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With his recent project, Now Here, photographer Tom Hatton depicts the desolate landscapes of the Calais Jungle. Unpopulated, yet packed with detail, these haunting images effectively trace the human experience.
The Calais Jungle was located on a toxic wasteland bordering a chemical processing factory on the outskirts of Calais – an EU directive prevented the area from being used for any civil or agricultural purpose. When the camp was finally demolished, the population of the Jungle was estimated at around 10,000. Calais has hosted various migrant camps across more than two decades, and so it seemed as though this specific area was deliberately chosen to discourage long-term occupation, and the Jungle was designated as an unofficial refugee camp. All but a few of the major charities and NGOs were barred from providing aid and only the most basic infrastructure was provided. Due to these strange jurisdictions, the camp was entirely self-constructed and functioned as its own self-contained town with shops, restaurants, bars, schools, nightclubs, barbers, bicycle repair shops, a youth centre, a women and children's centre, several churches and mosques, a legal centre, a theatre and a library. A few all-night restaurants provided safe and warm places for those without shelters to sleep and frequently fed those unable to afford a meal. There was, at least initially, a general spirit of camaraderie and optimism unlike many other refugee camps in western Europe. Yet it was still rough: fights were common, it was dirty, muddy and cold, and the air was heavily polluted.
During the winter of 2015/16, the British government erected a three-metre-high razor wire fence on the orders of Theresa May, then the home secretary, and the western edge of the camp alongside the motorway was dismantled. An area 50-metres wide was flattened and a perimeter mound erected, creating a no-man’s land. Echoing tactics from the First World War, this created a zone of control for the French police; anyone who entered this area was immediately under surveillance. Within a day this had become a stage for football, cricket, volleyball, kite-flying and tear gas.
On my first morning in the camp, a line of riot police blocked the access road that cut across the no-man’s land, and caterpillar trucks ploughed the earth behind. Shops and restaurants, whose owners had been assured they would not be demolished, were flattened along with hundreds of shelters. However, unlike those living in the shelters, these retailers were not given prior warning; while some items of food, clothes and kitchen equipment were able to be salvaged, most of their livelihoods were destroyed. Members of social and community spaces were repeatedly told these sites would be protected before they were then destroyed. This marked the first stage of the forced evictions that were to increase throughout the spring.
During early autumn 2015, the average stay in the camp was just a few weeks. Anyone who remained for longer was considered unlucky in “the game” – the term used for hiding in the back of lorries and travelling to the UK. By January 2016, this method had become more difficult and refugees were spending an average of two to four months in the Jungle. The enhanced security at border control as well as the cold and the increasingly frequent evictions added to a tense and desperate atmosphere. At the end of March, the southern half of the camp was bulldozed and any remaining sense of social cohesion fractured.
Violence often erupted between groups and in retaliation the remaining community spaces were torched. When the last section of the camp officially closed, the British government handed out wristbands to unaccompanied minors, promising that they would be relocated to the UK. This never happened. The children were left in a shipping container compound turned dormitory without further information until French social services distributed them around France.
This project, Now Here, 2016, was initiated to redress the media's representation of the camp, and of refugees who lived there. I volunteered with Good Chance Theatre from the end of January 2016 and it was in this role that I got to know many people in the camp.
It felt important to let the Jungle reveal itself in a different light, while avoiding sensationalism. A slower and calmer approach was necessary to oppose the majority of “decisive moment” photographs, which often depicted large groups of hooded youths clashing with police. Such imagery reinforced preconceived notions of the Jungle and portrayed its occupants – people who had travelled halfway across the world to seek shelter and safety – as violent and threatening.
It quickly became evident that the project should focus on the absence of people for two main reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, any recognisable photograph of a refugee would have the potential to void their asylum claim in the UK, or in any country other than the one in which the image was taken. Legally, it acts a fingerprint, carrying the risk that an asylum seeker could be deported back to their country of origin, or the first EU country in which they were initially documented. This is due to the EU laws on the asylum process established in 1951, which state that a refugee must file for asylum in the first European country they set foot in.
The second consideration was to do with the perception of otherness. Would a civil war in Scotland, France or Sweden be considered in the same light as conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya or Sudan? It is likely that the figure of a refugee would elicit a totally different reaction in the West. A small but not insignificant example is the way in which the terminology around displaced people was often not clarified, and “refugee” and “migrant” were often used interchangeably in mainstream media. Public debate in the UK focused on the job market and on Islamic terrorism rather than humanitarian aid.
By concealing identity but instead looking at the traces of living, I hope to focus on the shared experience of living in the camps, sidestepping any ingrained biases. The absence of the refugee denies the possibility for surface readings and draws the viewer in. This encourages closer consideration, with the viewer taking ownership over a narrative that hangs over the arrangement of chairs, the construction of a porch garden or the placement of toothbrushes between rope and tarp. Hopefully, these familiar gestures provide a moment of re-orientation.
Now Here has been selected for Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2017, which is showing at Block 336 in Brixton, London until 3 March 2018.