(photography in the face of failure)
Calais Jungle, May 2016. An itinerant circus pulls up, followed by a Christian procession trailing a healing donkey. The southern half of the camp has recently been reduced to rubble, set alight and bulldozed. The stench of smoke lingers and water pools. Riot police patrol. Gideon Mendel raises his camera to photograph the donkey. A man confronts him: “You fucking photographers! You come here and you take our photographs and you tell us that it is going to help us, but nothing changes. The only person it help is you”.
Over the many years of its on-and-off-again life, from the early 2000s to late October 2016, the Jungle has attracted many cameras. In its final months, it is awash in lenses. Journalists, TV crews, government workers of various descriptions, NGO staffers, human rights activists, independent filmmakers, artists: all determined to document the demise of Western Europe’s most notorious refugee camp. Images of Calais splash across the front pages of newspapers and flood the Web. In waves, exhibitions are planned and photo books go to print.
The overwhelming majority of images shot are of people. The focus is on bodies – on facial expressions and gestures, on poses struck in the midst of an apocalyptic landscape. In many cases, the goal is to humanize the camp’s inhabitants: to coax viewers into seeing them as individuals rather than as an undifferentiated mass, prompting concern and, where possible, empathy. In other instances, the purpose is less laudable. Right wing news organizations alternately seek to instil fear – THIEVES! RAPISTS! TERRORISTS! – or crow as men, women and children stream out of the camp, their exit overseen by police in full body armour. Brandishing images of the exodus, politicians claim victory in staunching the flow of “migrants”.
Whether any of this has anything other than the most fleeting effect is unclear. The argument is by now an old saw: bombarded with visuals at every turn, we have become inured to the violence shown, no matter how horrific, and, simultaneously, we have become insatiable. No one image will satisfy us. We have morphed into ghoulish voyeurs. Post Abu Ghraib, we no longer see. Our attention span has shrunk so short that not even Aylan Kurdi’s tiny drowned body or the dazed and bloodied gaze of Omran Daqneesh can sustain our interest for more than 24 hours. On the rare occasions when our attention is held, it is for the wrong reasons. Deluged by fake news, we have lost even the most basic ability to read images. Thus the now infamous UKIP “breaking point” poster showing an interminable queue of refugees: shot on the Croatia/Slovenia border in 2015, the photograph at its centre was misread by millions of anti-EU voters as a 2016 depiction of asylum seekers clamoring to enter Great Britain.
In the face of such an onrush of images glanced, misconstrued and cast aside, the question arises of what to photograph so as to bear witness – or, indeed, of whether to photograph at all. The query is hardly new. Following the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the hell that descended on the Balkans in the 1980s and Sudan in the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide, and now the bombing to shreds of Syria, countless photographers, theorists and critics have wrestled with its implications.
After the donkey, Mendel puts down his equipment. He will not be taking any pictures at all – not here, not now.
Eschewing images, Mendel begins collecting evidence: remnants of lives that once animated the southern section of the Jungle. Sifting through the camp’s debris, he gathers charred, crushed, crumpled and water-logged remains of clothing and footwear, children’s toys and books, sports equipment and playing cards, carpentry tools, construction materials, furniture, bedding, personal hygiene products… He amasses piles of teargas canisters and shotgun shells, the latter a throwback to days before the refugee crisis, when hunters came looking for birds in the woods surrounding Calais. As summer gives way to fall and the destruction, to great fanfare, of the northern half of the camp, his stash of abandoned objects grows. From a photographer he has morphed into a forensic scientist, in quest of clues to a crime.
Away from Calais, each leaving and fragment is photographed. Shot from above using a Linhof field camera attached to a copy stand in the controlled environment of a professional studio, flooded in light precluding any hint of shadow or depth, Mendel’s finds lie flattened against the picture plane of an ink-black digital background. Items appear singly, in pairs, in rows. Insects come to mind, pinned to a virtual corkboard by an entomologist documenting endangered species, or vestiges assembled by archaeologists accounting for a blighted civilization.
An air of dispassion prevails. A singed teddy bear, the rusted remains of a mattress, a flattened barrel: no object is given greater scrutiny than another. Spent cartridges, toothbrushes, gloves, trainers, sandals and flip-flops are set side by side in noncommittal lines. Every effort is made to blunt the sleekness of their design, lest the eye take pleasure in the patterns and colours their layouts are likely to produce.
Mendel’s goal is to de-aestheticize the encounter with refugee bodies, for in aesthetics we find respite. Having made it impossible for us to retreat into gazes and gestures that the discourse of human rights has programmed us to see as reflections of our own, he challenges us: will we insist on anthropomorphizing the shoes, bonnets and shirts, the bits of burnt blanket and rusted chairs he has collected? Of course we will. A significant part of the work’s heft comes precisely from this: the danger it knowingly runs of being appropriated to such facile ends. So too its problematic flirtation with beauty. For the images, designed to be blown up to a metre and a quarter, are incontrovertibly appealing. The deep black of their background is properly lush, the lighting worthy of the finest advertising shoot. They are desirable in the extreme.
All of this is intentional: the photographer is at war with his own practice. Every image is a head-on collision with the failure of photography – and of art more generally – to cause anything but the tiniest ripple on the surface of our collective disengagement. Each is an admission of radical defeat.
Intentional as well is the collision with Euro-American traditions of collecting. The praxis of compiling physical evidence to account for Others, making “sense” of their difference and, thereby, of the collector’s power to examine, name, bracket and administer, has a long and violent history. Phrenology, criminology, ethnography, anthropology, museology: structured around the collection of professedly objective data, each of these disciplines and others still – the pseudo-science of eugenics among them – has, it is well known, at various times in the last two centuries played a critical role in the subjugation of individuals, communities and entire peoples. Calling upon the dual “arts” of gathering proof and photographing it – mainstays, both, in the documentation of variance – in no uncertain terms Mendel references this past and, in the era of Trumpism ascendant, its savage present.
Mendel does not stand at a remove. He wades into the morass, dragging us in as he goes. Our refusal to follow (many will declare this work too cerebral, too cold, too easy, too hard) – or, worse, our acquiescence (for those of us who claim an understanding of the images and, on such grounds, choose to write about them, to catalogue, exhibit, acquire and collect them) – will, in equal measure, be failures.
Dzanghal allows no room for ethical manoeuvre. None of us walks away clean.
Dominique Malaquais is a senior researcher at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and co-director of SPARCK (Space for Pan-African Research, Creation and Knowledge)