At the end of 2016 I spent five weeks volunteering in the then newly opened Porte de la Chapelle refugee camp in Northern Paris. During my time there a number of journalists visited to take photos. Some spoke to one or two residents for a couple of minutes, most did not. I found this lack of engagement infuriating – by homogenising the camp residents as just ‘refugees’ the journalists, whether sympathetic or condemnatory, were undermining their status as individuals, defining them only in terms of their circumstance.
In an attempt to diversify this narrative I gave out 15 disposable cameras to people living in the camp. Of the 15, eight cameras were returned with various reasons for the ones lost including police brutality, an issue underplayed in the media but experienced by people horribly often. A message I received from a participant explaining he would not be able to return the camera read “suddenly police came and took us to get out of tents, they didn’t allow us to collect our goods”. In many ways the ones lost tell as much of a story as those returned, the instability of the participants’ lives reflected by the end of their involvement.
The developed series offers a touching insight into the lives of people rarely seen beyond their immigration status. Each photographer has used the opportunity in their own unique way, some turning the camera back upon themselves and life in the camp, while others chose to record Paris’s many iconic landmarks. The photos exceeded my expectations in their artistry, an uncomfortable reminder of my own preconceptions about what a ‘refugee’ can do. Overwhelmingly the photos are individual expressions of lives, circumstantially unfamiliar but resolutely real. This is an essential reminder in a time of increasing xenophobia, one cannot help but empathise with what is essentially a group of boys making the best of a bad situation in Paris.
I feel the fact this project was carried out in an adult men’s camp is especially enlightening, this demographic group having been most burdened by hostility. I myself was nervous of volunteering in the camp because of fears learned from the media as to how I might be treated as a young woman. I was harassed less than a normal night out in London. That is not to say incidents do not occur, it is simply the same as any other group of people – some bad, some OK, most good. At the risk of sounding trite, people are just people and to assign a set of characteristics to a group is to negate their humanity.
Alongside the cameras, each photographer was given a blank postcard to write an accompanying note for their photos. Those returned show a sharp awareness of this opportunity to send a message out to the world, one reading ‘police don’t respect to the asylum seekers! Guys asylum seekers not animals, asylum seekers are people!’ whilst another ‘well maybe I’m not professional photographer but I know that what I done it means what I felt and I think photos is kind of art’. Overall, the notes emphasise the heartfelt tone of the photographs, one entitled ‘good life in France’ with another ending ‘thank you for giving me hope’.
Though these images offer just a small window into the daily lives of those involved I feel it is crucial they, and the messages alongside them, reach as wide an audience as possible. The more people to see these images, the better chance they have of dispelling prejudice in an increasingly fearful society.
Written by Amy Lineham - Disposable Perspectives runs from 2-9 June at HIVE in Dalston.