Using the revenue from this crowdfunding, I want to create the book ‘Ville de Calais’ together with graphic designer Robin Uleman, and publish it myself. For this book, I systematically photographed the rise of the ‘Calais Jungle’. The ‘Jungle’ was Europe’s biggest shanty town, exposing a new, European reality. That’s why I see this book as an important chronicle. On the one hand, it is about a failing migration policy; on the other hand, it is about the strength of a largely neglected mass of people.
It is Tuesday, 25 October 2016. On the asphalt, near the French port city of Calais, stand small piles of suitcases and rucksacks. Around them, groups of boys hang about. They are waiting for a place on one of the buses that are making their way to various places in France over the course of the week. The scene looks like the morning after a music festival, except that this place became the symbol for a failing European policy on migration. Within a year, the biggest shanty town in western Europe, the ‘Calais Jungle’, came into existence among these dunes. An informal township close to the French side of the English Channel. From this spot, thousands of migrants attempted the illegal crossing to Britain.
In the last week of October, the ‘Jungle’ is being dismantled under the watchful eye of the French riot police and the telescopic lenses of an impressive media parade. It also means that my work in Calais is coming to an end. Over the past years I have been photographing the urbanisation process in the dunes close to the port. What began as a collection of migrants’ tents in the woods expanded to become an informal township. Complete with asphalt, ‘ethnic neighbourhoods’, street lighting, houses of prayer, a theatre and numerous catering establishments. I quickly came to view the ‘Jungle’ as a middle finger raised towards the European migration policy. As if its inhabitants wanted to say “You don’t want to help us? Then we’ll build a town ourselves.”
My visits to Calais started in January 2006, shortly after I read that hundreds of refugees and illegal immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, the Sudan and Pakistan were bivouacking in the woods around the French port city of Calais. To them, Calais was the departure point for the final and most sought-after crossing of what had often been a long journey of escape. The crossing to England: the destination of their dreams.
In the woods around the city, I discovered numerous colourful shacks made out of sheets, clothing and various waste materials, carefully tied together with bits of string and tape. It quickly became clear to me that this motley collection of shelters had become my personal symbol for illegality. I was fascinated by the way in which the inhabitants retained their self respect, despite the deplorable situation.
That dignity was expressed in all manner of ways; the neatly folded clothes, the sleeping bags and blanket hung out, the way the surroundings were kept clean and waste disposed of. In the layout of their huts and the creation of small gardens, the inhabitants expressed their personality and individuality. I was moved by this need for security and homeliness. I wanted to use my photography to show how people retain their humanity in an inhuman situation. They symbolise the resilience of the individual.
The photos led to the book Shelter, which I published in 2010. This book was also designed by Robin Uleman. The book was awarded the Kees Scheeren Prize for the best book of photography, and was nominated for the best-edited book of 2010. In addition, Shelter won the prestigious Dutch Doc Award 2011.
Ville de Calais
I kept on returning to Calais. As the years passed and the number of migrants in Calais increased, the direction of my work also changed.
In early 2015, the people living in the woods were ordered by the police to relocate to the dunes. One of the first photos I shot there was of an improvised sand track with tents set up alongside it. This image fascinated me because, the track marked the beginning of a structured layout. While the refugee tents had at first been set up at random, they now appeared alongside a sand track.
The French government tolerated the new site in the dunes, and local NGOs facilitated a basic infrastructure. This worked as a catalyst for the development of the camp. Entrepreneurs saw a clear opportunity and established small shops. The sand track was asphalted and furnished with lamp posts, and it transformed into a street of shops. It became the main artery of what was to become known as the ‘Calais Jungle’. Along the motorway close to the camp, barbed wire fences several metres high were raised to prevent the refugees climbing into lorries bound for Britain. Despite this, hundreds of migrants attempted this every night. An incredible amount of willpower lay behind the refugee camp in Calais.
I kept on returning to Calais. Though I had focused at first on the strength of the individual, I was now gripped by the strength of the mass. From the start, I systematically recorded the urbanisation process in the dunes. Every time I visited the camp, I walked the same tour. By constantly photographing from the same perspectives, I made the rapid changes in the dunes apparent. In January 2016, I counted 40 restaurants, 43 shops, 6 bathhouses, 8 bakeries and 7 discotheques. This work is a documentary record of a period of time that symbolises the growing refugee problem.
The camp was bursting at the seams and, in the first months of 2016, the French government cleared out the biggest part of it. This failed to prevent the Jungle becoming bigger than ever by September 2016. It was estimated that between six thousand and ten thousand people lived there. Due to the increase in the number of inhabitants, the increasingly aggressive methods they were deploying to try and reach England, along with the growing social unrest between the ethnic groups, President Hollande decided to clear the shanty town once and for all.
In October, I walk through the near-deserted shopping street. The camp’s inhabitants seem to move meekly to the buses, which will distribute them among reception centres across France. They appear to have no attachment to this location, which was always only a temporary stopping place. The clearing of the ‘Jungle’ will at best bring about a temporary solution. As long as people have a dream, no fence is too high and no sea too deep.
Calais became the place where illegal immigration came to the surface and took the form of a town. I think ‘the Jungle’ marks a new age, an age in which European shanty towns are becoming a new reality. If Calais has taught us anything, it is that there is no point in looking the other way.
That is also apparent during that final day in the camp. An Afghan boy turns around before joining the queue for the buses. He grins. “Within ten days we’ll be back, and we will build a new Jungle.”
The exhibition Calais, From Jungle to City was on show from April to June in the Foam museum. The exhibition was a retrospective on the work I did in Calais over the past year and a half. In 4 exhibition halls, I tried to make the camp tangible for the visitors. By placing written passages on the walls alongside the photos, I gave viewers more background information about the world behind the work.
To a certain degree, Ville de Calais is a continuation of Shelter (2010). In this photographic documentary about the temporary shelters of migrants in Europe, all the tracks already led in the direction of the woods of Calais. Whereas Shelter still centred on the hut as a portrait of the otherwise invisible individual, Ville de Calais is about the shanty town as a portrait of the visible mass. That makes the content of the book many times more complex. This calls for a multi-faceted approach to the editing of text and images.
Graphic designer Robin Uleman has been involved in this project from the start, and has explored and researched the topic from the inside out. The classic role of the designer as an intermediary is too limited for him: He wants to be part of the process. Only in this way can he distil a form of graphic narrative that is clear and simultaneously authentic from a large amount of material. The books we produce together are never conceived of as a form of retrospective documentation. After a certain point, the design process becomes organically entwined with the process of taking photos, thereby becoming an intrinsic part of the project.
As with the exhibition, we do not want to divorce the text passages from the imagery under any circumstances. Robin has striven for a form of graphic narrative which allows the text to move with the photography without getting in its way. Like the camera, the typography zooms in and out.
Empathy and distance
In this project, two approaches that are, in principle, difficult to unite nevertheless intertwine. On the one hand there is the cool, factual recording of the spatial developments taking place in Calais. These are displayed using sequences which show a chronological progress of developments in the camp.
In addition, various small stories are told to create insight into the life in the camp; stories which are all connected with the development of the ‘Jungle’ as a whole. This calls for a mixed formulation that is both narrative and systematic. This documentary swings between empathy and distance.
The ‘empathic’ main section of the book incorporates many photos of ‘marking points’. These prove to be significant places in the story. They are photographed again and again over the course of months. In the main section, such photos are provided with references to the index at the end of the book. There, they come up again as a part of chronological series which make the growth and destruction of the camp understandable. This results in a complete picture of the camp’s urbanisation and decline. This course of events reads like a wave motion; the wave motion of the immigration issue.
French and English Editions
In view of the nature of the subject (illegal border crossing) and the location (the dunes of Calais, a kind of no-man’s-land between France and England), the book will be published as two separate editions. I have deliberately opted for two separate editions – one in English and one in French. During the design process, this was found to be the only way to maintain the right balance between text and imagery. The expenses involved in this make this crowdfunding even more necessary.