Madia, 2015 © Daniel Castro Garcia/TJ Boulting
Over one million asylum-seekers arrived in Europe after the global refugee crisis began in 2015. While the arena of photojournalism continues to present us with vital documentation, writer and lecturer Max Houghton looks elsewhere to the wave of visual artists finding new and immersive ways to invigorate the debate:
We are too familiar with images of dangerously overcrowded boats, exhausted faces, people barely surviving in camps, and the accompanying rhetoric. We are overwhelmed by the sight of the human consequences of decades of political inaction, while seeing nothing of the policies that have permitted the global framework of care to become so broken, or of the extraordinarily complex moral problems that face our globalised society.
While it’s vital to see imagery from the ‘frontline’ (be that in Lampedusa, Calais or Macedonia) as a document of record, contemporary photography is seeking out new aesthetic strategies to invigorate debate. The most affecting work is fusing technology with a performative impetus. It’s as though artists are responding to a silent question of ‘what about the audience?’ as raised – in different ways – in recent writings by Jacques Rancière and Ariella Azoulay. The spectator is indeed called upon to take part.
Aly Gadiaga “Gucci”, 2015 © Daniel Castro Garcia/TJ Boulting
The premise of the project Foreigner by Daniel Castro Garcia is deceptively simple: to create photographs that permit a face-to-face encounter with people seeking refuge, in order that difference, or similarity, may be perceived. The self-published photo book, championed by MACK, sold out quickly. The photographs are particularly effective at revealing individual characters, and the text – polemic at times – caught the mood of a groundswell of people who wanted to take positive action.
Still from Incoming, 2015/2016 © Richard Mosse in collaboration with Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost
As is widely known, Richard Mosse used a military-grade thermal camera produced by a (nameless) multinational weapons maker in the EU in order to document the passage of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa, at gateways to Europe. It’s idealistic to hope, with Mosse, that he might create ‘a humanist art form’ with military technology designed to detect and control the enemy, but his unsettling and ultimately poignant slow motion images have aroused debate about how we understand the refugee and their unstable relation between life and death.
The latest Save The Children commission, Invisible Wounds, is a collaboration between photographer Nick Ballon, who made a sensitive portrait series, and artist Alma Haser, who animated these still images, using the kind of paper-folding techniques that have become her signature style. While retaining the core stories, faces and facts that have been the backbone of NGO imagery, their work shifts the emphasis of humanitarian storytelling, leaving us with a very present image of a fragmented nine-year-old life.
Syrian mother Adira*, 2017 © Alma Haser and Nick Ballon/Save The Children
The above is an abridged version of Max Houghton’s New Perspectives on Migration, published in the recent edition of Unseen Magazine. For the article in full – and for more great stories – pick up a copy of Unseen Magazine #4 while stocks last.