Calais, behind the lens
The stories they told
I first read about Calais in September 2014, while sitting at a café waiting to meet a colleague – photographer Henry Wilkins. A leafed-through copy of British tabloid newspaper The Sun lay on the table opposite, displaying a 500-word hack round-up of a recent attempt by African ‘migrants’ to rush the port’s fences.
The xenophobic tone of the piece wasn’t explicit, but I recall thinking that given the seriousness of the event, the resulting casualties, the closeness of Calais to England, the lack of context, plus the paper’s propensity for reactionary politics, the subtext wasn’t all that subtle.
At that time, it seemed the only reporting out of Calais was incident-based. So a few days later, we booked a late-night ferry and set off with a tent, an old Hasselblad 500 camera and a makeshift photo studio, in order to attempt to document the personal narratives of those camped in Calais, which the media had so far skirted.
We wanted to find out why night after night in this little tourist and truck-driver waypoint, with its paint-peeled cafés and hypermarkets, gangs of men risked death, drowning, smashed limbs and suffocation as they squeezed themselves under lorries, facing the routine brutality of the French police, in their attempts to reach England.
The stories they told
Within half an hour of setting foot in the now-evacuated ‘Jungle de Tioxide’, we started hearing the refugees’ stories. And we soon discovered that a police-wielded truncheon to the kidneys and a pepper-spraying were nothing compared to what every single one of these individuals had experienced, both back home and over the endless kilometres they’d trekked – through some of the most war-ravaged regions on earth – to get here.
Back in Sudan, Yassen had had both his legs broken and was beaten around the clock by government intelligence agents for protesting against low wages in Khartoum. Mohammed was tortured with farm equipment. Whalid was covered in ice-cold water and electrocuted for refusing to convert to Islam.
Ahmed, with his MA in Agriculture and Food Security from the University of Khartoum, was stabbed by Sudanese police for his work with impoverished farmers in rural Sudan. Muhammad was lashed with barbed wire and press-ganged into the Eritrean army when he was 14.
All of these horrific events had occurred before the men had even taken their first steps across the 5,000 kilometres of desert, through cities torn open by barrel bombs and despotic regimes, or rural villages crippled by genocide and ethnic cleansing.
On reaching Calais, they were confronted with the endless mounds of rubbish and excrement, makeshift tents, shredded tarpaulin and smouldering campfires that occupied the grounds of a former chemical-processing plant a few kilometres from the port. Like all refugee camps, this one was a distillation of every facet of human brutality and loss.
Back then, many of The Jungle’s occupants still fostered a bright and unswerving optimism that they would one day reach England and begin their lives anew.
They were happy to see us – curious at our presence as we worked, shot and interviewed. But gaining their trust and consent to having their pictures taken was tough. It’s tougher work than ever taking pictures in Calais today, but for reasons far removed from late 2014.
During our first visit, many there – particularly those from Sudan and Eritrea – expressed fears of their governments monitoring the international media for names and faces of dissenters. And with families back home, many felt their inclusion would, without exception, see relatives and loved ones detained, tortured and executed – or possibly all three.
The fear was legitimate, so we worked sensitively with who we could to help communicate the crisis. The people that sat for us in our little pop-up studio all came from families with no surviving relatives back home. And their loved ones had not died of old age.
Henry and I visited Calais several times over the coming year. And when we returned as independent journalists in January 2015, attempting to freelance a feature on the opening of the Jules Ferry Centre – a permanent facility for migrants, opened amid the forced eviction of The Jungle’s remaining encampments by French riot police – the mood there had changed dramatically.
Working and shooting was tougher than before. Desperation had set in. It had slow-boiled the place and cooked it throughout. Everything had begun to disintegrate. Now, people weren’t happy to see us: they were angry. They were angry because of a tabloid frenzy both in England and in France that would not relent.
The slew of headlines hammered out by British tabloids like the Daily Mail painted the refugees as some amorphous retrovirus just kilometres away from infecting England.
Recurrent stories of their violence, their irrationality, their sheer mass and their ‘vampirism’ meant guilt by association for many journalists carrying a camera.
Lifting and focusing ours was enough in some places to be threatened, screamed down, chased off or advanced at by angry groups wielding whatever they could get their hands on. Several incidents occurred. The mood set by the tabloids was all-pervasive.
The problems with reporting on Calais are not as blunt and obvious as those faced by individuals working in conflict zones. But with Calais as a comparatively low-risk environment, and in such close proximity to England, it was easy for tabloids to flood the area without compunction.
Inside the Fort Galloo squat, of which my images appear to be among precious few that exist, I was threatened multiple times. Another colleague who accompanied us was very nearly attacked outside the Jules Ferry Centre. For many refugees, there was the stark feeling that our cameras were there to do them harm.
From victims to villains and back
In recent months, press tone and social media have begun to lash back against the tabloid onslaught: seesawing the Calais refugees from victims to villains to victims again. And although ground is being reclaimed through the work of individuals such as Owen Jones, many refugees want nothing more than the constant sea of reporters to leave them be.
Publishing the photograph of the drowned body of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi on the Greek island of Kos has brought the tide smashing inland even further. And through one single image, over 400,000 signatures have already been gathered in a petition to pressure the British government towards accepting more refugees into the country.
In reality, refugees are neither victims nor villains: they are simply people. People with murdered fathers, mothers, uncles and siblings. People who have left loved ones shivering and alone in brutal regimes in an attempt to bring them to safety once they’ve reached England – by any means or method.
There is only one thing that separates them from us: their indomitable will to survive. A will I sincerely doubt columnists like Katie Hopkins would possess after being electrocuted for 12 hours a day in a Sudanese jail.
It has gradually become accepted these people don’t want to be in Calais. But the truth is simpler. They don’t want to be in England either. They want to be in their own countries, among their own fields and farmlands, able to wander the cafés and streets of their own cities, enveloped by the roots and branches of their own cultures.
However, when walking the dusty backcountry to your local market can earn you a machete in the head; or when hiring a Christian to work in your Khartoum corner-shop can get you bound, gagged and beaten with electrical cables by your own government; or when visiting your family means treading the carbon-rich earth where they were burned alive, there’s really not much choice, is there?
Why England? From my extensive conversations with those camped in Calais, I have learned that England seemingly occupies a space in the refugee psyche much deeper than our superficial suppositions (that they want to take advantage of our benefits systems, healthcare, opportunities, work or wages) suggest. England is still believed by many to be the strong, safe and secure light at the end of a deep, dark tunnel – 5,000 kilometres long, to be precise, and built of human suffering.
Of course, England is also the country that levelled Libya with its poorly aimed airstrikes in order to depose Colonel Muammar Qadafi. It is the country that wrenched open Afghanistan, littering it with landmines and filling its skies with Chinook helicopters, deploying a ground force that, through training and technology, smashed everything in its way while promising peace and stability. It is also the country that colonized places like Sudan and Eritrea, forever altering their futures.
And yet, so far, its only solution to the crisis is to stand fast and tighten its borders. And a time when the UNCHR’s latest figures reveal the highest number of individuals displaced by global conflict ever recorded – with one in every 122 people a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum – a radical re-evaluation is the only choice left.
The refugees camped in Calais are more than just a half-glanced re-post on a Facebook feed. Within only 6 months, they have doubled in number, banging desperately at our borders. And they are not going away.
David Cameron’s newly unveiled pledge to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020 still falls desperately short of the mark.
This is not just a crisis centred on ‘migrants’ or migration. It is a long, pain-stricken story of global conflict and suffering and our place as a nation within it. It is time to accept that their story is ours, too, and to face up to what we helped create.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism