For two years Alice Myers travelled frequently to Calais, getting to know those trying to cross the border by hiding in lorries, those who smuggle them across, those who are claiming asylum in France and those with no legal status and no plans to leave.
For Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun Alice took photographs on negotiated terms and incorporated rich materials such as drawings, writing, Facebook photographs and conversations. Her aim was to shape a complex representation of people who are legally invisible and the separate space to which they are consigned.
PW: Many thanks for taking the time to talk to us about your latest body of work Nothing is Impossible Under the Sun.
Can you talk to us about how you first met people trying to cross the border illegally and how you explained the project to them? How did this relationship evolve over the duration of the project?
AM: When I began the project, the majority of people I met were staying in squats or in makeshift camps throughout the town of Calais itself. Food was handed out in an empty lot near the port every evening and this was where I met people at first. Later, I mostly met people through other people I knew or in the squats where they lived. I had a statement about the project written out in Arabic and Farsi or I would explain in English that I was a photographer, I wasn’t a journalist, and they could contribute whatever they wanted to the project. I suggested they could share the photographs on their phone with me, draw a picture, record a conversation, write something or work with me to make a portrait that did not disclose their identity. They could, of course, refuse. To my surprise a lot of people wanted me to take their portraits, and giving them the prints and discussing the results became the starting point for an interaction. I worked throughout the project with some people who were in Calais for the long term (they had given up trying to cross). They would make suggestions for the project or had a lot of ideas about how they wanted to contribute. But I also had very fleeting interactions with people I only saw once, or people who I only spent a few days with.
PW: What political or social developments did you see unfolding over the two years?
AM: The situation didn’t change much over the time I was working in Calais (except for the usual cycles of police brutality – sometimes more overt, sometimes less). Towards the end of the time I was there, there were more women in the town. Previously they were mostly in camps in the villages around Calais, as it was dangerous for them to be in the town itself. There were also more instances of organized direct action by migrants and refugees, such as blockades or hunger strikes.
Since 2014 the situation has obviously completely changed. There are many more people trying to cross. The squats have all been closed and people have been cleared out of the town altogether and placed in a camp. French friends of mine who housed migrants were always given a hard time by police but their lives are now being made even more difficult. Instances of police brutality are increasing, as is public acceptance of this oppression. Deaths are unfortunately more frequent.
There’s more hysteria around the numbers in UK reports on Calais, and the language used is more likely to dehumanise the migrants and refugees. On the other hand there’s much more awareness in the UK about the humanitarian situation. When I was working on the project I often had to explain to people what was happening in Calais. There was also very little presence of people from the UK working on the ground (aside from Calais Migrant Solidarity). That has now changed.
PW: Did they share their thoughts with you on how easy it was for you to travel back and forth?
AM: People often asked me to tell people in the UK what the situation was like for them, to spread the word. This made me very uncomfortable because I wasn’t going to spread their story in the way they perhaps thought I was. They would also joke about coming with me in my suitcase. There was probably an awareness of this difference in legal status underlying every interaction and I’ve tried to make that tension a part of the work.
PW: Can you tell us what you hope the publication will achieve?
AM: The work has been shown in a number of different ways but I think the book is the best format for the project, bringing together photographs, writing, drawing, conversation transcripts and Facebook photographs. The book aims to reject the satisfying, coherent narratives so often demanded of refugees and to disrupt the dominant representations of migrants and refugees as either victims or criminals. I want to make space to address pressing political questions in a way that is neither didactic nor ambivalent. I also hope to question the role played by photographers and photography in an increasingly interconnected yet bordered world.
PW: Thanks for your time Alice.