I travelled to the “Jungle” refugee and migrant camp in Calais several times before its demolition in October 2016. The encampment’s contentious name was derived from the Pashtun word dzhangal, meaning “this is the forest.” The “Jungle” was home to between 7,000 and 10,000 people living in squalid conditions. Most of them hoped to cross the English Channel illegally and claim asylum in Britain.
I was tasked with teaching photography to “Jungle” residents as part of a collaborative documentary project. I discovered that many refugees were hostile towards the camera, fearing that being identified could undermine their asylum claims and lead to deportation. They were sceptical that photography would ameliorate their situation, and I came to share their reservations, feeling that photography was failing in the face of the enormity of the refugee crisis, and that excessive photographic coverage was potentially more exploitative than helpful.
My response was to turn my attention to lost and damaged objects on the ground, collecting them and trying to understand the patterns that emerged. Back at my home in London I set about forensically photographing these found objects as if they were precious archaeological artefacts that might help us make sense of the complex relationships and politics of the place.
Some of these items evoke the daily violence many experienced, some reflect the banality and domesticity of lives there – including the plight of women and children – while visible ingrained dirt and ashes allow the viewer to sense the refugees’ struggle to live ordinary lives under the most extraordinary circumstances.
I hope that these images, as alternative portraits of the “Jungle” residents, will portray the residents’ humanity, and also stand in for the plight of displaced people everywhere.