While I recognise that Disphotic’s focus on thinking and talking about photography is a niche interest, I think it’s important that these rather specialist discussions are guided by bigger issues in the world. Hence the recent focus over the last six months on the role of photography in Europe’s refugee crisis, from exposing a fake Instagram account masquerading as that of a Senegalese migrant, to examining Norbert Baska’s questionable refugee themed fashion photographs. From Kiki Streitberger’s still life portraits of the personal possessions of Syrian refugees, to Phil le Gal’s epic New Continent project. Today I turn to Alice Myers’ Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun, which focuses on Calais’s informal settlements and refugee inhabitants in a way which is marked by quite a different approach and length of engagement. Recently I met up with Alice to discuss photography, politics and books and the interview that follows is the result.
Hi Alice, could you start by telling me about how you first became interested in making work in Calais and around the topic of refugees, was it during a similar surge of public and media awareness of the issue or did something else first start you thinking about it?
I had been thinking a lot about the narratives that people attach to landscape. I had been working in Ireland with a group of people who had been combating the installation of a gas pipeline, and then I went to Arizona and spent some time on the border with Mexico photographing the trails people use to walk through the desert. So with Calais I was interested in the idea that there could be an invisible border in the sea, and in where in fact that border lay, and in the way borders permeate so that the walls of a truck can become a frontier.
But throughout all these projects the more interesting questions were around finding ways to use photography in politically fraught situations that felt open and respectful (or that I felt I could at least live with), while acknowledging the complexities of the power dynamics created by arriving as an outsider and pulling out a camera. While working in Calais I became more aware of this thread and these questions became a much more visible part of the work.
That question of the power dynamic is interesting, I think if you are the type of photographer who is conscious of these problems there is often the hope of finding a way of working that takes them into account and perhaps neutralises them to some extent. There’s a very noticeable participatory element to the project, certainly compared to much of the recent work I’ve seen on refugees and migration, but when we chatted before you mentioned that one of the difficulties of that was getting the participants to understand what you wanted to do and why, could you explain more?
The word ‘participatory’ can be used for so many different things. While I opened up the project to input from others, and responded to what people were interested in doing, I’d hesitate to call this participatory because I was in full creative control of the output. When we spoke before I think I mentioned what a complex thing consent is, and as in any project I had to be really careful to make sure people fully understood how the pictures and interviews were for. It was also important to leave space for them to change their minds.
I guess no matter how carefully I explained the project, some people weren’t familiar with the kind of book I was making, and they were very surprised by the photographs I chose to include. While I gave people prints of the photographs I took, they weren’t really the audience I was making the work for. This question of audience is really interesting, and I’d like to take it forward into future projects.
Can you flesh out your working process when you were in Calais, did you have a certain approach in what you were looking for or was it more a matter of seeing what was there and what happened and who you met and reacting to things as they occurred?
I was very aware of the role photography plays in the policing of borders, of the dominance of imagery that presents migrants and refugees as either victims or criminals, but also of the importance of photography for migrants trying to keep track of their lives. I think we all probably take photographs partly to remind ourselves that we exist, but that becomes more of an urgent project if you are legally non-existent.
So I was trying to enter into this fraught situation in a way that felt respectful and open, using the camera as a starting point for interaction. But I was also constantly questioning my role as photographer, and also as a gatherer of material. I’d worked on the US/Mexico border before and it took a lot of work to get to the point where it felt OK to even begin to use a camera. My approach was to make these questions present in the work, so that the tensions and negotiations are visibly being worked out in a way that I hope is more interesting.
So my process was really just finding a way to be in that space with a camera. This involved a lot of photographing people and giving them prints afterwards (none of these images are part of my edit), or filming something in a space and waiting for people to approach me and get involved. I had a project explanation in English, Arabic and Pashtu, which said I was not a journalist, I was doing a project and people could get involved in whatever way suited them or not at all. I suggested they might want to write something, draw something, record an interview, share the photographs on their phones with me or work with me to make a portrait which did not disclose their identity. Some people had lots of ideas for my project and I worked with them over the longer term, each time I went back. With others it was a more fleeting interaction.
I work in a very slow way, which I tell myself is about being responsive to what I find but may also be about a reluctance to pin things down. So I gathered masses and masses of material, and then spent a couple years narrowing it down, figuring out what it was about. There are hours of recording and videos that I decided not to use.
I find that resistance to pinning things down interesting point because I think the refugee crisis has been marked both by a mass of reporting, almost to the extent that it’s hard to know where to start, and also by reporting which is often really lacking in nuance, which is often very much about making black or white distinctions. It’s interesting that you included the fact you aren’t a journalist in your explanation of the project. Did you feel that distinction made a difference to your participants, and also did you encounter many journalists and if so what was there reaction like to the idea of someone producing art about a topic like this?
I completely agree with your first point, though I feel like ‘refugee crisis’ should always be in inverted commas, as the crisis is more about the failure of our European governments. The other reason to not pin things down is that a concrete, bulletproof and logical story is what is required of refugees to justify their presence here. I didn’t want to reproduce that demand.
I’m not sure [saying I wasn’t a journalist] made that much of a difference to participants, I think they mostly just assumed I was a journalist anyway. And then a few people probably thought I was a spy of some sort. Though I think some people were really interested in the long-term and collaborative aspects of the project (they had lots of ideas for photographs or text to include). The thing that might have made more difference was stating that I wasn’t interested in photographing them directly. That I didn’t want to photograph their faces. I think for some people just being handed something to read in Arabic made a difference.
I’m not anti-journalist, but the distinction about not being one maybe made more difference with the activists I worked with. Many activists who work in border situations are understandably suspicious of photojournalists, mostly because of one or two really bad experiences they’ve had with individuals being exploitative or disrespectful. Although I didn’t work formally with activists, I spent a lot of time in squats that they had helped to set up and was friends with several people who might not have called themselves activists, who continuously housed 5-15 people. I think they saw and appreciated that the project was slightly different.
So the result of this process is a book, perhaps to end you could say a little about why this felt like the right format for the work?
I’ve tried a number of different formats for this work and I’m really content to have arrived at the book. Because the project is a collection of fragments, the book leads people through the material, but gives them space to take their own time with it. It also allows the text to be central to the project, without forcing associations between specific images and pieces of text. I guess I also wanted to give a sense of Calais as this in-between space where logic doesn’t apply, and the book format allows you to create an immersive environment.
See more of Alice’s work at www.alicemyers.net