This post is part of the series ‘Thesis Higlights‘ in which recently graduated master students affiliated with LGC are invited to give a short insight into their research. The first posting is by LGC intern Clara Wouters.
My master thesis focuses on the exhibition Calais. Témoigner de la ‘jungle’ which ran in the Centre Pompidou Paris during fall 2019. The infamously called ‘jungle’ in Calais started off with a temporary camp for (equally infamously named) ‘transitory migrants’ aiming to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the UK. Because of the slow and dangerous journey, the area quickly filled up to an amount of approximately 7000 inhabitants. The wild living conditions of the camp’s inhabitants created a very popular hot-spot for journalists. Pictures of sceneries in the camp were plentifully shared all over the world.
What makes this exhibition extraordinary, is the three-dimensional perspective on the sensitive social and political issue of (trans)migration. Curator Florian Ebner not only combined press pictures with the more reflective approach by artist Bruno Serralongue, but he also invited persons who were formerly on the move into the museum. The dynamic this creates is reinforced by a ‘conversation corner’ in which the debate is evoked between the different parties: a photojournalist, an AFP editor, art critics, Amnesty International lawyers, artist Bruno Serralongue, and former ‘jungle’ inhabitant and artist Alpha Diagne.
My research paper is divided into three chapters aligning with the three photographical approaches and one chapter that focuses on the practical construction of the exhibition. The first chapter looks at the methodology used by big press companies such as Agence France Presse (AFP) to spread out visual information on news topics. For example, I take this internationally shared picture of an Iranian camp inhabitant who sewed his lips as a form of protesting against the lack of right of speech for refugees. (Fig. 1) According to the photographer, Philippe Huguen, this is a good press picture as it does not need so much explanation. The picture surely catches attention and provokes a craving for information, a craving on which the whole media system is build. AFP editor Olivier Morin points out that only these types of pictures make it to the world, despite thousands of other pictures coming in every day. The pressure put on photographers to create a large amount of ‘interesting’ or ‘dramatic’ pictures in a small amount of time is high, and it takes away the possibility to really think about the pictures they take and the consequences for the people depicted. Especially in the case of the migrants, an unlucky recognizable shot of their profile in the media during a confrontation with the police, for example, could ruin their already small chance of successfully completing their asylum procedure. Therefore, there is a lot of tension in the relation between the media and the migrants, and little trust.
Many authors have warned for the abuse of power that comes with holding a camera, especially when pointed to people in a weaker position than the operator. Allan Sekula cites Walter Benjamin, who considers it impossible to document humanity without any form of barbarism. (Allan Sekula, Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary, 1978) Susan Sontag compares the camera with a gun, John Berger the shutter button with the trigger of a gun. (Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, 2004 ; John Berger, About Looking, 1980) Ariella Azoulay points her finger at the imperialistic (mis)use of the camera in the very beginning of photography. She argues that some kind of universal right to look at everyone and everything, commonly used as an excuse by the media, is a fraud. (Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, 2019)
Artist Bruno Serralongue is very aware of what he calls ‘the crisis in photojournalism’ and seeks for alternative ways to visualize the same sensitive news topics. Focusing rather on non-spectacular situations and non-events, he leaves behind the glorious ‘moment décisif’ of the photojournalist. He also undermines the race in speed by using a large format analogue camera. Because this method is not directly meant as critique on photojournalism, but more as an attempt to create more sustainable and humane alternatives, I build on the work of my supervisor Hilde Van Gelder in order to argue that the term ‘counter-photojournalism’ is more adequate than Allan Sekula’s ‘anti-photojournalism’. (Hilde Van Gelder, “Artistic ‘Non-Compliance’ with the Protocol Rules of Photojournalism” in Depth of Field, 2014 ; Allan Sekula, Waiting for Teargas, 2001) A good example is this picture of a charging point in the Calais camp. (Fig. 2) There is no action, and without any given context one could assume these men were at a festival charging their phones in between two concerts. But the somewhat clumsy fits of their jackets and the way the men are huddled in into the warmth of the coats spreads a feeling of hopelessness, of a lifetime of waiting. The phones are their only connection to relatives, who they either left behind or are waiting for them. It is their only insight into what is happening in the world and what governments are deciding on them. Because of the slow method of the analogue camera, Serralongue is obliged to start a conversation with his subjects, and ask them for their cooperation; in this way he also gains their trust.
Serralongue’s approach fits under the meta-critical way of documenting that is advocated by Allan Sekula. Requirements for the documentary maker therefore are (i) questioning the subject and provoking a dialogue, (ii) being aware of the expectation of truth that comes with the medium and not abusing it, (iii) questioning the representation itself. Serralongue is not the only contemporary artist concerned with classic ‘taxidermic’ representation in the documentary genre or photojournalism. In 2019, four Belgian artists signed the ‘Manifesto of the School for Speculative Documentary’ with which they aim to open a collective of artists actively trying to question representation and truth claims in documentary throughout their oeuvre. You can find more information about the activities of An Van Dienderen, Thomas Bellinck, Michiel Decleene en Max Pinckers on their collective website.
In the third chapter I focus on the way in which the curators included the camp inhabitants themselves in the exhibition. They reached out to three organisations building bridges between the camp and the real world. Firstly, Art Refuge UK tries to give mental support to people on the move through art therapy and participative workshops. Secondly, Jungle Eye focuses on the accessibility of photography and art in the camp. They went around in the camp and asked for the photographs which the inhabitants took of their life there. This resulted in the series titled ‘Souvenirs from a nightmare’. (Fig. 3) The third organisation is called Agency of Artists in Exile (AAE) and offers professional equipment and administrational progress to artists on the move. For example, Alpha Diagne, who claims to be one of the first inhabitants of the Calais camp. He constructed a blue house on a little hill to create an atelier space for himself, but also to form a central space in the camp to promote friendships and social activities. The exhibition visitors can watch the short film ‘La Maison Bleue sur la Colline’, shot by AAE filmmaker Fadi Idris. It is interesting to remark that the images of Diagne in his atelier are accompanied by a voice-over of his own voice. It is possible that Idris did an attempt to be as neutral as possible in his role as filmmaker. Although the editing of the shots always brings out a style or interpretation of the filmmaker, the voice-over gives a very personal touch coming directly from the subject. Idris intentionally left behind an external journalist explanation in National Geographic style, keeping in mind the taxidermic structure this would create.
In the last chapter of my thesis I focus on curator Florian Ebner’s intention with bringing this issue into the national, powerful museum of Centre Pompidou. Questioning the role the museum in general can play in social and political debates, I turned to Bruno Serralongue, who worked closely with Florian Ebner on this exhibition. He explained to me that biggest reason why this kind of participative exhibition was even possible is because of director Bernard Blistène, who believes that a museum should be ‘a chamber of echoes for our society’. The free admission exhibition took place in the Galleries de Photographie which is located in the basement of the museum. The atmosphere of this space is entirely different from the international and expensive exhibitions on the higher floors. Serralongue remarks: “This reminds of the hierarchical situation in society but also in the museum: the big names are at the top floors and you have to pay to see them. The usual question of reciprocity (f.e. exposure for the artists) was not accurate in the exhibition about Calais. They worked together with the artists and the camp inhabitants for the exhibition public. Everyone got their chance to tell an individual story via the conversations planned in the opening week of the exhibition. The migrants were not shown as victims, but as active people in our society.” As this thesis shows, the exhibition has succeeded in opening the debate on this subject. The multiplicity of perspectives has proven that a museum can be also a participatory space, open for every layer of the society. But in order to break the classic hierarchical structure and to bring this kind of exhibition to a higher floor, there is still a long way to go.