PW: We’re discussing your project Lingering Ghosts, a series of portraits of asylum seekers where the faces – and subsequently the identities – have been erased. The work raises questions about the UK migration system and how refugees are treated. Could you tell us about the process of making the work and how you found your subjects?
SI: It started in 2013 when the UK Border Agency was in the process of being abolished. This meant migration was a topical subject at the time and as a result the term “asylum seeker” kept coming up – mostly due to the huge amount of ever increasing backlog of asylum cases. I released I didn’t really know who these asylums seeker were and wanted to know more about them and how they ended up in Britain.
Needing a topic for a Uni project I followed my curiosity. I did some initial research and managed to visit a detention centre near Heathrow, which helped me to understand the immigration process a bit more.
After finding a couple of refugee drop-ins nearby I visited them regularly, particularly the Trinity Centre in Cardiff. Drop-ins are regular meet ups where asylum seekers and refugees go to socialise, learn new skills, and seek advice. I spent a couple of months listening to people’s stories and just helping out where I could, teaching English (badly) for example.
The more I learnt about how long people were waiting for asylum cases, the more frustrated and well, angry I became. Many people wait for months or even years, without permission to work or travel leaving them with nothing to do and no idea what their future will hold. It’s an extremely frustrating and depressing situation to be in.
I picked up the project a year later in 2014 as it felt unfinished and had received some positive feedback. I continued visiting drop-in centres around Wales and England, visiting about 8 different charities in total, from a therapy centre in Leeds to a youth group in London. With the help of I did a few polaroid workshops and in other visits I’d wait for willing participants in the centres.
PW: The images appear to be scratched. Can you talk us through how you deface the images?
SI: I originally wanted to have passport style portraits with a video interviews but realised that it wasn’t working. People weren’t comfortable having their faces shown and it wasn’t communicating how the long periods of waiting affected asylum seekers. I ended up playing with photoshop and found the effect of scratching had the potential to communicate the loss of identity and confusion asylum seekers felt. The first zine/book dummy featured 7 of these portraits.
When I picked up the project again in 2014 I knew I needed to experiment scratching physically but was focussed on finding people and photographing them at the time -a challenging and time consuming process. Fabrica then approached me about making a book and one of the first things they suggested was to make the scratching physical. I did some tests and it gave the work much more impact. The whole process of scratching someone’s face out is actually pretty disturbing but it fitted what I wanted to say well. The idea of creating work from some form of destruction interested me too.
Thanks to Fabrica the latest pieces were made by scratching out aluminium backed prints using sandpaper and a Stanley knife. It’s helpful to think back to the person’s situation or personality when scratching although often the main inspiration comes from instinctively scratching on smaller prints and planning from there. Some of the images have a more ghostly, faded quality with others more deliberately “scarred” if you will.
PW: Small texts link to each portrait. Can you tell us about the relationship of these texts to the images?
SI: Actually, they have been changed for the latest book now! In the small zine there was text beside each portrait, but Fabrica and I agreed to remove them, giving more space to the images. There are small quotes from asylum seekers in the back of the book that give some insight into their situations. These are based on interviews with over 50 people from various locations over the last couple of years.
PW: Your publication Lingering Ghosts will be released in February 2016 published with Fabrica. What’s next for you?
SI: Yes, excited to see it in the flesh! It’s a passport themed photo book being released on 29th February by Fabrica, who are the communication research centre of the Benetton Group.
Fabrica were interested in working together on the project as they were also developing broader research about the subject of migration at the time. They thought my project offered a unique perspective on the topic so have supported it over the past year, along with a residency in Italy. Whilst making your first book is at times overwhelming and stressful, it was a really worthwhile experience collaborating with professionals you’d never normally work with. Was great fun meeting other creatives from around the world too.
Honestly I’m not entirely sure what’s next. I have a couple of project ideas but nothing set in stone yet. I’m particularly interested in the different responses from European countries to the refugee crisis but other things such as the roles of women refugees and countries like Eritrea have always intrigued me. The issue of migration and refugees is a massive subject so there’s plenty of scope to explore further, we’ll see.
To learn more about the issues surrounding Samuel’s work, read our Ideas Series article The Human Face of Migration written by Gemma Padley.
For more of our Ideas Series, click here.
For more of Samuel’s work, visit his website here.