Documentarian and War Photographer James Nachtwey affirms his belief in the power of photography to document the human fallout from war, stating that “to turn our backs is a form of acceptance.₁” Convinced of the responsibility of the photographer to capture events that need to be seen, he looked towards those displaced and forced to migrate away from country, culture, language, and everything that they might know thus far. With The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees finding that 14 million people were displaced by war in 2014, the largest in a single year since World War 2², the scope of this issue is complex and difficult to represent. Specific images are used by media becoming emblematic of the entire struggle – such as the tragic images of Syrian infant Aylan Kurdi on a Turkish beach in 2015³.
Foreigner, produced and published by the John Radcliffe Studio comprises of the work of Daniel Castro Garcia and Thomas Saxby, of which is their first large scale project. This collection of images documents key areas of forced migration and the efforts of those working on those shores to maintain and as best they can, effectively preserve human life. Taking us along the Mediterranean coastline of 2015-6, throughout Italy, Greece, the Balkans and finally to Calais’s ‘Jungle.’ For those viewing, most likely to have the luxury to travel for leisure will in most cases not have to encounter such a journey within their lifetime. This is one of the main reasons such a book and the category of documentary photography remains important, hence the continuing currency of the work of photographers such as Nachtwey and Jim Goldberg.
The project of photography works to elude movement by capturing it, framing events in such a way that painting or the written word cannot parallel. The act of capturing people on the move could be seen as a cataclysmic agency of change. Viewing such images is affirmed by Susan Sontag in her convictions that ”Photographs furnish evidence”₄ or “A photograph passes for the uncontrovertible proof that something happened”₅. In terms of mapping, this experience is a project envisioned clearly by few. These types of journeys presented through photography shows a counterpoint to political rhetoric and the spin that polarizes and stereotypes those who must travel.
Jim Goldberg’s Open See project looked towards documenting journeys, images and voices of displaced people in Europe. Goldberg’s images examined existences and traces of human life that without his involvement would have never been pictured. This long form document of a time and of a people moving throughout Athens of the course of four years is inherently political, affirming that the existence of these people is of great importance – in particular Goldberg’s haunting portraits of sex trafficked individuals. Such images breathe life as they speak to human nature of emotion, kindness and empathy amongst a condition of displacement.
What could be argued as ‘factual’ images presented in the media often lack a certain oneric depth and could be seen to present displaced people as a threat to daily life. Refugees’ efforts to travel out of indescribable situations framed as either boats arriving on our coastline as a threat – images of this journey are complex, with intricate political and social reasonings. Zygmunt Bauman states in relation; “For the time being, the “public discussion” is dominated by the resentment of “foreigners”, “the usual suspects” in times of acute uncertainty and fears of a social earthquake approaching.”₆
Foreigner adds a scope to these journeys and their precarious guests that give shape, hope and a human voice to forced dislocation. The documentation of survival efforts by the coastline authorities is also of great interest, alongside the survival blanket which covers the book itself. Similar to those seen scattered around Stalingrad, Paris in November 2016 alongside remnants of tents, blankets, personal items, there is a certain weight to the book as you hold it in your hands and the stark presentation of this fact for the viewer is somewhat more weighty than its contents. The book itself labelled clearly like a passport, further informs the possible unknown future of our subjects and how one person’s life is either made or marred by nationality which could be argued is a kind of lotto we win at birth.
Mapping terrain between and through borders, and to document difficult journeys is where the currency remains for those who are not close, even though these types of journeys cannot quite be pictured or described. But, an image will bring us closer to the event. The hope is there that the depth, curiosity and pragmatism of these images will bring about compassion, understanding and a sustained focus to humanity in need.
Angela Garrick, November 2016
1 James Nachtwey, Shards of Time, mono.kultur #37, Autumn 2014.
2 Reece Jones, Violent Borders: Refugees and the right to move (London: Verso Books, 2016) 19.
3 Jones, Violent Borders: Refugees and the right to move, 62.
4 Susan Sontag On Photography (New York: Rosetta Books, 2005), 3.
5 Sontag, On Photography, 3.
6 Zygmunt Bauman, “Walls against migrants are a victory of terrorism”, accessed November 14, 2016.
Cover image courtesy of Mack Books.