CALAIS – AUGUST 29-30, 2019
CONTEXT There has been a surge in dangerous channel crossings undertaken in small boats in the last couple of weeks while one man tragically died trying to swim across. These crossing attempts have been blamed by campaigners on the ‘brutal’ border policies at Calais. With the Summer drawing towards Autumn and political tensions rising as the Brexit date gets closer people continue taking greater risks.
We attended the Secours Catholique Friday morning team meeting which was held on the beach near to the ferry port, the distance to the UK across the Channel painful in its apparent closeness, with the White Cliffs of Dover visible on this clear day.
We were joined this week by Iranian artist/photographer Farhad Berahman with whom we have recently worked in Bristol and who brought with him his well used Afghan Box Camera (Kamra – e – Faoree). Built in Bristol, the new Art Refuge Box Camera was also brought by Anna Kälin for its first Calais outing.
Our intention was to offer day centre users – refugees, staff and volunteers – the chance to have their portrait taken, individually or in small groups. Both the negative photograph and its positive counterpart would be handed over to the person having their photo taken, deliberately shifting the ownership to the sitter.
This is in a context in which digital photographs of faces are generally prohibited within the day centre to protect refugees’ identities and sense of autonomy, and to allow for the making of a safe space.
The day centre filled slowly, and it was a privilege to have Farhad’s presence, not least as he was able to make connections with the many Iranians accessing the centre and many of the conversations took place in Farsi.
On The Community Table two books provided further cultural context and were frequently looked at: ‘Afghan Box Camera’ by Lukas Birkbeck and Sean Foley, and ‘Kurdistan’ by Susan Meiselas.
Conversations took place at The Community Table or standing around the adjacent box cameras, people waiting for photographs to be taken and processed. There was curiosity as to the internal workings of the camera which also acts as a portable darkroom. A negative photograph is slowly followed by a positive photograph, the process of their making as of much interest as the resulting images.
Outside in the day centre yard, a small group of young people from the Middle East, Europe and Africa posed together as if for a family portrait, a sense of intimacy captured, a moment of closeness.
The day centre filled up across the afternoon and was busier than on Thursday. Alongside the manual typewriters, the Box Cameras made natural allies due to their shared mechanical, analogue processes. Many continued to be intrigued by the cameras while others sat at the typewriters, some young men returning from previous weeks to again write a poem or a love letter. A few new arrivals were delighted to test out the typewriter as a novel machine that they hadn’t come across before.
We entered into many conversations with people whose individual experiences are often painful and often about the deep desire to find a safe place to settle in Europe. One man explained that he has been living here in limbo for twenty years while a 17 year old who has been on his own in Europe since the age of 13 expressed his anxious impatience to find asylum. Many conversations were had around the role of language and finding different ways to connect and be heard.
The Art Refuge box camera had small teething problems which were sorted with improvised pieces of material and the help of others. We were humbled by the complexity of the camera and the fine tuning needed to make it work, as well as by the ease with which Farhad worked with his own box camera. In the event, our camera was largely used to take images of the day centre space, offering a longer perspective while Farhad’s camera offered the close perspective of portraiture and cultural connections.
Our intention is to develop the use of the Box Camera in coming months.