By Abigail Gilson
In response to the stiffness of Europe’s doors, a destitute refugee camp, known as ‘the Jungle’, was erected in the port of Calais containing over 7000 desperate refugees unwanted by Britain and deemed a nuisance to France. For 15 years this tent-city has been Europe’s solution to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis since World War II and symbolises not only the mass scale of the issue but the complexity of the global Refugee Crisis.
If it were not for the valiant volunteer effort present in Calais then the survival of the Refugee Camp- including the livelihood of the 400 children, 350 families, 500 women, and 3000-5000 men would have suffered under the noses of authorities.
Among these volunteers is Rob Pinney, a documentary photographer who has initiated six trips from October 2015 up until the camp’s demolition in March 2016. In what started out as an act of humanity- building houses and giving aid- soon developed into a visual storytelling project that he hopes will present the public with an accurate conceptual picture of The Jungle.
In a self-commissioned trip, he set off in a taxi with one other friend to experience the squalid living conditions first hand. “I went to see it to try and be helpful and contribute something positive. On my the first trip I thought that I’d try to take some some pictures, i didn’t know what of, but realised within the first few days it [The Jungle] was something far bigger and more complicated than I’d anticipated,” Rob told Actus.
The result of his efforts is a chronological narrative of the camp currently being shown in galleries and universities across the UK. The MA War Studies graduate is showcasing the photo series alongside numerous in-depth talks and seminars which he hopes will give a more contextual awareness to socio-political issues of the Refugee Crisis.
“It was obvious that there was a major gap between what the British press was publishing and what was actually happening on the ground. So it was important for me to convey a photo series that would make people think critically…and not just to reinforce the cliches that people already knew,”
At the time Rob arrived, the population of the camp was estimated at 5000, a figure that had risen simultaneously with the surge of political turmoil caused by the Islamic State’s seize over regions in Iran and Afghanistan and the Bashar-Al Assad’s regime in Syria. Only 52 miles away from the south coast of Britain, the slum had became a lucrative location for smuggler gangs to operate- an industry thriving off of the crisis. These civilians had left everything behind risking their lives through the hands of organised smugglers- stopping at nothing to reach the UK.
The residents squeezed up to two to three families into each of the mudsunk tents and makeshift structures like the ones Rob was building. He was working with the NGO L’Augberge de Migrant, who were dependent on donations to support the needs of the camp.
“When I first went, it was rough and ready. There was an old warehouse where a small bunch of people worked desperately trying to distribute basic human supplies,” Rob explained, adding that sanitation infrastructure did not fully exist until the aid organization (Médecins Sans Frontières) MSF, along with several others , filed a court case against the French government calling for them to install functioning toilet sewerage, water points and rubbish collection. Campaigners managed to improve the conditions but they were still deemed inhuman.
The 4km2 perimeter was divided by Afghan areas, Eritrean, Sudanese, Iraqi, a small Syrian area, the Kurdish and then there was the Kurdish mafia who also had influence over a specific area, Rob says. Although integration was not forced among the different ethnicities there were neutral areas like libraries, theaters and schools that had been set up by NGO’s.
“There was a huge sense of community but everything was on the knife’s edge and the atmosphere changed instantaneously in different parts of the camp. Some days were incredibly tense and everybody was very aware of how it felt and then other times it would suddenly be very relaxed, the sun comes and everybody would start playing cricket on the no man’s land between the camp and the motorway- which was very picturesque.”
It took Rob several days to even consider taking out his camera because he was uncomfortable with the new environment so he needed to spend time scoping out the area, he admitted. He was also hesitant to begin shooting without having worked out the most ethical approach to taking pictures in such a tense environment. Working as a photographer within a crisis zone is controversial; understandably there were feelings of hostility towards the press in that harsh environment. Both the right-wing battalion police and the fascist protesters made it very clear that they were against the efforts of the volunteers. “It didn’t take you long to realise that by the mass amounts of tear gas launched into the camp each night.”
But it was the sentiment of the refugees that Rob cared about. The residents who had made it to Calais had faced human abuse unfathomable to most and their accounts risked being exploited for the sake of a news story. Many of the residents were literate in English so they were aware of how they’d been dehumanised in the press headlines and this upset them.
Rob ensured that he took precautionary measures to maintain an ethical approach to his project. “When photographing it was important to remember that they wished to be defined as individuals for more than their circumstances. Some of them were doctors, teachers and were ashamed of being presented in at this low point of their life, ” Rob said.
The photographer sought to build up trust with his subjects making sure they always knew his intentions. However some residents refused to have their photo taken because they were scared of the repercussions that they could face. They feared a photograph could be linked back to the Taliban endangering their families or that their asylum claim could be jeopardized if they were traced to a neighbouring country. For those reasons, Rob says he is missing the personalised element within his body of work.
During the four months spent in Calais, Rob grew close to many of the volunteers and residents. His closest friend was a young Darfuri guy he had met called Mousa. Mousa had left his home in Sudan in 1993 after fleeing the onset of war where he sought refuge in a camp in Chad. Although he did not flee kinetic violence, he arrived in Calais because of the total failure of the world system to actually give these people some viable life opportunities.
On his final trip, Rob was working on a commissioned feature video where he spent several days in the ‘Jungle Books Kids Café ‘, a safe space where boys- who had been forced to grow up- were able to act like children again. After spending six days with minors as young as 10 years old, Rob was astonished at how unfazed the boys were about relaying their experiences to him and his team. The boys were speaking about topics that were hard to listen to- let alone to open up to strangers about. A reason behind this could have been down to the fact that they had been in the company of journalists many times prior, so telling their stories may have been a normalised scenario. One boy, spoke about being sexually assaulted by two grown men in explicit detail: “Of course the material would never have been used for the project however I hoped that it was cathartic for some of these boys to talk about these things and that there was value to them,”
I asked Rob what affect these trauma stories had on him as a documentary photographer, a volunteer and a human being. “The first thing I was told was that ‘everybody cries, just do it. It’s coming,’ on my first trip I was seeing some shocking encounters, I was robbed twice but I didn’t cry until we got back onto the ferry, where the entire contents of our smart car was checked for migrant bodies- that blew the top off of things,” Rob admitted.
On the final day of Rob’s visit to the boys camp, he found himself in Mousa’s tent venting and upset about the minors. A strange situation: the documentary photographer from a privileged background was crying to the young refugee who had fled war and that “was something magical”.
“The emotional side of it doesn’t come from the physical violence, the riots or the crime- it comes from the genuine stories of suffering that have been recycled… and trauma is transferrable.”
But because the volunteer effort is ran by non professionals, there is not the support for those volunteers who are affected and by profession photographer and journalists often end up internalising these experiences which, Rob says, f*cks people up. Only through the photographer’s lens did he feel that he was justified in experiencing the conditions of the Refugee Camp and that without that shield, that reason for being there, he would have been deeply emotionally rattled.