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.