Documenting refugees in the 21st century

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, reports on Birkbeck’s recent Documenting Refugees event, which combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story.

Kate Stanworth’s photo of Salma, who travelled from Syria to Germany.

Wednesday 20 June marked World Refugee Day, an event through which the UN seeks to show governments the importance of collaboration as a means to accommodate forced migrants all over the world. With the global number of refugees being at an all-time high, this year stood for commemorating their strength, courage and perseverance. In light of this message, Birkbeck lecturer Agnes Woolley hosted ‘Documenting Refugees’, a thoughtful evening discussing the way in which refugees are represented both in the arts and media.

The event combined Kate Stanworth’s photography exhibition Where We Are Now with a screening of Orban Wallace’s documentary Another News Story, both of which reveal an intimate portrayal of refugees and their stories. For Stanworth, the focus lies on personal narratives and the psychological survival techniques used by refugees during the most difficult times. In addition, her portraits reveal how reaching the final destination (typically Germany or the UK) is still very much the beginning of the long journey forced immigrants have got ahead of them.

A similar idea is conveyed in Another News Story, where Wallace and his team follow both the refugees and journalists portraying them on their challenging journey across Europe. While the documentary offers an excellent balance of mixed narratives, the character that stands out most is Syrian mother Mahasen Nassif. Not only is her excellent English, positivity and strength while travelling alone completely overwhelming; her story also shows how getting to Germany is not where the refugee experience ends. When, in the panel discussion afterwards, director Wallace is asked about her he admits that she is finding it challenging to be living a slow-moving life in a remote town in Germany, endlessly waiting for documentation. A side of the story we hear a lot less often.

What is also special about the documentary is that it was shot without any kind of plan, with the main characters being simply those they kept running into. Finding a repertoire of narratives was therefore an entirely natural process, Wallace explains. And ultimately this has led to a uniquely nuanced documentation of a phenomenon that is predominantly being told through the biased and sensation seeking media. The documentary title already hints at this, but insights given by Bruno, a Belgian journalist and recurring character in the film, make it all the more evident: the news is wherever the media is – be that refugee camps at the Hungarian border or the Venice film festival.

 

‘Another News Story’ teaser

Both during the screening and discussion afterwards, the main issue with documenting refugees seems to be the fact that it is ongoing. As Ahmad al-Rahsid, a forced migration researcher at SOAS who fled from Aleppo in late 2012 comments, the Syrian conflict is considered by critics to be one of the most documented conflicts of humanitarian history, yet it took the picture of one little boy to finally cause a shift in political and public responses. People don’t typically respond to just another news story, and with crises without a beginning or end that is a very big problem. The refugee crisis didn’t start nor end in 2015; it is a long-term humanitarian issue that needs as much attention now as it did three years ago. Events like this are needed to help us realise that.

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Carlos Reyes Manzo’s “Dwellings” exhibition opens eyes to unjust world

This post was contributed by Paul Donovan, and was originally published on his blog Between the Lines.

Guests-at-the-opening-of-exhibition

Guests at the opening evening of ‘Dwellings’

An excellent photographic exhibition from photojournalist Carlos Reyes Manzo focusing on “dwellings” has been unveiled at the Peltz Gallery in London.

Carlos has brought together many images from across the world, displaying the lives of struggle of so many people.

Some of the images show no more than shacks, others formerly substantial dwellings then destroyed. One of the latter images concerned a house destroyed by the Israeli Defence Force.

The exhibition is also a chronicle of Carlos’s journalistic journey, taking in the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 to Ethiopia in the 1980s and Iraq and Afghanistan in the early part of this century. There are also contrasting images of England, including scenes from Brighton and London streets.

The exhibition shows struggle and hope – concern that things don’t seem to be getting any better across the world as the decades go by, yet the resilience of people to survive and, wherever and however, prosper.

Reyes Manzo greets guests at the opening event

Reyes Manzo greets guests at the opening event

Carlos told of his own journey, as someone who was expelled from Chile to Panama, after being held in  the Tres Alamos concentration camp in Santiago  by the murderous Pinochet regime. Carlos eventually arrived in Britain, where he lived in some of the worst sort of dwellings in Britain at the time, as he started his journalistic journey. “I realised what was happening in Britain then was happening all around the world,” said Carlos, who recalled graphic images of war in Afghanistan with people losing their legs and the struggle of Roma families against discrimination.

One image shows a dalit woman in India standing with dignity, despite having stood and been ignored for four hours.

Chilean ambassador Rolando Drago paid tribute to how Carlos’s work illustrated the suffering of humanity across the world, the lack of opportunity and need for human rights.

The exhibition has been organised by the politics department at Birkbeck College as part of its ongoing work on housing issues. The other collaborators in the work are the Birkbeck Centre for Iberian and Latin American Visual Studies.

The exhibition runs until 20 March at Peltz Gallery, Birbeck School of Arts, 43 Gordon Square London, WC1H OPD

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The Shock of the Flash: Prof. Flint on the History of Documentary Flash Photography

This post was contributed by Oyedepo Olukotun, an MA History Of Art with Photography student in Birkbeck’s Department of History of Art.

“Flash photography startles (and) gives significance to that which might otherwise go completely unseen”, so began Prof. Kate Flint in her potted history of documentary flash photography.  Prof. Flint, Provost Professor of English and Art History at the University of Southern California, gave her talk, Intrusive Light: Flash Photography and Documentary work, at the Friday 15 November 2013 installment of the “Birkbeck forum for 19th-century studies and Birkbeck History and Theory of Photography Research Centre” series, chaired by Prof. Lynda Nead.

Riis versus Beals: The Man Ray and Lee Miller of Documentary Flash Photography?

To start our foray through history, Prof. Flint introduced us to the photographs of Jessie Tarbox Beals, a contemporary of Jacob Riis at the advent of the 20th century. In spite of being, what Prof. Flint describes as a “huge self-promoter” and “daredevil”, Beals is overshadowed by Riis in the history of photography, even though the two worked together as part of the “early American documentary movement”. We were told how Beals, a pioneering woman photographer, often had her work confused with Riis’s or even wrongly attributed to him.  The image that occurred to me while listening to Prof. Flint was a parallel between the story of Riis/Beals and Man Ray/Lee Miller.

Lange versus White: The Shock of the Flash

To draw parallels between the uses of flash and natural light, Prof. Flint presented a sympathetic and ethical Dorothea Lange, of 1930s Farm Security Administration fame, compared with an impetuous Margaret Bourke-White. Lange made a point of shooting her subjects outside so she did not have to use flash, not just for aesthetic reasons, but for ethical reasons also, as using flash to shoot indoors meant intruding on her subjects’ private spaces. In complete contrast to Lange, Bourke-White, further to using flash indiscriminately and without reverence, went on to mock her subjects in the captions she put on her photographs. The reaction to the use of flash by some of Bourke-White’s subjects, a band of Christian worshippers, was seen as akin to the shock of being visited by avenging angels!

Parks versus DeCarava: Black or light

As examples of African American documentary photographers, Prof. Flint contrasted the documentary flash photography of Gordon Parks with the anti-flash rhetoric of Roy DeCarava’s photographs. Juxtaposing Parks’ output with the profile of the short-lived 1930s “negro” news and picture magazine, Flash Prof. Flint showed us how flash photography played its part in the African American associated subject matters of being on the periphery, violent race relations and skin tone, or more appropriately, skin lightness.

Parks’ zeal for flash was contrasted, by Prof. Flint, with DeCarava’s “love” for natural light and its “near transcendental significance”. Claiming he “hates it (flash) with a passion”, DeCarava’s principle was to let black be black and dark be dark. On this expressive note Prof. Flint ended, appropriately concluding “the vocabulary of flash photography has been an emotionally loaded one throughout its history”.

The contents of Prof. Flint’s talk forms a part of her forthcoming book Flash! Photography, Writing, and Surprising Illumination.

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