
Our collective reaction, the politics surrounding the NGOs’ inability or failure to address the situation, the quite stunning humanitarian reaction from volunteers who go there, often self-funded to help because they just have to, the power structures that exists within and around the camps all interest me so much, I can barely express it here adequately.
Of course, to begin with I was terrified for lots of fairly obvious external, as well as more personal internal, reasons of going. Eventually I had to go though. I just felt so strongly that I had to; and so frustrated by my fear of going.
I’m extremely glad I went. Although I do try to be careful and sensible, as I would on any high street in London, I have not felt unduly threatened whilst there. But I have learnt and experienced which is always good. My interests as listed above have deepened and broadened. There are so many questions for me to come out of being there. But I feel I can’t go back just to randomly wander round and take pictures. I think I must have more of a focus next time. Although I did have ideas to begin with, they proved tricky and so the business of working with what’s there, what’s possible, allowing ideas to develop and evolve has become much more apparent to me in the process. As has the notion of being patient and tenacious, of not giving up, of making connections and how important all that is.
So my project continues, I hope. From all that I have learnt in the last 18 months or so I know I will not be certain of the value of the images, of which ones are important to the story I am telling (as opposed to all the many other photographers who are out there) for a while. I must therefore just keep building and collecting and trying to see how it unfolds over time. And above all I must be patient.
Finally, I am extremely grateful to the people who allow me to hear their stories and let me take their photographs. It is heartbreaking sometimes and confounding. I have met a wide range of people there; highly intelligent, articulate individuals as well as less educated, and perhaps troubled souls. Some of the rhetoric in the press is so shortsighted and troubling, dehumanising and frankly rather stupid. It is a highly complex, dreadully difficult situation and I have no idea how it will be resolved. But I think it is a situation that is supremely interesting and important to us. And so I justify my western camera’s gaze because I want to know more about how we operate as a society now in these altering times, and that’s my way of exploring it.
Image (c)SJField 2016 – The Jungle, Calais. A fence funded by the UK government that separates the camp from the industrial outskirts of Calais behind it.