“To know hunger, work illegally, and be anonymous.” (Attributed to V I Lenin)

With thanks to all the photographers of the Displaces project

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On previous ‘participatory photography’ projects, we’d give people good compact cameras, and some practical and conceptual training. Then they’d return to their families, communities or neighbourhoods, and take pictures.

The results could be revelatory; expressive as well as documentary, giving insights into lives and identities which might not be apparent to a professional photojournalist.

But working in the Calais ‘Jungle’ challenged this process.

I’ve been working in the camp with Dr Marie Godin, from the University of Oxford’s International Migration Institute, on the ‘Displaces’ photo project.  We wanted to take a critical look at the use of participatory photography there.

We met people living in temporary conditions, in a place which they do NOT own – culturally, legally, socially or visually. The camp represents everything they want to escape from. Handing cameras to refugees and demanding they document their lives there, risked producing images reinforcing their sense of abjection.

Anonymous

This is compounded by not being able to show most people’s faces.

Those who want to come to the UK need to stay invisible.
They must not make any trace of their existence in Calais and risk compromising their asylum claim, if and when they get here.

So they often choose to anonymise themselves.

But anonymity is also part of their oppression, and is continually imposed. Those who want to keep them out of the UK de-humanise them as a ‘swarm’. Those who want to help get them into the UK also anonymise them, albeit with best intention.

Both are dispiriting and undermining. Rubbing out someone’s face does not feel good. Asking them to do it themselves is even worse. They have to turn themselves into non-people. Collude in their own oppression. A photo project makes it all very literal and obvious.

Pixellated pictures appear to criminalise refugees and the right to seek asylum.

Many participants were even more aware than us, of this problem of identity and representation. They responded in various ways, perhaps the most interesting being aspiration.

Aspiration

Citizens

In particular, people took pictures of themselves not as refugees but as individual citizens. Participants portrayed themselves as human beings (teachers, engineers, mothers and fathers, cousins) with aspirations to have a better life.

An engineer from Darfur keeps his suit hanging in his shelter.

Some photographed themselves standing outside bourgeois houses. One group posed in front of Rodin’s ‘The Burghers of Calais’ (a sculpture about self-sacrifice in the face of arbitrary power).

These photos were often taken not for the project, but for their families back home, with no attempt to hide themselves. I find these bland touristic photos more interesting and telling than the images taken in the camp.
But how can they be shared more widely?

I’ve anonymised this set of ‘aspirational’ images using a different cultural, visual code; by ‘ghosting’ whole bodies, not just pixillating faces. I hope the results question the way settled citizens ignore or look right through refugees – without criminalising or victimising them.

 

Through Positive Eyes Durban 4

Yvonne

Yvonne’s family live without piped water or sanitation but they own three Smartphones, one tablet, a laptop and a TV. Far from being luxuries these devices are likely to be their way out of poverty. Her two oldest daughters are very clever and technologically able.

Yvonne works at the Gugu Dlemini AIDS Foundation. She says:

It took me a long time to come out of that shell that made me less confident, but eventually I thought to myself that it was something I had to do. In my community many people suffer from these situations. It’s also because we are less educated, so we see no reason, or feel ashamed to speak about these kinds of things. We still live in a community that is dominated by men, making women feel less adequate.

 

As a woman this also affects me. I am also HIV positive, and I am deaf too. This has brought a lot of misunderstandings and difficulties for myself and other people. People find it hard to communicate with me. Some people think that there is something wrong with me. I misinterpret what they are saying. This causes me to distance myself from people. It has also caused problems with my relationships with men in my life as they take advantage of me.

Continue reading “Through Positive Eyes Durban 4”

Through Positive Eyes – Durban 3

Thulile

Through Positive Eyes,Durban,HIV

(See here for the background to this project)

Thulile, Simiso and Jennifer are currently presenting their work at the Durban Art Gallery as part of the Through Positive Eyes show, coinciding with the International AIDS Conference. The show has been designed by Stan Pressner and Carol Brown to enable the participants to tell their stories and interact with projections of their work.

Here is an extract from Thulile’s story:

‘I have been living with HIV for 25 years, I was born with it.

As a kid they told me I would not live past 7. When I lived past 7 years old they told me I wouldn’t live past 10….

When my neighbors found out, they stigmatized me.
I discovered I could do things to help myself. I am strong. I am beautiful. I am a positive woman. I won’t let anyone discriminate me. I have survived.

When I don’t feel well I talk to my virus. I say ‘don’t misbehave! If I get sick you won’t have anyplace to live.’ I must love myself and be positive to myself. I am a hero. We are all human, we all need love. We are strong. We are beautiful. We are positive.

Continue reading “Through Positive Eyes – Durban 3”

Through Positive Eyes – Durban 2

Elizabeth

Through Positive Eyes_Durban_Elizabeth

(See previous post for the background to this project)

Elizabeth is currently presenting her work at the Durban Art Gallery as part of the Through Positive Eyes show, coinciding with the International AIDS Conference. The show has been designed by Stan Pressner to enable the participants to tell their stories and interact with projections of their work.

Here is an extract from Elizabeth’s story:

‘Hello, I’m Elizabeth. I was diagnosed HIV+ in 2008.
At birth I was taken away from my mother, she was mentally unstable. I grew up in the Homes. I had fun growing up with my age group, with only one or two housemothers we had lots of freedom to interact and live.

As time went on I was put in a foster home. I was abused badly at this place. It was a difficult time for me, the hardest time in my life.   I felt like my childhood was taken away from me.

I spoke up and eventually was removed from this home.

In 2008 I found out I was HIV+. I actually had many friends around me who were positive. I asked them questions and I’ve learned to live with it.

I moved on. I continued to use alcohol and drugs. I had two children. The first I gave up for adoption. The second, I decided to keep. The day the doctor put her in my arms, I fell in love.

New Year’s day last year, I decided to change my way. I’d been going around and around in circles. I want to find myself.  I decided I wanted to pull myself together.

I’ve decided to come out about it all, especially living with HIV.   Now I want to encourage young girls to love themselves, to trust themselves, to speak up….’

Through Positive Eyes – Durban

Silungile-Through Positive Eyes-Durban-1301Photo by Silungile
I’m just back from working on the final chapter of this international arts and advocacy project, in which HIV+ve participants photograph their lives to combat stigma.

I teach photography, and co-edit the work with the participants, alongside Gideon Mendel and Prof. David Gere’s team from the Art and Global Health Centre at UCLA.

A major exhibition featuring work from all ten cities has just opened in Durban to coincide with the 21st International AIDS Conference, which begins on the 18th July. The HIV+ve photographers will work as guides and speakers at the show.

I’ll post work from the Durban group during the conference, starting with Silungile.

Silungile

Silungile is a sangoma or traditional healer as well as an educator, HIV activist and grandmother. Here are a selection of her photographs.

Two Funerals

The changing culture of the East End seen through the prism of the traditional cockney funeral. Commissioned by The Economist, I photographed two contrasting funerals – a Ghanaian mother and an old school Kray era gangster. Both conducted by traditional funeral directors T Cribb, who are successfully morphing and cross-pollinating their funerals to suit the immigrant populations of the East End. To find out more read the Economist’s feature ‘Buried Like Kings’.
  
 

Continue reading “Two Funerals”

Within and Without the State

South Sudan is the world’s youngest country, founded in 2011 in the wake of decades of war. I visited with Oxfam to photograph their programme ‘Within and Without the State’, that supports people in holding their rulers to account without confrontation.
NGOs use a lot of buzzwords to describe relationships between people and their governments. But how do you point a camera at buzzwords?

 

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Governance

  Continue reading “Within and Without the State”