Last night I met with four other UVC students from around the globe using Google hangout.    This is the second meeting we have had and was, like the first, extremely positive.  Not only was it good to put faces and voices to the people we are learning alongside, other people’s ideas, advice and encouragement is invaluable.   As I was late to the meeting I missed out on the discussion about other people’s work sadly and benefitted hugely from comments the group had about my work.  I hope to rectify the balance next time round!

Having finished A1 I must now get on with Section 2 (although a move in two weeks will inevitably slow me down) so in the meantime I talked about the work I have been doing in France.

I am troubled by my project, if that is what I can call it, for several reasons:

  • Firstly, what the hell am I doing? Why am I doing it? What do I hope to achieve?  I am not a journalist and I wonder to myself, do I think I can at the age of 45 with three small children in my sole care, suddenly become one?  Is that what I want – not really sure? But how ludicrous if so… and if not…
  • If I am not setting out to become some sort of photo-journalist what am I doing? Why am I going to that camp alongside a whole other bunch of Western photographers, and taking photographs of people many of whom don’t want to be photographed, are sick of being peered at, and fed up with the constant intrusion.
  • As a mother of young children I am extremely limited and cannot spend much time there so how do I work within that limitation – is it even worth it?  Should I see this as a long term project and go over once a month or so – is that really going to give me enough time to achieve anything (I don’t mean in terms of ‘changing the world’ through photography -that’s not my thing and it would be foolish to even consider it.  I mean of achieving a worthwhile narrative over a number of months, possibly years, considering how little I am able to spend there.)
  • What exactly is my project about?  I am interested in human development.  What we do as individuals and societies to our babies, how that shapes and impacts the adults we become, the societies we become.  That’s my big interest.  And so I look at how we treat people with young children who are left to live in the mud and wonder what that does in the longterm.  I saw a photograph of a South African man a while back now – he was a violent psychopath.  But given his story, his history, how could he not have ended up that way.  That’s what interests me.  How the actions of one generation affect the next.  How morality is conditional.  How groups react.  And the ongoing chain reaction as generations follow.

I was prompted to go in the first place because I am appalled by the fact there are children in those camps, that tear gas is regularly used to ‘control’ and frighten people, by the fact that fellow human beings are cold, hungry and frightened on our doorsteps. It distresses me so much to think we live in world where that is even remotely acceptable today after all Europe has been through.

The views held by the Czech president, suggesting that there is a calculated and planned Muslim invasion of Europe is to me an extraordinary position to take – really??.  I am not stupid enough to think that there aren’t people in those camps with shitty intentions  There are very likely to be Daesh sympathisers and gangs, crooks, human traffickers – any number of low life criminals, manipulators of the weak, and advantage-takers you care to suggest, either living there or visiting regularly.

But those are not the people I met.  I met a man whose brother was killed by Isis and whose uncle by government forces.  He had all he needed in Syria.  He always knew he’d come to London as a tourist.  And is broken by the fact that he now sits on a beach in France, hated by so many Europeans, considered a potential threat, and poorer than he ever imagined he could be.  I met young boys from Eritrea who invited me to get warm by their fire, who if they’d not fled would have faced a life in the army – until death because there is no limit on conscription.  I met women who were so grateful to talk and share a cup of coffee with someone, not least because they are so bored just sitting and waiting, feeling afraid of lawlessness that inevitably exists there, especially at night, not to mention the reported brutality of the French police.  I met a Christian man whose internal anger spills out at the thought of someone entering the church without permission, the church he watches and protects all day long, but who when spoken to with kindness, softened immediately, talking of his family who he’s not seen for so long.  I also met countless families in Dunkirk who are taking care of their very young children, babies, in tents without any heating in the middle of winter.  There is so much mud it’s impossible to stay clean.  And there are extremely limited cleaning facilities.  A volunteer who has been in France for weeks helping to construct wooden accommodation said that aid has been prevented from going into that camp.

I do feel for the French residents who live across the road from the Dunkirk camp; whose lovely wood, that separates the estate from the industrial shopping centre, is now a muddy swamp of poverty and desperation.  But I feel more sorrow for the toddlers and babies living in the tents, and for their parents who have risked their lives to escape from countries where they may face starvation, torture or death by their own governments or by fanatics with motives impossible to understand. I feel desperately sorry for those people.

And I am simply awestruck by the number of volunteers who are over there working for free, most of whom are self-funded, because for some reason there are weird, political chess moves preventing the sites being declared human disaster zones.  Because of that the UNHCR isn’t in place processing people.  Save the Children and the Red Cross aren’t there except for short visits, although perhaps that has changed since I was there last week – it’s so hard to believe they’re not there and haven’t been.  It’s like our government and France’s have decided that the thing to do is be the merciless authoritarian, show little or no compassion, not allow any hint of softening or encouragement and hope that that deters people from coming here.  But as discussed by Zoe Williams in today’s Guardian, such a policy is nothing short of blind avoidance.

In a letter to the government a charity worked writes, “I have worked in four 3rd world countries after natural disasters and worked with refugees, who staggeringly, 100% of the time had better conditions than current(ly in) Calais and Dunkirk”.   The conditions in those camps is utterly, totally, and disastrously appalling.  It is simply inconceivable that such a dreadful situation should be allowed to persist.

When I was there last week white metal shipping containers were being prepared to house 1500 people.  There are in the region of 5000-6000 people in the Calais camp.  I had a very brief time in the camps so only heard rumours and cannot substantiate anything – but the rumours suggested that children and sick people would be moved into these spaces first, although there are few families left in the Calais site, where a mix of nations are living.  An estimated 95% of the people in Dunkirk are Kurdish (people long used to being discriminated against) and many, many families.

People in the Jungle are wary of the white containers, and when I spoke to someone volunteering at the school, she told me that some families with children had moved to other parts of France, other camps, especially in light of the fact that there are rumours about sections of the camp being bulldozed (see note below about that having happened as I wrote this) .  Suggestions about being monitored through a finger print system, and asked to claim asylum in France, which many don’t want to do,  in order to stay in the containers are everywhere.  The area where the containers are looks like some sort of dystopian prison camp.  The sun bounces harshly off white metal walls penned in by high fences.  It may be better physically but I can’t help feeling it’s a cruel, vicious, and only temporary and woefully inadequate solution.

The whole situation is incredibly complex.  And difficult.  I don’t envy governments having to address it.  But I think Zoe Williams in her article (link above) has a point: “All of this must be undertaken without the petty vindictiveness that has characterised immigration policy since the turn of the century. We all need to spell out what it would take to meaningfully uphold the convention upon which so much of our collective self-belief is based; or consider a future in which that self-belief has gone.”

Below is a link to photographs which I am adding to my collection.  After I’ve thought some more, and I welcome other people’s thoughts on this, I need to consider how/if to continue.  Suggestions last night were:

  • (In response to an image I shared – at the top of this blog ) Look at the desire not to be seen. Not being photographed is at the forefront of people’s minds – both residents, and on behalf of them – the volunteers.  Apparently, a lawyer suggested that people’s fears about photographs affecting any asylum claims is erroneous.  Nevertheless, the belief that it will is pervasive.  Different students last night had varying responses to the image I have posted above; are they depressed, hiding to protect themselves, hiding because they’re a threat to us? I found that very interesting and it made me think so carefully about what sort of images to put out as people interpret images according to how they see they world.
  • Additionally there is advice on the volunteer site which imposes restrictions too – which one may or may not choose to adhere to.
  • As image makers we need to be responsible.
  • Focus on things that move me personally.
  • Avoid trying to emulate shock journalistic photography – I think I’m there with that. I am also very aware that making pretty pictures is fraught with complex questions.

Here is link to a few images which I am adding to my collection of images, which I suppose, if I return, will continue to build – there is no specific narrative yet. Some of the images are no different from any number of hundreds of images out there.  I don’t have enough to do anything with yet. I just need to keep going back and exploring.  But I need to be sure in my mind that that is worthwhile.  I feel like I must have more of a focus, perhaps go back to my original one of focusing on children or families.  I have not included any recognisable faces in this collection – I have images of a little girl playing a harmonica, a young boy playing in a shopping trolly, guys smiling at me, a young man riding his bike through a puddle.  Real human beings.  I don’t have their names or their written permission so at this point it will be inappropriate to publish them regardless of anything else. It’s something to think quite hard about.

Finally, this is so difficult in many, many ways.

Since publishing this I read that the bulldozing has begun as reported in The Mail.



2 thoughts on “UVC group meeting

  1. Complex questions with the only certainty that there is no simple answer. Why you go there, let alone why you feel you need to communicate what you see and feel when you are there, is as complex I would suspect as any other question. I wonder if it is a sense of communal guilt that many I’m sure share with you, about how families and therefore communities are riven by events beyond their control and how those in power continue to protect their own interests above all else.
    There has been a lot written, as I’m sure you know, about the depiction of these and so many other refugees, is used to bolster the commercial interests of the media outlets until, that is, some other disaster comes along to fill the screens. The narratives of these people are lost in the wider political narratives of those media outlets amidst the contrivance of politics and commerce of short term expediency. A Royal child attending his first day at school displacing the plight of thousands of displaced children, we mourn the passing of a “pop star” with greater passion than we engage with the issues that surround the countless thousands displaced as a result of a meta political war between nation states vying for the rewards of short term mineral wealth.
    And you ask, quite rightly, what are you doing there railing against a machine, emasculated and frustrated, angry and pissed at the senselessness and waste of it all? Engaging with a conscience and trying to articulate it.


    1. John, thanks so much for this extremely thoughtful and generous comment. It made me cry but in a good way. If you don’t mind I may put it in the main body of a blog post because I think you answer some questions I have with a great deal of eloquence and compassion. Thank you again.

      Liked by 1 person

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