I have been wondering how to keep working on the project I began when I first visited The Jungle in December and again in January. I became deeply uncomfortable with the voyeuristic act of crossing the channel and photographing people who were suffering, like so many other western photographers simply because we could, and so did not return until the other day. I was recently asked to accompany a charity, Just Shelter, to document their visit and also take more photographs of the camp. I have, for the last few months, been thinking about the issues that I recognised in Calais and Dunkirk.
- Innate human drive and ability to create, to exist, to form groups and make life bearable under most difficult conditions
- Social phenomena of a ‘town’ emerging where just a few months before there was nothing but wasteland
- The states’ reaction and desire to quash the new group’s growth and cynical strategy aimed at breaking down their resilience
- The sums of money spent on signs of power, strength, authoritarian solutions along with the lack of empathy and any basic kindness; an extremely alarming slide into and acceptance of state sponsored cruelty, bullying, beatings, abuse towards vulnerable people, open and blatant racism
- The tension and conflict between the two positions described
- Evidence of kindness and empathy occurring anyway in the form of non-state funded groups (grassroots charities), volunteers
- Evidence of kindness in state funded individuals who go against the status quo – MSF was allowed into Dunkirk so it could be made into a proper, albeit limited in size, camp thanks to the local mayor who has risked his political career to enable that (facts surrounding this needs verifying)
In this month’s BJP, which focuses on migration, photographer Alessandro Penso says, he “has grown increasingly critical of the work he and his colleagues are doing. “We’re not doing our jobs properly if we don’t look at the whole crisis,…()…We’re implicated if we only zero in on the ‘waves’ of people coming to our shores.” He goes on to say, “that although the migrant crisis has been documented more than any issue before it, there is too little in-depth or investigative journalism, adding that few photographers are focusing on Europe’s culpability and the economy that surrounds the camps.” Penso’s words have helped me to understand what I was photographing this last visit and the ones before. I have been looking at the evidence of human activity which I found moving and interesting and think that is a more useful and desirable aim than simply taking pictures of non-westerners suffering. We know that is happening. And there are enough of those images out there. Also, whilst they may remind sympathetic people of what is going on, I suspect they only serve to further entrench the minds of those who are not sympathetic.
During this last visit I was interested in the gardens that had sprung up around make-shift homes as well as the fields of flowers that have grown in place of the tents and shelters built by volunteers but bulldozed by the authorities in March. I am also interested in the sums of money spent by the UK and French governments building fences and paying for security compared to what needs to be raised by charities to feed people living in the camps. The charity Just Shelter delivered goods to, Kitchen Calais, which requires £7k a week to keep operating and feeding people, for instance.
So, I hope I will be able to continue accompanying Just Shelter and documenting what is happening there. But I also feel like I need to think carefully about what words I use to give context and drive any form of narrative. I feel strongly that ‘taking’ pictures of people, if at all, needs to be done with enormous care and consideration, and then they should only used if absolutely necessary in order to illustrate something relevant to whatever story I begin to see. I have stumbled across some excellent essays about how white/non-white selves function in a world that is still post-empire, and which contains such a devastating history regarding slavery in the visual culture readers for this course and I suspect they contain thoughts that will be useful for me here.
Incidentally, this month’s BJP is a fantastic resource as it has quite a lot of relevant material and addresses the issue of photographing people, making them real, enabling and facilitating empathy without putting anyone in danger.
(c)Image SJField 2016
Alessandro Penso, 2016; 37 European Dream in The British Journal of Photography, September Issue, 2016, London