Incomplete Images: A Different Perspective on Forced Migration

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Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos

The past two years have seen an unprecedented wave of forced migration, with conflict, instability and authoritarianism in north Africa, the Middle East and other regions forcing millions to flee their homes and seek safety overseas. This humanitarian crisis has coincided with, and in some cases contributed to, a resurgence of the political right in Europe and north America. This, alongside the continused evisceration of the media produces a climate where simplistic narratives about refugees flourish, and where depiction of the crisis often lack any reflection of the experiences of those who are most directly affected by it. The exhibition Incomplete Images, which I have co-curated with Monica Alcazar-Duarte, opens today and attempts to respond to this imbalance, by exhibiting work by a series of artists who are themselves refugees, or who have worked in close collaboration with them. The aim of this show is clearly modest and one small show is not going to redress the rise of right wing populism or years of imbalanced media coverage, but we hope it will have an influence, however small, and to that end some of the works on display will also be for sale with all proceeds going to the artist.

In terms of the artists and photographers in the show, Aram Karim’s Smugglers series depicts his journey across the border between Iraq and Iran, where men smuggle fuel, alcohol and other supplies in vast quantities, making multiple trips a day through mud, snow and across active minefields for a few dollars. Aram is a musican and photographer originally from Iraq but currently living near Marseilles, France while he awaits a decision on his refugee status. Damon Amb’s practice involves digitally reworking photographs taken in his native Iran and during his subsequent travels to express his inner world. Damon writes that ‘my art doesn’t communicate the things that have happened to me or what could happen to me if I go back to Iran. I’m a criminal in my country because I’m an artist’. Elena Kollatou and Leonidas Toumpanos’s video piece Greetings from Greece addresses the recent war in Syria and the thousands of refugees that it created through the portrait of a young man that has settled in Greece. The film also incorporates portraits which are the result of a collaboration with a refugee photo studio in Athens. These images are meticulously constructed from stock imagery, and were delivered to us for printing in various stages of completion. Next, Iranian Kurdish photographer Rahman Hassami’s series compares and contrasts the scenery of his native Kurdistan with the countryside of Yorkshire in the north of England, a quintessential English landscape, drawing out differences and similarities between his former and adoptive home. Finally, on a table in the center of the gallery is a display of images taken from an Instagram account purportedly belonging to a young migrant named Abdou Diouf. This account was in fact a hoax created by a marketing company to advertise a photography festival, and was first unmasked here on Disphotic in the summer of 2015. It’s inclusion in this exhibition highlights the way that even the perspective of refugees is open to problematic appropriation.

The exhibition is open for one week from 21st to 27th November, 12 – 5pm each day at Light Eye Mind gallery, 176 Blackstock Road, London N5 1HA

Post-Truth Documentary: Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation

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Still from the trailer for Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation (2016)

It’s increasingly popular to speak of our world as ‘post-truth’ an idea lent credence by politicians from Vladimir Putin to Boris Johnson who seem able to be able to spin fantastic lies and almost entirely get away with it. History tells us that leaders have always told lies, indeed that it is an almost inseparable part of the job, but there seems to be a sense that this occurs to an unprecedented extent today, and that no one is immune from it, with even the apparently unimpeachable Jeremy Corbyn standing accused of it during the fracas dubbed ‘Traingate’. The accessibility of information today makes it easier than ever to call liars out for what they are, and it is a staggering thing to watch a political candidate like Donald Trump deny doing something that you can simultaneously watch happening in an adjacent browser window. This is not entirely positive however, for two reasons. Firstly because the ease of identifying lies ironically contributes to the malaise of apathy towards politicians, because it is now so easy to know the extent to which they spin, manipulate, and mislead, that it creates a sense that they are all irredeemably corrupt. Secondly, because politicians seem to respond more and more to this public capacity for fact checking not with greater truthfulness, but with barrages of information which seem intended to confound verification or render its conclusions moot. By making constant swerves in ideology, policy and rhetoric, politicians evade the consequences of being caught out. What I told you yesterday might have been a lie, but what does it matter, because today I am saying something quite different, and by the time you realise this too is a lie I will be somewhere else entirely.

This background is pertinent to Adam Curtis’s new film HyperNormalisation which assembles a complexly woven conspiratorial narrative from the cultural and political wreckage of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Using esoteric stock footage sewn together with his own narration and a dub soundtrack Curtis leads us from Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik, via Syria and Iran, the growing power of the financial sector, suicide bombing, the demise of ideology, the rise of computer networks, the Arab Spring, and the rise of right wing populism in Europe and America (if some of the things on that list seems a little contradictory, well yes, they are). From this Curtis draws the conclusion that we live in a world which we all seem to know is deeply problem fraught and artificial but which we are hardly able to penetrate the unreal surface of, much less do anything to change. Seen through Curtis’s eyes reality and truth have become empty terms, readily twisted and manipulated by politicians and other powerful figures to support ever shifting agendas which have more to do with holding power than with any definable ideology. Buried in here are some interesting, deeply important ideas, not least about the role that networks and algorithms increasingly play in creating our own personal ideological echo chambers. The trouble with HyperNormalisation is that in its frantic rush to cover huge amounts of ground it simplifies and generalises to the point that it nearly becomes post-truth in it’s own right.

First it’s worth noting how the form and length of Curtis’s films have changed over the years, from the three single hour episodes of The Politics of Fear, to the two hours of Bitter Lake, and now the near 3 unbroken hours of HyperNormalisation. The shift to continuous films rather than episodes and this increasingly length hasn’t led as you might expect to deeper analysis, instead his more recent films seem to expand even further the grand narratives that he has always sought to create (even as he often seems to be trying to dismiss grand narratives in general) causing them to balloon even further, incorporating more and more widely flung causes, actors and consequences. For my money the older series format served Curtis’s work far better and allowed a closer focus on particular topic areas while still constructing a large overarching argument. Considering the enormous length of HyperNormalisation it’s interesting what doesn’t figure in the narrative, the refugee crisis is virtually absent from his brief discussion of the rise of populism, despite being a significant contributor to the rise of the right, and being the consequence of many of the events in the Middle East which he also discusses. Although one of his core arguments seems to be the loss of faith in alternatives and our inability to respond to the challenges of a late capitalist world Curtis gives only a fleeting analysis of movements like Occupy which intended to do exactly this, and never really reflects on the fact that groups like ISIS are hardly the nihilists we often try to paint them as, but in their own twisted way have an alternative vision of the world that they might imagine to be every bit as utopian as that of Occupy.

It’s been said that watching a Curtis documentary feels a bit like listening to a man in the middle of a Wikipedia binge, although I’d counter it’s more like someone getting their information from Uncyclopedia, the anarchic and irreverent spoof of Wikipedia. HyperNormalisation repeats some dubious claims, and frequently explains complicated ideas in staggering brevity. I don’t want to turn this piece into an extensive fact checking of this film, but a couple of things that stood out for me because I’ve looked into them before include the claim that the Iranian regime used zealous children to clear minefields with their own bodies as part of ‘human wave’ attacks during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The evidence for this is at best unclear, with very few primary sources to support it and some evidence that this idea was originally propagated as anti-Iranian war propaganda. Curtis trots it out however as if it were undisputed fact. Even as he often appears to criticise other thinkers and figures for promoting simplistic grand narratives which serve their own ends, it’s notable how little space there is in his own narrative for shades of grey, ambiguity, or self-reflection. Normally one would hardly expect footnotes in a documentary film, but in HyperNormalisation and the director’s other films they start to feel rather vital, and the lack of them problematic. Given that Curtis maintains a blog on the BBC site he has the perfect platform to expand on these omissions and provide sources for his claims, if he so wished.

One last example of this comes even in the film’s title, adapted from writing by a ‘soviet writer’ (apparently Alexei Yurchak, for some reason unnamed by Curtis in the film, perhaps because that description of him seems again rather disingenuous). Yurchak emigrated to the United States in 1990 as a graduate student and later wrote that the late Soviet experience was one of an uncanny or hyper normal reality, where everything was clearly going wrong, but where this was hidden under the guise of a functioning state. Yurchak’s argument is again a little more complicated than this, and still by no means the definitive account of life in the late Soviet Union. By coincidence I’m currently mid-way through reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time, an epic oral history of the period from a Russian perspective, which makes it clear how generalised Curtis’s claims about the views and feelings of Soviet Union’s people often are. Generalisation feels like the order of the day however, and HyperNormalisation frequently declares that entire groups of people felt the same way, invariably confused, disillusioned, frightened, etc. This jars most noticeably when you realise the groups he’s referring to include you, the viewer, and you know that you felt nothing of what he is describing. These examples might seem like small things, but when a near three hour film is built so heavily on these sorts of claims, it starts to make you wonder how far the entire edifice of HyperNormalisation is built on misconstrued information. Much like contemporary politics however the narrative moves on so quickly, bombarding you with new imagery, names, and ideas before you have time to think that what you’ve just seen is perhaps less straightforward and interconnected than the film wants to suggest.

Curtis’s raiding of the BBC archives for intriguing footage is one of the things that makes his films distinctive, a strategy resulting in visually compelling collage documentary style which juxtaposes the fascinating, strange and disturbing. It’s can be a source of frustration though for anyone trying to pay close attention, as this footage often has little to do with what’s being discussed and can feel more intended to paper over the numerous argumentative leaps in HyperNormalisation (for an interesting experiment just listen to the film’s narrative while ignoring the images and see how compelling you find it). Sometimes the juxtapositions are funny, occasionally clever, but often just a bit crass. A blending of grainy video recordings of the execution of the Ceausescus with clips from a Jane Fonda workout video in order to illustrate the death of collective faith in ideology and the rise of a superficial individualism is a little of all of these things. I also can’t help but think Curtis’s inability to resist a good bit of footage also somewhat accounts for the film’s flabby length. Chris Applegate’s Adam Curtis Bingo gives you a good of what to expect, all the familiar tropes are here, from moody aerial footage of massive cities, to footage of people dancing, to more pointless raiding of Andrei Tarkovsky’s back catalogue. In terms of the latter Curtis does the same thing he did in his previous film Bitter Lake, exploiting a clip of a key plot twist towards the end of Tarkovsky’s Stalker for the benefit of his own film, in the process basically gutting Stalker of one of its most powerful moments, ruining it anyone who hasn’t seen it. He also pushes a reading of the film which fits the HyperNormalisation narrative to a tee, but which anyone who knows Tarkovsky’s films and writing will probably find jarringly mechanistic.

Curtis’s films are often hit and miss when it comes to endings, which partly accounts for his (frankly unforgivable) use of the climax of Tarkovsky’s Solaris to end Bitter Lake. Unlike a traditional documentary, which you might expect to mount towards some sort of concluding argument, HyperNormalisation just seems to end, much like one of Curtis’s jarring mid-sequence cuts. The film peters out with a mixture of typically weird footage, including the prom sequence from Carrie and a clip of three young girls dancing badly in a backyard. It feels a bit like Curtis has run out steam and browser tabs, realised that it’s 3am and that he has to be up early for work in the morning. Like his other films HyperNormalisation is a strange, even contradictory beast, on the one hand speaking the language of a sort of concerned left wing radicalism at the same time that its tone and conclusions are oddly nihilistic. On the one hand employing some very traditional aspects of documentary, while at the same time being a sort of oddly anti-documentary documentary. In these ways and more they are fitting works for a post-truth era, because in a way they are themselves prone to the same tendencies of simplification, obfuscation or in some cases I suspect outright inaccuracy. Curtis’s desire to connect together the complex networks that define our world is a valid and extremely interesting ambition, but it feels as if he’s all too ready to water down these ideas in order to build what can start to feel like the left wing equivalent of Loose Change, a massive, compelling pseudo-conspiracy which on closer inspection is not so tightly argued or evidenced as it first seems. Curtis’s defenders will argue that his valid points justify his sometimes invalid means, but that argument is itself so post-truth I find it incredible to hear intelligent people suggest it. Can’t one precisely imagine someone like Trump or Putin saying something similar? I know my cause is just, so what does it matter what means I employ to achieve it? As HyperNormalisation reveals, the means matter entirely as much as the end, because ultimately the choice of any particular means can entirely shift the nature of the end.

History in the Making: Palmyra’s World Tour

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The reconstruction of the arch nears completion in Trafalgar Square.
Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A replica of Palymra’s Arch of Triumph has just been unveiled in London. The original was constructed by the Roman Empire and was believed to be over two millennia old by the time it was dynamited by Islamic State in late 2015. The group were later driven out of the site by Syrian government forces. The replica arch which now stands in London’s Trafalgar Square was engineered by the Institute of Digital Archaeology who created a digital model from photographs of the original, before having a replica made in Italy, where it was machine tooled from Egyptian marble by a robotic cutting arm. This new arch will soon go on to tour to other cities including Dubai and New York. “Antiquities like this belong to all mankind and it is imperative that we all strive to safeguard our common heritage,” said London Mayor Boris Johnson as he unveiled the recreation, apparently oblivious to the distinction between a genuine relic and its copy.

Photography is evidently mixed up in this recreation in very practical ways, as the means by which the arch has been so meticulously reconstructed. But photography also offers a model for the way we think about the relationship between original things and their copies. A photograph is not a window on another world, as some people like to think, nor increasingly even is it a trace of the thing it depicts. Photography is a pattern of tones and colours, and whether it be an analog print or a digital upload to Instagram the image lives far less in the medium itself than in our minds. The same one might say is true of history and it’s traces. In Phillip K Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, the plot revolves in part around an inflated market for icons of Americana, driven by the rapacious collecting of the Japanese soldiers who have occupied the country. In response an industry of fakes has arisen, with artisans producing items like wild west style pistols, carefully aged, but completely inauthentic. Everyone knows that these items are fake, including the collectors who pay huge sums for them, but no one has the will to speak this truth out loud. I feel something similar here.

The reconstruction of the arch has been questioned by some as a rather hollow act, a Disneyland attempt at history, and certainly for me the recreation of the arch calls to mind the underwhelming Stonehenge used as a stageset by the fictional rockband Spinal Tap. Others have criticised it as downright unethical. Martin Makinson from the Association for the Protection of Syria Archaeology rightly highlights the politically contested nature of these sites and points to the way that the reoccupation of sites like Palmyra has become a way for the Assad government to reclaim a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of some in the west, even as it continues to torture and kill its own citizens. Any attempt to willfully recreate history says as much as an attempt to willfully destroy it and so the recreation is undeniably political, and attempt to pretend otherwise is disindigenous. The understated photograph above by Stefan Rousseau hints at this in the way it uses a section of the arch to frame Nelson’s Column, a victory monument in it’s own right, and in the distance the looming clock tower of the Palace of Westminster. One might say the same of attempts to occupy or colonise certain sections of the past, whether that occupation is undertaken by the descendants of the people who built what is being colonised, or it is done by foreigners acting in the name of humanity at large.

In this sense one might say that we are doing something not entirely dissimilar to what the Assad regime has done in making the rescue of Palmyra from Islamic State a military objective. In erecting and celebrating this arch in London, we are asserting our cultural credentials in an attempt to show that we are doing something tangible in response to this terrible and protracted war. The destruction of cultural artifacts is something most in the west can comfortably express outrage over, even if doing so just rather awkwardly reveals the gulf between our horror at the destruction of these irreplaceable ancient monuments, and an enduring indifference to the suffering of the Syrian people, every one of those people is just as irreplaceable. A particularly memorable chapter in Vassily Grossman’s Second World War epic Life and Fate consists of Grossman describing at length the absolute impossibility of constructing a computer which could think and feel as even the most average human being is able to. He then imagines the excitement that such a machine would engender among the techno-fetishistic German armies then ploughing their way across the Soviet Union. The chapter concludes by reflecting on the unbearable irony these people who would hail as miraculous a machine which could muster even a poor imitation of a human mind were actively exterminating millions of people.

Raising this arch of triumph also reflects a certain inability to remember recent history of our own, for example when our tanks rolled over ancient archaeological sites during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the American military set up a base on the site of what had been the ancient city of Bablylon damaging it enormously in the process. For me this amnesia rather poses the question of whether either of the two are worse; people who willfully destroy ancient monuments and culture because of an overdeveloped sense of what those objects represent, or those who destroy them because of the opposite, out of a sheer ignorance of their importance. There is needless to say also a certain irony in erecting this arch in London, one of the prime marketplaces for looted antiquities smuggled out of conflict zones like Syria, and a city with so many museums containing artifacts that are much more directly the spoils of state aggression and imperialism. Touring the arch to the art superpowers of Dubai and New York would seem to only underline this.

In contrast to the rhetoric of ‘great men’, true history isn’t something which can be made. History is something which accretes, congeals, weathers, falls apart and gets blown up, and which almost always has on it the traces of those who lived it, a deficit all the more apparent in the case of this copy because it has not been even been sculpted by contemporary human hands but by a machine. History is also a finite and naturally accruing resource, not something which can be synthesized or manufactured, and imagining that one can simply replace the past when it can no longer be put back together represents a terrible misunderstanding of what history is and how it relates to the present. It’s a misunderstanding not so unrelated to the conception of the present that imagines that things like drone bombing campaigns can recorrect our past foreign police mistakes, and which refuses to consider that these new innovations are in Marx’s famous words an example of history repeating itself (as tragedy in the case of the drone campaigns, perhaps as farce in the case of London’s paltry Arch of Triumph).

One wonders what future arcs of triumph will mark the War on Terror and the wider misadventures of the past two decades. In pondering this, I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the Roman historian Tacitus. In writing his epic Agricola around the same time that Palmyra’s original arch was constructed Tacitus referenced the Scottish chieftain Calgacus and attributed to him one of the most remarkable speeches against Rome or any empire, one made all the astonishing because these bitter words were in fact almost certainly not those of the soon to be defeated Celt, but rather those of Tacitus himself, a Roman citizen. ‘Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they create a desolation and call it peace.’

Europe’s Vicarious Victimhood: World Press Photo 2015

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A Syrian man carries the body of a child, killed in an air strike by government forces in Douma, Syria
© Abd Doumany

It takes time to change old edifices, whether that change be a restoration to a former glory or a gradual crumbling to dust. World Press Photo currently seems to currently be undergoing something of a transformation, but it is yet unclear how far this change will go, and to what extent it will either rejuvenate or reduce the organisation’s relevance to photojournalism. Many of the old problems which have tended to rear their heads each year seem to being gradually dealt with, but others remain, including I would say the very obvious issue of the prize’s Eurocentrism. Coverage of the refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe featured prominently this year, a fact which is not surprising in itself since there is a tendency with all such prizes and competitions to reward work which feels timely, and which engages with a topic resting heavy on the minds of both audiences and jurors. This year however it has occurred on a scale I’m not sure I have seen previously in the (short) time I have been engaged with photojournalism. Beyond Warren Richardson’s winning photograph already discussed here in depth, other photographers focusing on the crisis rewarded with recognition included Sergey Ponomarev, General News, first prize stories, Paul Hansen, General News, second prize singles, Matic Zorman, People, first prize singles, Bulent Kilic, Spot News, third prize stories, Francesco Zizola, Contemporary Issues, second prize stories and Dario Mitidieri, People, third prize singles.

Yet what seemed noticeably absent among the winners were photographs of the conflict in Syria, which is often articulated (rightly or not) as the driving force behind these current waves of forced migration. As far as I could tell there were only two exceptions, Abd Doumany’s photograph of a man carrying a child’s body from the remains of a building after a government airstrike on the city of Douma, which won General News, second prize stories, and Mauricio Lima’s photograph of a badly wounded ISIS fighter being treated by a doctor at a Kurdish hospital in northern Syria, which won General News, first prize singles. (You well also might argue that Dario Mitidieri’s photograph, taken in a Lebanese refugee camp, is the real exception amongst all of these in being from the limbo between Europe and Syria). In a brief exchange we had on Facebook, photographer Robert Stothard pointed out that the emphasis on certain aspects of a crisis and not on others is problematic, and I am want to agree. He wrote that ‘in a year where the big stories have been taking place on the doorstep of those with editorial power isn’t it a tad sad that the winner is a photograph of an unidentified family (no name let alone nationality) shot by a white bloke. Photojournalists working on the issue of immigration to Europe have a great opportunity to work towards preventing the othering of their subjects.’

In photographing the refugee crisis there are many questions to be negotiated and considered, not least about what ‘side’ we photograph from, in both senses of that word. As I noted in my original analysis of Richardson’s winning image, there is a subtext of voyeurism which is hard to escape, partly created by the compromised aesthetics of the photograph which brings to mind the smartphone photographs of the bystander or eyewitness, but also to a significant degree by the framing of the photograph from the far side of the razor wire from its subject. Aesthetic decisions are always in fact political decisions, whether the photographer intends them to be or not, because they always have the potential to be read as such. A similar issues of aesthetics and in particular perspective might be levied at many of the other photographs on the refugee crisis featured in World Press Photo, and something which is notable in many is the way they often seem to take the position of a European insider or witness, watching the arrival or transit of these people, viewing them through barriers, and so on. In relatively few is there a sense of the photographer’s perspective being the same as that of the refugees, a distinction which might seem subtle but which I think is enormously important. In photography perspectival angles help to define journalistic angles, and again these choices are almost always readable as ideological ones, whether the photographer intends them to be or not. Mid-way through last year this blog was amongst several publications which unmasked a widely reported Instagram account, which apparently belonged to a Senegalese migrant named Abou Diouf, as a fake. Whatever the many problems represented by the that account, the way those photographs gave us very much the same perspective as ‘Diouf’ was nothing if not powerful.

I used the objectionable phrase ‘engulfing Europe’ in the introduction to this piece quite intentionally, because many of the descriptions and narratives focused on the people seeking safety in Europe characterises them in a way which very clearly serves to other, and to alienate us from them. To speak only of oceanic adjectives, refugees are often described as a tide, wave or flood of humanity which is relentless and sea like, with the efforts of European governments to stem the flow as vain as King Canute’s attempts to turn back the incoming tide. In the context of this sort of language it is very easy to unintentionally dehumanise, or equally problematically to misplace victim-hood, with even sympathetic Europeans sometimes starting to talk in terms which seem to suggest that we are the true victims of a disaster, and the disaster is actually constituted in the flood of refugees themselves (a use of language which I think ties in interesting ways into our current fears about climate change). The Syrian Civil War is of course the true cataclysm, and one which European states have had no small part in fostering, whether that be in the longue durée sense of our collusion with and support of middle eastern strong men like the al-Assad’s, or in the more recent sense of our dysfunctional entry and exit from Iraq. The fallout from these misadventures are so complex and confusing even to its primary actors that we have now reached the bizarre stage of witnessing the United States effectively fight a proxy war against itself in Syria, as groups backed variously by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon face off against each other across these most indistinct of front lines.

Perhaps Syria prompts us in Europe to think of our own failings and inertia, and perhaps that, alongside the increasingly dangerous situation there for journalists, explains part of why we prefer not to be reminded of it. The attacks committed by Islamic State in Paris last autumn seemed to me to represent a brief but enormously significant moment when the war in Syria spilled out very directly into the streets of Europe. Yet rather than resulting in a wider feeling amongst Europeans that ‘Je suis Suryien’ (which of course we are not) it far more evidently led instead to a new suspicion of refugees as potential ISIS fifth columnists, another reason to deny them entry alongside the old long standing fears of migrants as cultural saboteurs and economic parasites. These fears were renewed again in the wake of the attacks on women in Cologne on New Years Eve 2015, attributed to men of North Africa or Middle Eastern descent, an event which has been not doubt hastened the gradual souring of German attitudes towards refugees, whcih was hitherto remarkably open (and still remains so, certainly compared to many other countries). The same narrative is now also rearing its ugly head in the context of the debate over a British withdrawal from the European Union where refugees and migration in general are being presented as a direct physical threat to the state, as well as an existential one. Viewpoint then shapes standpoint, and aesthetics are politics. In the context of European fragmentation, closing borders, and souring attitudes towards refugees the responsibilities and burdens of representation weigh more heavily than ever on journalists and in particular visual journalists. This is not to say that it is a prerequisite for journalists to approve of immigration or demand the protection of refugees, while many do feel this way clearly some don’t share these views. But it is to say that for those for whom this does matter, the narratives of the refugee crisis need to be rethought, and the question of where we stand and what we stand for needs to be most carefully considered.

(Critical transparency: The title of this post is adapted with permission from that of a work by Josephine Sun.)

Crystallisation or Simplification: World Press Photo 2015

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A man passes a baby through the fence at the Hungarian-Serbian border
in Röszke, Hungary, 28 August 2015. © Warren Richardson, Australia

Warren Richardson has won the World Press Photo of the year for his photograph depicting refugees crossing a razor wire border fence as they travel deeper into Europe. This grainy, blurred image shows a man, his face drawn from apparent exhaustion, passing an equally limp child under a stretch of razor wire to hands outstretched from the gloom beyond. Describing the making of photograph Richardson writes that: ‘They sent women and children, then fathers and elderly men first. I must have been with this crew for about five hours and we played cat and mouse with the police the whole night. I was exhausted by the time I took the picture. It was around three o’clock in the morning and you can’t use a flash while the police are trying to find these people, because I would just give them away. So I had to use the moonlight alone.’

Immediately noticeable is the blurring and camera noise evident in the photograph, which to sideline as being simply the consequences of a technical restrictions created by the environment is to overlook it’s significance in shaping how this image might be read (particularly in the light of recent World Press rule changes). The technical ‘imperfection’ of this image brings with it the idea that it’s selection might be an intentional rupture with the past, a contrast to previous winners which have often stood accused of being over polished, even the extent of willful and dishonest manipulation. Richardson’s picture is shown warts and all, with the high ISO camera noise imprinted on to every part of the photograph like a digital fingerprint. Of course that’s not to preclude the potential for manipulation even in this sort of photograph, only to observe that the technical nature of this image brings with it the subtext that nothing here is hidden or contrived. To paraphrase and adapt Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, within the grain is imprinted the messagethat photographic beauty has been sacrificed in the name of veracity.

As soon as I saw Richardson’s winning image it strongly called to mind two other photographs. Most immediately it reminded me of Tim Hetherington’s 2007 World Press winning photo of an exhausted soldier at a US army outpost in Afghanistan. Part of that similarity is again in the compromised aesthetics of both images (I used the word compromised loosely here since blur and grain have an aesthetic beauty of their own which isn’t often enough acknowledged). It’s also the pose and expressions of the two men in these two photographs. Both are caught in a moment of thought numbing exhaustion, and both also caught in the fine but irresistible strands that link us as individuals to the geopolitics which shape our world, processes beyond what an individual might hope to understand, let alone influence. The exhaustion they exhibit might just as easily be read an exhaustion with the implacability of the huge events that shape our lives, as much as simple physical exhaustion.

There is a weird sense of circularity between the two images for me, a powerful sense of the way news events are far more connected than is often acknowledged (a sentiment which also appears in the Broomberg and Chanarin essay referenced earlier). It speaks to me of how the misadventures of one war far away in Afghanistan might be connected to wider regional instability and the flight of thousands of people across European borders lined with razor wire. This interconnectedness is something which feels increasingly vital to bring to the fore in the way we discuss any important issue in the world today. However it is also one that traditional news reporting, and photojournalism in particularly, feels to me to be ever more ill equipped to probe and explain. Apart from those rare and brilliant projects (I think for example of Allan Sekula’s still unrivalled Fish Story) how often can photography be said to think so globally?

The second photograph that Richardson’s image made me think of is Nilüfer Demir’s photograph of Alan Kurdi, the toddler drowned and washed ashore on a Turkish beach while fleeing with his family from the conflict in Syria. Part of the resonance is obviously in the shared focus on the humanitarian disaster breaking on the shores of Europe, and which European governments seem unwilling to respond to in a way which is either coherent or which reflects the supposedly shared values of the continent. The similarity also lies to an extent the pose again of the man in Richardson’s photograph as he carries the limp body of a child. But above all the resonance for me lies in a recognition that there is an uncomfortable sense of voyeurism in both images, something heightened in the case of the Kurdi photograph by the unspeakable awfulness of what is being seen, and in Richardson’s photograph I would say by the aesthetics of the photograph. His viewpoint on the other side of the wire, and particularly the grain and blur which might once have spoken much more to the idea of compromised visuals in the quest for truth, now speaks to me much more of the voyeuristic public production of photographs.

This might be a photograph from a bystander’s smartphone, a comment which is somewhat obvious and prosaic at a time when in fact that’s exactly what so many news photographs are. But in the process of us all becoming photographers or potential photojournalists I wonder if we’ve also bought into the photojournalist’s mistake of believing that witnessing is resolving, and that photographing these events is anything more than a form voyeurism if it isn’t followed up by a proactive use of those photographs to drive some sort of meaningful response. The possibility of publishing images and getting them seen is open to more people than ever before, but the act of publishing a photograph which offers to reveal the world’s misfortunes seems less able than ever to catalyse change. To be clear this isn’t intended as a judgment of Richardson, but a thought about professional and amateur image production more broadly, nor is it to accept the tired argument that photographs are incapable of changing the world, as the Alan Kurdi photograph shows, they still do.

Lastly, and at the risk of sounding cold after a discussion of child drownings and mass exodus, it does seem odd to me to be talking about awarding the photograph of the year in the age of image overload. Does the superabundance of photography that we face today make singling out specific images an ever more important activity or one which is increasingly anachronistic? Do these massive events like the refugee crisis tangibly benefit from this sort of reduction to single images, or does it make them feel understandable, and perhaps therefore manageable in a way which is unhelpfully reassuring, which defuses our responsibility as citizens to get angry that our governments are allowing people to drown in their thousands in our seas. With ever more urgency I think we need to consider careful when this sort of photography is crystallisation, and when it is just simplification.

(Critical transparency: In 2015 I participated in a focus group on revisions to the WPP rules.)

Interview: Alice Myers, Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun

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Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun, Alice Myers

While I recognise that Disphotic’s focus on thinking and talking about photography is a niche interest (and that’s putting it mildly), 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 immigration and 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

Mute Witnesses: Pentagon Releases Detainee Abuse Photographs

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After over a decade of legal wrangling the United States Department of Defense has finally released a tranche of nearly 200 photographs documenting the abuse of detainees during the Bush administration’s war on terror (see here for the whole set). The American Civil Liberties Union who have fought for this release since 2003 continue to push for the publication of another 1,800 images which are still being withheld. The released photographs are reported to document abuse which took place at a number of sites around Iraq and Afghanistan, and may also include photographs from locations in other countries. But what’s most noticeable about these photographs is the mute banality of so many of them. They feel very much as if they’ve been selected for how little they show and say. In many cases there is little or no visible trace of the injury that is apparently being documented, in others it looks as if there is no injury being recorded at all, and what has been released are in fact grab shots taken at other stages of the detainment process, for example on initial arrest. Almost all of the photographs are rescans of bad print outs, and have been copied or reproduced so many times that there is little information which can be gleaned from them.

The actual muteness of photographs positioned as being of great relevatory value is certainly not a new issue in photography and it’s something I often talk to students about in some depth because it has particular implications for a practice like documentary photography, which hinges so much on showing things which the camera is often actually very poorly equipped to reveal. We place expectations on photographs which we have been primed to view as evidence, expectations which often cause us to extrapolate and imagine (apt word) things that the image itself is sometimes not really able to show, or which in some circumstances it’s creator is unwilling to really reveal. Photographs are mute without some form of external context and explanation, which are noticeable in this collection of photographs for their total absence. Very few of the photographs include anything by way of explanation, and even those that do are often noticeable for their obscure and non-specific language. As a result these photographs offer frustratingly little sense of the cause of injuries, chronologies, locations, or other information which might actually shed light on the opaque system of detainment and torture which there release was intended to push further into view. In this sense I would say this release of imagery has been masterfully curated, to meet the demands of the courts, without really giving much of anything away.

The release instead only seems to shed a little light on the systems of image creation and management that operate (formally or not) within governments and their constituent agencies like militaries and intelligence organisations. They are examples of the state seeing for the state, and the way that this seeing is adjusted, filtered and censored when the time comes that we ask to see what the state has been seeing (and more importantly doing) on our behalf. They are examples of how the selection and exclusion of certain types of imagery can create meaning even in a set of images as mute as these. The visual language of the released images predominantly use the codes and conventions of crime scene investigation, the inevitable implication of this being that while bad things might have happened, photography has been used here to investigate it, the authorities are on the case, and no further disclosure is required. In this sense these images bare comparison to two less carefully managed precedents for the release of torture imagery. Self-evidently to the release of amateur photographs taken of abuse at Abu Gharib prison in 2003, photographs which have unintentionally gone to become as symbolic of the war on terror as grainy stills of attacks on 9/11, and which offer a sort of coda to that opening salvo of this most unconventional of conflicts. Perhaps less obviously though I also find myself thinking of the photographs leaked by Caesar, the Syrian military photographer who documented the deceased victims of the Syrian government’s torture program as records intended to confirm that those who had been killed were indeed dead. This is not to bluntly equate these different programs of torture and abuse, or the governments that sanctioned them, but only to note the similarities and differences in the closed circulation of imagery, and the importance of the circumstances by which they enter our view and the context they come with for the way we ultimately derive meaning from them about the things they purport to reveal.

The Taylor Wessing Prize 2015 Longlist

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Five Girls 2014, David Stewart

Having reviewed the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize pretty much every year since Disphotic’s creation, I decided to approach it in a different way this year. I’ve tended to criticise the prize in the past for being a public relations figleaf for corporate interests, and also for rewarding photographs which are technically fastidious but conceptually banal and predictable. When the shortlist was first announced back in September I offered a closer reading of the four photographs in it and to test the latter criticism I attempted to predict the winner, suggesting that it would be Ivor Prickett’s photograph Amira and Her Children which would ultimately triumph because of its combination of topical relevancy and visual tropes common to many other winners of the competition.

So first of all I should say, I was totally wrong (it’s been known to happen). The first prize went instead to David Stewart’s photograph Five Girls 2014, which shows the photographer’s daughter and four friends, and mirrors a photograph he took of the group seven years earlier shortly before they began studying for their GCSE’s, an image which was also long listed for the prize in 2008. Perhaps Prickett’s photograph was too obvious to win, or perhaps someone has been reading my blog (I live in hope). In either case it still says something about the prize’s tendency towards self-referentialism that the jury should select a winner which is a reshoot of a photograph exhibited in the prize seven years before. Stewart’s winning photograph would have gained much from being displayed in the gallery alongside its predecessor, but perhaps this would have said rather too much about how little the Taylor Wessing prize dares to reward innovation.

Onwards then to the real purpose of this post, which is to look at the wider long list, a selection of images which can shed a little more light on the direction the prize might be taking than the shortlist of four photographs. In recent years however there has been less a sense of movement or direction with the prize, and rather one of inertia and I regret to say that this remains the case. The smattering of celebrity portraits which one encounters very soon after entering the gallery rather sets the tone. Examples include portraits of the actor Peter Capaldi by Paul Stuart, and of Barack and Michelle Obama by Gillian Laub. In some respects I wish the prize excluded these sorts of images entirely, since with rare exceptions celebrity portraits never seem penetrate beneath their subject’s well-rehearsed personas (I would say that Anoush Abrar’s portrait of Kofi Anan, shortlisted in 2013 is a notable exception to this).

This year I felt Tom Oldham’s photograph of the artists Gilbert and George was about the closest things got to an insightful celebrity portrait, but only by dint of photographing them from behind and hinting at the artists’s advancing age rather than doing battle with their carefully cultivated image. Another exception was Noriko Takasugi’s portrait of the artist Yayoi Kusama stands out for it’s boldness amongst the mostly drab colour palettes of other photographs on show (although perhaps a greater challenge for a photographer would be to take a drab portrait of Kusama). In this image the artist sits in front of a vibrant print emblazoned with a pumpkin, the vegetable’s shape a perfect match for Kusama’s pulsating bob of bright red hair. Judging by other portraits this pose is Kusama’s preferred one when being photographed, but the skilful composition means Takasugi manages to put her own mark on it.

The stronger photographs in the long list are perhaps inevitably those of ordinary, unrecognised people. Special mention should go to Kai Weidenhofer’s two photographs of children from his project Forty out of one million which explores the fate of those fleeing the Syrian Civil War. Bright eyed and looking curiously towards the camera, what pricks one is the realisation that they are all casualties, and two of them are missing limbs. One portraits shows two young girls, one of them a toddler, the fleshy skin of her upper leg pours over the top of the prosthetic, the foot of which is jammed into a tiny child’s wellington boot. The other girl, perhaps her sister, wears a pink leg brace which matches her hoodie. It’s a tragic image, but not one which is entirely devoid of hope. Birgit Püve’s portrait of Fagira D Morti from her project Estonian Documents was another strong and strange image which left me wanting to know much more, and this and Wiedenhofer’s photographs evidence a notable trend amongst this years longlist for images drawn from much larger documentary or artistic projects.

Despite the Evening Standard heralding a longlist of experimental ‘gems’, I found that in fact it disappointed once again because of the utter lack of experimentation or diversity. I’m a realist, I don’t expect the main prize to go to anything profoundly challenging, but as I’ve often said before it would be nice to see the longlist at least used to reflect a wider sense of what portraiture is. Rakesh Mohindra’s portrait tryptch Desmond is by far the most conceptual, combining a conventional portrait with a sheet of braille and a still life. Ines Dumig’s portrait, part of a series looking at the asylum process in Germany through the experiences of a young Somali woman, is another one which bucks the trend, turning the portrait on its head by masking her subject’s face in impenetrable shadow. These exceptions however are in a real minority, and there is nothing among them which is truly challenging in the way that I hope to see each year (for more on that see the end of 2013’s Taylor Wessing review).

The shocking shortage of innovation in the long list is absolutely not due to some inherent limitation of photography. Photography is transmuting itself out of all recognition at the moment, in ways which are variously terrifying and exciting, but the effects of which the Taylor Wessing prize seems either ignorant or indifferent to (or to be charitable to the jury, perhaps this is simply the only type of photography that gets submitted). Equally the idea that portraiture or the representation of the human form is as static a genre as these annual exhibitions would suggest is almost laughable when one looks at the way artists in other media have and continue to constantly reinvent both. Rather than visiting this exhibition and feeling that I am seeing the brightest and best of one strand of contemporary photography, my feeling instead is much the same as when I review some chapter in photography’s distant, historical past. Aha, that’s how they did this then. How charming…

(Critical transparency: exhibition seen with a press ticket during normal hours. I studied with Noriko Takasugi, although I was drawn to her photograph before I knew who it was by. I also briefly taught Ines Dumig. I have never entered or been otherwise involved with the prize.)

The New Continent: The Refugee Nightmare and the European Dream

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Portrait of Erich Honecker, president of DDR/GDR, inside an interrogation room at the former Iron Curtain crossing Marienborn memorial site.
From The New Continent, Phil le Gal

The dream of a united Europe and the free travel it allowed was in no small part born of the continent’s long history of intolerance and division. It came from the destruction and division of the Second World War, six years when human rights in Europe were trampled underfoot, and the continent was made anew as Fortress Europe, a continent ringed by the concrete and barbed wire of the Atlantic wall. It came also from the division between communist East and capitalist West that followed the end of the war, again was symbolised most pertinently by a physical border of concrete and steel. Not a wall built to keep people out of the East, but one uniquely designed to keep people trapped within it. Schengen was signed in 1985 even as the Berlin wall still stood, but it was a gesture of hope, a foreshadowing of the wall’s destruction four years later, and the treaty’s implementation in 1995 at last saw the creation at last of a single space within the borders of a long disunited continent. Flash forward, past the collapse of the Soviet system and through the fires of German reunification, and division is returning to Europe. This time though what Europeans fear are not massing foreign armies or an aggressive ideology, but ordinary people, forced into exodus by extraordinary circumstances like wars, and revolutions – some of them indeed catalysed by ill considered European interventions in distant lands – or sometimes just by the hope of a better life.

The way each country responds to outsiders is different, a product of its unique culture and history. Slovakia for example announced it would only take in Christians wishing to settle in the country. Meanwhile in Germany one group has attempted to recall the broadly positive perception of those who fled East Germany, with campaigns calling on Germans to pick up refugees at the roadside and help them cross the border. It says much about Germany’s history that many of it’s people and politicians can are able to understand migration as a humanitarian or political act, not simply an economic one. By contrast, and in spite of the reputation of the British as a nation that offers safe haven, and of the British as a people who believe in fairness and playing by the rules, we have consistently refused to be fair with the people seeking to travel here. Rather than allowing them to reach the United Kingdom and seek asylum through the proper processes, our response to those who seek safety here is an ever more complex panoply of fences, barriers and security, intended to keep them languishing indefinitely on the outskirts of Calais. The United Kingdom, once a country regarded for its openness to foreigners, has systematically remade itself as Fortress Britain. In defence of these arrangements the Prime Minister David Cameron has argued that we must at all costs stop these ‘swarms’ of people intent on illegally breaking into the United Kingdom. Given the security arrangements in place, those people desperately wanting to settle in the United Kingdom have little other choice.

Those few who make it across the channel face two grim realities: Either a lifetime of living in the shadows of the United Kingdom’s black economy, vulnerable to human slavery, trafficking and exploitation. Or else a future of indefinite detention without trial in one of the country’s network of detention facilities, prisons in all but name. Places like the deceptively named Yarl’s Wood, operated for profit by the private security company Serco, and recently condemned by the chief inspector of prisons. What we need is not to seal refugees and migrants away behind barriers and fences, to ignore them and hope they give up and go away. Faced with few alternatives, not many will, and in the meantime many more will come. What we need is a more mature discourse about migration and the people forced to undertake it. We need to hear the stories and experiences of these people themselves, stories which are notably absent in the press. Those traveling from Africa, the Middle East and beyond need to be humanised and visualised as a matter of urgency, their stories and experiences used to combat uninformed prejudices and ignorance. The recent appearance of an Instagram account which appeared to belong to a young Senegalese man making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea, and the surge of public interest paid to it before it was unmasked as fake, shows that people are genuinely interested in hearing these stories.

To tell these stories is part of the purpose of Phil le Gal’s The New Continent, a project featuring people caught on either side of Europe’s borders and offering a platform for them to describe their experiences, hopes and fears. People like Sadik from Sudan, a medical student who fleeing conflict was interned for months in Libya before making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Or Ahmed and Ikbal, two teenagers who became friends during their journey from Afghanistan and now look out for each other in The Jungle, the sprawling informal settlement on the outskirts of Calais. These are not ‘swarms’ or ‘marauders’, not abstract embodiments of a political or economic problem. They are human beings, people, in the position they are now because of the lottery of birth and the game of geopolitics. Fortifying our country and our continent only exacerbates their plight, by pushing a burden that we are in a rare position to shoulder on to other states in Europe less able to do so, and who lie closer to the key entry points into the continent. These states perhaps understandably follow our pathetic example, avoiding the burden of supporting those fleeing war and turmoil by trying to prevent them from crossing borders at all, or else funneling them as rapidly as possible into neighboring countries. The result is that Europe is witnessing an arms race of fence building and a militarisation of borders as states across the continent respond to the crisis not by increasing provision for displaced people, but by spending vast amounts to ensure that they cannot access provision at all.

These fences and barriers are spreading across Europe, from one country to another like a regressive ripple, a new iron curtain of steel chainlink and razor wire. France has reinstated its border controls with Italy in an attempt to curb migration, and Hungary has recently completed the construction of a new $35 million fence along its border with Serbia. Reflecting the strange nature of these solutions, this fence is reported to end suddenly in the middle of a field, at the tri-point where the Hungarian, Serbian and Romanian borders meet. Other countries seem likely to follow the example, Macedonian police have struggled to prevent large numbers of Syrian refugees from crossing into the country from Greece, employing batons and stun grenades, while Bulgaria has mobilised military units near the Macedonian border and is extending its border fence with Turkey. In counterpoint to the dream, Europe is degenerating into something which increasingly resembles the darkest days of it’s history. It is becoming a contradictory land of fences and gates, armed guards and checkpoints, a union in name but a patchwork in practice. A place where by a twist of birth some are left free to travel without care, while others languish for months in the hinterlands of port cities and border zones, waiting for a chance to slip through.

Travelling Light: What Refugees Couldn’t Leave Behind

Iman+textKiki Streitberger, Travelling Light

Last year saw still life come very much to the fore as a documentary method, as it featured prominently in the coverage of many of the major events of the year. We saw it used by a number of photographers in Ukraine to document the vicious weapons brought to bear by both sides fighting in Kiev’s Independence Square, and later also to record the opulent possessions of the deposed president Yanukovych. In Nigeria we saw it very effectively used to stand in for the abducted Chibok school girls, their meagre possessions appearing to speak volumes about their absent owners.

With European attention firmly focused on the migrants and refugees seeking to travel here it was perhaps only a matter of time before a project emerged that used a similar technique to discuss this issue. Kiki Streitberger’s Travelling Light does so, and does so very powerfully. The series which has recently been on show as part of the University of Westminister’s MA degree show was the result of a chance meeting with a Syrian man in a German village. This led Streitberger to ask a series of Syrian refugees to show her the objects that they had either considered too important to leave behind, or which they had acquired and kept with them during the lengthy and dangerous journey to Europe.

Certainly there are other projects which done similar things, for example Brian Sokol’s project The Most Important Things, but I think there are a few significant elements that distinguish Streitberger’s project. For one thing it’s visually purely about the objects, their owners are not physically present. However Streitberger also interviews each person and includes a short text explaining the significance of their selected objects, a text which is incorporated directly in to the image rather than included as a caption (a not insignificant choice given the way images about topics like migration are prone to being stripped of their captions and context before being circulated in potentially harmful ways).

By interviewing but not photographing her subjects, Travelling Light avoids what I think is often a pitfall of photography about humanitarian crises, which is the tendency to reduce real people to mute, two dimensional representations of a problem. It gives Streitberger’s subjects their anonymity (an important thing which photographers all too often entice subjects to give up), while not curtailing their ability to speak more or less directly to the audience. This strategy also avoids one of the key issues for me with some still life documentary photography, which is that the objects photographed are often left unexplained and completely open for us to project our own interpretations on to, to ascribe an almost relic like significance to things which might actually have actually mattered very little to their owners.

The people who participated in Travelling Light are also a diverse group, which in itself bucks the common media depiction of migrants and refugees as aggressive young men seeking wealth at Europe’s expense (as if one person’s gain must inevitably mean that somewhere, someone else is losing out). Shahed is 5 years old and her possessions consist solely of a pink doll called Aia and a tube of sun cream. Ahmad, 22 is a stonemason, and his possessions include a shirt bought from a store of the Spanish fashion chain Zara in Libya, both effective reminders that the differences between Europe and these unstable states are not always so massive as we like to tell ourselves.

One thing that I find particularly pertinent about the work is the way it plays on but simultaneously sidesteps the essentially forensic feel of so much still life photography. Seeing these possessions laid out against a clean white background inevitably conjures images of crime scene photography, like the disinterred possessions of Bosnian atrocity victims photographed by Zijah Gafic, or the last outfits of El Salvadorian victims of criminal violence as photographed by Fred Ramos. By contrast though the owners of the possessions in Streitberger’s photographs are obviously very much alive. This dissonance had the effect, at least for me, of displacing my thoughts instead to the ones who didn’t make it to Europe, the thousands estimated to have drowned this year alone during the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, whose scant possessions are perhaps still floating in the currents. Knowing how man made detritus often floats on the seas for years or decades, it’s hard not to imagine these intimate items one day washing up on the same beaches that their owners were so desperate to reach.