In Transit / Reviewed by Erica Zimmermann / 05.06.17
The destruction of the Calais ‘Jungle’ in October 2016, and the Dunkirk Grande-Synthe in April 2017, removed close to 10,000 people from the shelters and communities they had built up over preceding years. Despite the prominence of the camps in liberal and reactionary media alike, the fate of their one-time inhabitants is now slipping from public consciousness with all too predictable ease. In Transit is pitched against precisely this collective amnesia. Bringing together some two hundred photographs, taken in the camps by Jacky Chapman and Janine Wiedel across 2016, the exhibition offers an urgent reminder of the destroyed sites’ existence, and a poignant testament to the people now moving ever more precariously to the edges of political agendas.
The exhibition occupies the basement gallery of the Salvation Army International Headquarters, on the northern approach to the Millennium Bridge. A five-minute walk from the Tate Modern’s ongoing Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition, it offers a quite divergent proposition. Against the casual, self-referential eclecticism of the Bankside show, In Transit is, in most ways, a more traditional documentary project: giving clear, sustained and committed focus to a singular overarching subject.
As with the Tillmans show, however, the photographs are presented in a varied installation: including floor pieces, collaged sequences, and small-, medium- and large-scale, framed and unframed works. A sense of variety also enlivens the thematic arrangement. From a section on the shops and public spaces of the camps, we are guided through domestic settings, amenities, schools and religious buildings towards the coldly bureaucratic shipping containers and perimeter fences, built up in the wake of earlier fires. Across these thematic subsections, there is an effective shift of tempo and photographic modes: intimate portraits sitting amongst more distant establishing landscapes, wide-angled close-ups of the camps’ multiple textures and interiors against an almost Becher-esque cataloguing of the personalised exteriors of the wooden shelters in which the one-time inhabitants resided.
There is a similar admixture of affective registers: the familiar—in, for example, the pervasive presence of mobile phones, glimpsed television screens, graffitied quips and Hoxton-esque street art—nestled amidst the distinctly unfamiliar spectre of 8ft cubed units of improvised shantytown architecture on the muddy expanses of France’s northern coast (‘incredibly’, as one caption notes, ‘just two hours from London’). The joyful and uplifting humanity of smiles, intimate moments, and personalised marks of inhabitation, set against the cold bureaucracy of numbered units, abject conditions and all too frequently forgotten people.
The portraits —of which a great many are presented— are central to the exhibition’s emotive impact. There are, on the one hand, a considerable number of fairly traditional (more or less) frontal head shots, where the varied backgrounds of improvised facades or dimly lit interiors fade behind an intense range of focussed gazes. These photographs are marked by an increasingly rare sense of the portrait as a humanising exchange, (wall labels emphasising that they were the product of Chapman and Wiedel’s return visits and developing relationships). Capturing moments of candid intensity, these photographs possess that allusive sense of embodied testament that the best portraiture so excels in. Registering the faces and gazes of the camps’ inhabitants they reveal something of the staggering diversity of lives and histories brought —if only temporarily —into cohabitation. They abound in what Roland Barthes might have called punctum, eliciting a direct and pressing empathy for the sitters.
More distant portraits meanwhile reveal more expansive moments of individual and social life within the camp: a boy posing with an accordion; a man washing his feet in preparation for prayer; another man (most are men) displaying an image of his young child on a phone screen; another, with the most contagious of smiles, wringing dry his clothes. These more active portraits open up the narrative dimensions of the show. Alongside more distant shots, they also establish a fuller sense of the quotidian settings and realities of the camps: families preparing fires; young children ineffectually wielding axes; hands resting on friends’ knees; groups of north African women giggling though the makeshift streets; distant figures catching phone signal at the perimeter fences. These glimpsed moments are accompanied by a less pronounced focus upon more formal dimensions of camp life: people queuing for supplies, manning shops, carrying water, cooking meals, heading to church and mosque, and studying languages. Together, these images provide the kind of contextual detail that Barthes discussed under the rubric of ‘studium’.
In Transit’s considerable power emerges through the effective interweaving of these multiple dimensions. From the general to the intimate, from the distant to the near and from the graphic to the human, the photographs offer a carefully balanced range of perspectives. In so doing they build towards a sensitive, and much needed, recovery of a time and place whose memory, and one-time residents, now seem vulnerable to multiple modes of disappearance. This recovery eschews both nostalgia for and dismissal of what has been lost. The squalor and implied violence of the camps are here, but theirs is the sotto voce. The emphasis instead falls upon glimpses of lives carried on through adversity. In this sense the exhibition seems underwritten by the motto which one photograph shows written on the wall a young man from Darfur’s room: ‘never give up’.
In bringing these realities to such compelling synthesis In Transit offers a testament to the continuing potentials of a humanist documentary tradition. Distant from the more immediately affective jolts of newspapers and supplements, and the self-reflexivity so often favoured by museums, the exhibition gives a nuanced but forceful reminder of an ongoing social and humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions. It does so through a sensitive exploration of the human lives bound up in that crisis. Susan Sontag once observed that ‘photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one – and can help build a nascent one’. In Transit offers instigation for such reinforcement and building at a vital moment.
– review by Erica Zimmermann
Jacky Chapman and Janine Wiedel / In Transit: Daily Life in the Calais Jungle and Grande-Synthe Refugee camp continues until 06.07.17 at Gallery 101, Salvation Army International Headquarters, London
The Salvation Army, International Headquarters
101 Queen Victoria Street
London EC4V 4EH
Mon - Fri 8 am- 4.30 pm