Sunday, 8 January 2017

Gideon Mendel:Dzhangal in the Jungle.

"The photographer is at war with his own practice. Every image is a head-on collision with the failure of photography - and of art more generally - to cause anything but the tiniest ripple on the surface of our collective disengagement" - Dominique Malaquis, art historian.

Dzhangal is a Pashto word meaning 'This is the forest'. It's believed to be the origin of the contentiously named former refugee and migrant encampment in Calais which, by late 2016, had a population of over 8,000 (of which about 10% were minors) before being broken up by the French authorities and the migrants and displaced persons living there moved on to other locations in France or elsewhere in Europe.

Gideon Mendel made several trips to Calais between May and November in 2016. A project to loan cameras to refugees so that they could document their own experiences wasn't going very well. Understandably they had more pressing concerns such as finding something to eat and somewhere to sleep.

Speaking to Amelia Gentleman in the Guardian piece that inspired me to visit this exhibition (currently running at the Autograph ABP Gallery on Rivington Place, Shoreditch) Mendel told of one refugee outside a church constructed from sticks and tarpaulin by Eritrean migrants who confronted him with the words "You fucking photographers. You come here and you take our photographs and you tell us that it’s going to help us but nothing changes. The only person that it helps is you."

Virtue signalling and poverty tourism eviscerated in two short sentences. Of course it's not that well meaning visitors don't want to help. It's often that they can't in any meaningful way. Mendel realised that what the people there needed were immigration lawyers. Not photographers.

Mendel, however, is not an immigration lawyer. He's a photographer and one whose work concentrates on 'issues'. He came to attention documenting the final years of apartheid in his native South Africa and went on to make hard hitting collections such as Drowning World (a look at climate change which consists of submerged portraits of families affected by flooding from Haiti to Nigeria to India) and A Broken Landscape about the devastating effects of HIV and AIDS in Africa.

Realising his work on the refugee crisis needed to come from a different angle he took to taking photographs of the artefacts left behind after the camp's clearance. He hoped, and I think he's succeeded, in reversing the dehumanisation process that comes with nightly news reports and tabloid scare stories. Perhaps if we can see that these people are more like us, in fact are us, than the likes of Nigel Farage would have us believe we might, just might, work harder to find a solution to this seemingly endless human disaster.

The ripped sleeping bag was once slept in by someone. Where are they now? Are they still alive? We can all recognise a sleeping bag so surely we can all consider what it might be like to sleep in one in such disquieting circumstances. Be that in Calais or, homeless, on the streets of pretty much any major city today.

The lines of toothbrushes and socks reminded me of the piles of shoes, glasses etc; found after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It'll seem overdramatic to some but I think we need to start considering that our inaction over what's been happening will, historically, be looked back upon as inexcusable, inhumane, and selfish. It'll be difficult to explain to future generations how we let this happen.

Most of us played on our bikes when we were kids. Most of us kicked a ball around. Those escaping war and poverty or even seeking a better, more financially secure, life are no different. We shouldn't be letting the vested interests of multimillionaire newspaper barons and vainglorious politicians posing in gold plated lifts set the agenda on this.

That applies to the adults just as much as the children. Tory MP for Monmouth David Davies suggested refugees could have dental checks to see if they were old enough to deserve our sympathy. Unfortunately the political conversation has shifted so far to the right now that his views, though criticised in many places, didn't seem to many as outlandish, and vile, as they would have done just a decade ago.

When you look at the ripped up pages of children's books, books like The Tiger Who Came To Tea you may well have read to your own children, and the mud encrusted toy doll remember that Katie Hopkins, writing in the Sun, thinks the children who read this and whose lives are in daily danger should be further imperilled by those they come to for asylum turning gunboats on them. Yes, she's actively advocating the murder of children and Rupert Murdoch is paying her and providing her with a platform in which to do so.

There's probably nothing more upsetting in the gallery than the collection of children's shoes left behind. I'd attended on the opening night and visitors were enjoying complimentary wine and nibbles. If it felt a little inappropriate it was as nothing next to the huge skyscrapers proclaiming their vast wealth across the City less than a mile away.

Mendel's work had made me think in a way that most of the self-satisfied and narcissistic art I see never could. I have no idea what can be done about it. The geopolitical situation is so complicated. But I do know that on a very small personal level it's vital that we don't view other people from other cultures as alien. It's vital that we don't look for answers from grubby opportunists and divisive hatemongers like Farage, Marine Le Pen, and Geert Wilders. It's vital that we refuse to dehumanise and it's vital that we continue to work together, rather than apart, to at least try to make the world a better place for those less fortunate than us.

Here's a link should you wish to donate to a charity helping child refugees survive the winter:-

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