Very pleased to be able to share this new Photobook about my experiences in Bosnia. All profits from the sale of the book will go to the charity Remembering Srebrenica.
21 Bosnia Revisited By DJ Norwood Book Preview
7 minute read.
In this second segment of a three-part post I chat with another first-time bookmaker for his behind the scenes experiences of the process.
Kevin Percival‘s quietly insistent work documents the landscapes and communities on the remote Scottish Island of Tanera (Ar Dùthaich), charting the symbiotic relationships left by generations its of inhabitants.
DN: Once again, many thanks for loaning me the book. I’ve had a chance to look through the images and most of the text now. It’s a really beautiful project and object.
It seems like a much more fluid and complicated place when you read the end text than is the case on first viewing. I like the way the book withholds small asides and personal histories until the reader has put in the effort to uncover them…Perhaps that’s for later on in the discussion…
Can I start by asking you your initial motivation for the project and at what point you began to realise it would work best in book form?
KP: I think my motivation was EXACTLY that really: I wanted to make a project which looked at rural issues. Having grown up in the countryside and gradually moved to bigger and bigger towns and cities during my adult life, I gradually became aware of how under-considered and under-represented these rural communities have become in the UK (both politically and culturally). When we consider the rural, we’re so used to seeing these postcard pictures, with blue skies and stunning sunsets- the rural as the ‘sublime’ or ‘picturesque’- all these ideas which have gradually become commercialised and solidified on calendars. To the point where I think we forget that real people still live there, and have to try and carve out an existence for themselves too.
When I first moved there for work in 2012, I didn’t know what shape the work would take – that would develop through making the images. As we drove the final single-track road which snakes from Ullapool out to Achiltibuie where our employers’ boat was moored, we were told that there was a currently a bit of a fuss in the community as petrol at the local stations had recently crashed through the £1.50 a litre mark (at the time this was the same as the premium being paid at motorway service areas on the M25). Given that there was only two buses from Achiltibuie to Ullapool a day- people rely on their own transport (not to mention boats) for work- and this kind of price jump is the sort of difference which forces people to choose between putting fuel in the car or buying food in the most extreme cases. This was the first time I’d really considered this and it really stuck with me throughout the project- though never really makes it explicitly into the work.
We’re bombarded by stories about inner-city poverty all the time, but rarely even consider what people in the countryside do. I was once told by an ecologist friend a story of her going into a city primary school. She asked the pupils she was teaching “Where does milk come from?” and was told “from a bottle”. When she asked where it comes from before that – kids tentatively said “milk comes from Tesco”. This is just one example of how urban and rural realities do not intersect. So all these ideas were floating around in my head as I made the work. I didn’t want to deny beauty of the area, because ultimately I’ve always been fascinated by the ecology and Romanticism of the countryside, but I wanted to balance that by saying ‘hey, people make their lives here too it’s more than just a chocolate box’. Putting the work into a book allowed me to blend these narratives together in a more complex way. The idea was to make a book that rewards repeated viewings, so each of the oral histories you read, gives you a very slightly different sense of the place and understanding of the photographs.
The images are made up of portraits, vistas and details the exception being a couple of interiors. In relation to the portraits, did you have a specific cross-section of the community you wanted to represent as a kind of ethnographic survey of the island? How did you go about selecting your subjects?
For the portraits, I tried to show anyone I met whose work or lives impacted on the island at the time we were working there. There were only 5 people living on the island including us, so I focussed on people who lived on the mainland but influenced the daily running of the island.
I often talk about my interest in the traces found in the landscape- the evidence of human interaction with it and presence upon it. I wanted to show the people leaving those traces now in the early 21st century.
My only regret here is not showing more of the holiday makers who often visited every single year for periods of 10 or 15 years. I tried to show a mix of people from different backgrounds and ages though.
When it came to doing oral histories, I felt it was particularly important to represent a variety of perspectives- from young people right through to those in their 60s/70s. From people who have moved to the local area relatively recently, to people who have lived there all their lives- be that 18 years or 60.
It seems to me that one of the most rewarding aspects of bookmaking is the editing – making new relationships with the image so connections are made visually where none existed before – but also the most fraught in the sense that this is a very definite process and once it’s done there’s no going back. You are, in a sense, creating a finalized world in which to immerse your viewer…
In terms of editing that was a really, really long process and I think it’s a really ‘how long is a piece of string’ question – it really varies from project to project and person to person. Almost from the beginning I was working on a rough edit. After our first summer on the island in 2012 I’d scanned and worked on a selection of images- probably about 50 or so that I was interested in, and this informed my shooting for the following year, which meant it became much more directed. I made another edit in 2013 and some of the gaps had been filled in, but others became obvious. So I continued to go back and shoot, editing between trips.
I made my first dummy book around this time, 2013/2014 when I started my MA. I wasn’t too happy with it so left off trying to get the book into a final form for 2 years or so to work on other projects. It wasn’t until early 2016 that went back and I really began to feel like I was getting somewhere. I find editing an uncomfortable process. With this project, it’s when I realised just how attached I’d become to the actual place – never mind the images. It’s very easy to establish relationships with certain images and over time those relationships can easily become entrenched- particularly when working on something for so long. I think you eventually get to a point where you have no idea what’s ‘good’ any more!
I feel very fortunate that I had a bunch of amazing photographer friends who I’d met in various places and I had a lot of help from them, firstly cutting the numbers down to a manageable level, and then bouncing ideas around for the final 66 images which made it into the book. It’s fascinating to see what other people find interesting in your images. I have no problem with handing someone I trust a handful of ordered prints I’ve agonised over for days, and saying ‘make an edit’, watching as they undo all your hard work! Call me a masochist but it’s all part of the process – it quickly brings your own objectivity back if you can let go a bit.
The people I edit with also ask the hard questions – if there’s an image they’re not sure on- you need to be able to justify why it’s there. They don’t have any of your emotional attachment to the particular situations you remember whilst you were photographing.
In the final 6 months before printing, the sequence was re-edited I don’t know how many times, and I had people from wildly different areas, fashion photographers, documentary photographers, commercial. I prefer to work with prints, little contact prints 6x6cm mostly, followed by about 12x12cm once the edit is down.
I felt so ready to get the project out by this point so the editing wasn’t fraught in that sense, but I was very conscious I wanted to do the land and the people justice. Like many things, it’s a deceptively simple story, which belies a hugely layered, complex ecology of place and I really wanted to get some of the complexity across. So that’s where the pressure comes- am I being honest? Am I exploring the many truths of the place and the people? Am I telling these stories fully and with sensitivity?
Due to funding through KickStarter my time-frame for production was super short- print/design was all done within about 3 months. Sean, my designer absolutely took me under his wing at this point, having done a few photobooks of his own (check out his work seandooley.com). He made some helpful final sequencing tweaks, worked up the designs quickly and gave it a much cleaner, more ‘modern-yet-classic’ look than I had in my dummies. I went round getting quotes from a bunch of printers but ended up going with one in Italy who Sean had used before.
My biggest lesson learned here was to always go out [to the printers] and be on press for the printing. In the end I didn’t have the money to do this, but I think it would have smoothed out a bunch of communication issues. Proofing long-distance is a ball-ache. I was really pleased with the final print quality, but getting to that point via email was mainly due to the fact that the printer was so experienced.
Also, no matter how much time you build in to the schedule (seriously- even if it’s months..) I would NEVER again book a launch before the books have come off the press.. If doing a small one-off print-run your baby will get bumped down the print queue if a bigger job comes in. And that’s before deliveries get delayed at customs/for bad weather/because of aliens/strikes/badgers etc.
Ha! The image of militant badgers picketing outside post offices is a strong one. Thanks again for your time and I wish you every success with the book. Buy it here.
All images ©kevinPercival
5 minute read.
Pictures in honour of the extinction rebels.
The following is an extract from influential human geographer Yi-Fu Tuan referencing mythology and environmentalism.
‘In the Chinese cosmological order, things that belong to the same class affect each other. The process, however, is not one of mechanical causation but rather one of “resonance.” For example, the categories east, wood, green, wind and spring are associated with each other. Change one phenomenon – green, say – and all the others will be affected in a process like a multiple echo.
‘So the emperor has to wear the colour green in the spring; if he does not the seasonal regularity may be upset. The idea here stresses how human behaviour can influence nature, but the converse is also believed to occur. Nature affects man: for example, “when the yin force in nature is on the ascendancy, the yin in man rises also, and passive, negative, and destructive behaviour can be expected.”
‘Environmental influence is clearly recognised in the cosmological order of the Saulteaux Indians. Thus the winds are not the only powers in nature that have to be classified and located in space, they are also active forces in conflict over the middle ground where man lives.
‘North wind declares that he intends to show no mercy to humans; South Wind, in contrast, intends to treat humans well. The fact that North Wind cannot defeat South Wind in battle means that summer will always return.’
Mythical Space and Place, Yi-Fu Tuan
Pictures made in woods north of Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire threatened with destruction by the HS2 Project.
All images ©djnorwood 2015
‘The city, in its Victorian overcoat, the muck of centuries on its waistcoat, bored Ballard. He promoted this new place, the rim. The ‘local’ was finished as a concept. Go with the drift, with detachment. The watcher on the balcony. Areas around airports were ecumenical. They were the same everywhere: storage units, hangars, satellite hotels, car hire companies, apologetic farmland as a mop-up apron for Concorde disasters.’
– Iain Sinclair, London Orbital
900 words –
‘Bastard Countryside’, the new book by photographer Robin Friend takes us on a tour of the so called ‘edgelands’ of the UK, pointing out the beauty, mystery and sublime in these 21st century backwaters. In a small autobiographical passage in the front of the book, Friend acknowledging that we still live in a world largely defined by the socio-economic constraints of the past, especially in terms of land ownership and use. Yet this is much more than a dry survey of the rural landscape. It is an archaeological adventure both impressively expansive and movingly intimate. A metaphorical quest of self-discovery as much as a survey of a bruised and battered Britain.
The pictures aren’t rooted to any specific geographical locale, either by topographic reference or text. Instead, they seem gloriously unhinged, able to float free of worldly constraints to instead occupy a space that hints at a greater resonance between the image and the unconscious.
Friend’s enigmatic approach could be seen as adding to the mis-firing cannon of so-called ‘edgeland fetish’ as identified by the writer Robert MacFarlane, who provides the lucid afterword. Yet this malediction is confronted by one image in particular – the forelorn carcass of a stranded whale – its blood still leaching into the surrounding sea. This is the factual pivot around which the rest of the work’s fictional narrative seems to balance, tipping the argument away from delusions of the pastoral towards something altogether darker, more political and relevant. Like an embedded harpoon unleashed from the decks of the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s ship in Moby Dick, this image becomes engrained in us, adding poignancy and, paradoxically, life to the book as a whole.
On this exploration we’re encouraged to meditate on the possibility and meaning of what we find. Friend’s photographic style shuns the cool formality usually associated with historic schools of landscape photography, instead drawing us in with a sophisticated palette of muted tones, interspersed with discordant notes of red and blue as nature’s harmony is rudely disrupted.
Elsewhere, and bearing in mind that, on the face of it, this is an interogation of ‘the countryside’, the archetypal ‘verdant hills’ of a ‘green and pleasant land’ are resolutely absent and draw attention to the artificiality of such terms. In fact, the conspicuous omission of the predominant colour of nature is one of the over-riding impressions here. Where green does feature, it becomes as man-made as a paved driveway – a gangrenous graft of grass or a slimy slither of sea-weed that, like a contaminated limb, seems to hinder rather than help us on our way. Or, verging on the darkly comical, it becomes something to be burnt.
Like the Victor Hugo novel Les Miserable from which the title of this book is derived, this publication is a blend of drama on the micro and macro scale. Large format images repleat with the significance of unfolding narratives interlink with more prosaic digressions that nevertheless take on a sense of the epic, treated as they are with the same meticulous attention to detail. For example, a rusted tin can hidden in a hedge leads seemlessly on to a hulking shipwreck ravaged by tide and time. One gets a sense of the editing here, and the significance of pace, flow and cohesion. The result is a paired-back approach that expertly choreographs form and content into an articulate whole.
The remains of an array of human endevour are exposed to the lens, notably traces from the industrial revolution and the second world war. Many of these spaces and objects are tantalisingly familiar and have contemporary concerns. The recycling facility sorting material into its debased state; the wind farm blighting the bucolic view; ‘an abandoned greenhouse gradually re-mossed,’ as identified by Macfarlane. In less skilful hands these images could have easily tipped into cliché, but not here.
A sequence of penultimate pictures delve into the subterranean world of the tunnel, sewer and cave, reinforcing not only a sense of journey and adventure, but also of apotheosis – the idea of consumerist culture reaching a kind of zenith. Peak stuff, in the literal and metaphorical sense has never been so plainly or keenly observed as here in the blocked bowels of the earth.
Friend seems to be echoing, in these underground caverns, the words of the photographer Robert Adams who says, ‘the area’s ruin would be a testament to a bargain we had tried to strike. The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy. They document a separation from ourselves and, in turn, from the natural world that we professed to love.’ The bargain in ‘Bastard Countryside’ seems to be at the expense, not only of the surface of the land, but the very internal workings of the earth itself.
Yet truisms crudely articulated render the poetics of art redundant. Here there is beauty (this ugly word) in the most maligned of places – a gift the photographer has captured and translated into form. The possibility of hope that, in time, we might seek to alter our ways and find an alternative to this malaise. What is pictured here is the aftermath of violence, the chaotic clash between global capitalism and nature, played out in a poet’s back yard.
Bastard Countryside by Robin Friend, published by Loose Joints through to www.loosejoints.biz
Simon Roberts’ atomised survey of Brexit Britain’s divided soul. A short review.
Merrie Albion, the new monograph by the photographer Simon Roberts is a timely publication delving into the social landscape of England. The work has been ten years in the making and was conceived, as much as these things can be, before the uncertainty of Brexit could taint the sea air or sour the national psyche. The pictures reveal a society of tribes, each imbued with their own laws (lores), engaging in the complex, hierarchical and habitual activities comprising our western society; rooted in a landscape rich in history, meaning and metaphor.
Gatherings of people in grand and intimate scale could signify that contrary to popular sociological discourse, we are all ‘somewhere’ people despite issues of class, religion and social status. This ‘somewhere’ may not be a home in the domestic sense, but it is a shared space of social interaction, where the emphasis is on a communal sense of values and attitudes. Equally, the pictures allude to the hidden rifts between people of different class, social status and socio-economic background. In both senses, we are English when we look, sound and feel the same as our neighbour, whether they be daubed in face paint in anticipation of a Kiss concert, or donning Captain Beeny t-shirts in support of a comical parliamentary candidate.
The pictures appeal for their detail and scope. Each element is carefully stage-managed in an act of patient observation. We see ourselves in the reflected gaze of the curious professor, peering down over half-moon spectacles, smiling wryly. The stillness of the images and their resolution reward a forensic gaze. If this is a mirror held up to us, it is gilded and gaudy, depleted of sophistication, worn and artfully stressed.
More classic British wit is on show: the absurdity of a dunking in Dickensian costume; men and women in white coats at a county show (are coming to take me away, ha ha!), the authoritarian demarcation of the end of a tourist beach; a cat (belonging to a malevolent psychopath, perhaps?) sits innocently on a wall outside a weapons factory; ‘A warm welcome’ emblazoned against a fire damaged building, provides a lurid, ironic twist. This is a country suitably sanguine about its ability to cope with political fallout and economic turmoil. The pictures seem to solidify a sense of British resolve to face up to the least worst options available.
As David Matless, one of the astute writers, academics and commentators included in the book says in apt English understatement, ‘There is much variety in Merrie Albion.’ It is this remarkable breadth that would habitually dilute a voice within a project, leading to unproductive cul-de-sacs and dead ends. Yet Roberts has elegantly navigated any danger of disconnect by being clear about his socio-geographic objectives and by opening the work up to collaboration from voices across the cultural spectrum and political sphere.
He pictures his fellow country folk in circumstances of apparent free-will, when quiet passions, pastimes and affiliations float to the surface as if in subconscious reverie. But we need direction to navigate this complex terrain and it is the narration, both in the form of extended captions and other voices, which prove to be illuminating guides on this complicated but rewarding ten-year journey around the isle.
Author’s note: this review was written from a pdf kindly supplied by the publisher, Dewi Lewis. The book is available to buy online here.
All images ©Simon Roberts
I made a maquette recently from pictures I brought back from a cycle trip in Morocco. In many ways it was just a cycle trip, yet I was serious about the pictures I made and I had an idea of an over-arching theme that I wanted to explore through its course. This post is first and foremost a response to a question about sequencing during the editing process – something I found a joy despite having very little experience of the process. The dummy is shown in the video above.
By making pictures in an arbitrary location, Morocco in this case, using a bicycle as the vehicle for changing the objects and backgrounds, one can spend a period of time recording what the eye sees and the mind thinks. The reason for a particular picture can be re-interpreted after the event and when joined with others, can be re-organized into sequences which the photographer thinks visually appealing or, more ambitiously, aspires to communicate something other than what is present in front of the lens. This is now a collaboration between our two selves: on the one hand the person we are now (the editor) and the person we were then – when we looked through the camera viewfinder and clicked the shutter. Philosophically speaking, these are two different people.
This is the interesting and rewarding aspect of sequencing a book. One might follow a figure in a landscape with a detail of a translucent plastic bag, but the bag might loosely reference the shape of the person, and somehow become an allegory of a life. One might link the deep lines of a weathered face with the shafts of light raking across the surface of a cracked pool table – the fissure echoing the remains of a snake, tattooed into the tarmac of an undisclosed location. A light bulb might paradoxically reference both modernity and poverty, then, on the next page, celebrity and power might be obliquely alluded to with a specular reflection from the surface of a framed and mounted portrait.
Meanwhile, one may have an overarching theme, through which the disparate aspects of the book might emerge. I was just about to get married, so this was always in the back of my mind, a kind of backdrop onto which everything else was projected and which (for me) changed the meaning of things. The metronomic motion of legs and wheels helped to release my mind from habitual concerns to deeper thoughts of love and commitment. This is the realm of the symbol and the metaphor, where nothing is arbitrary and everything has a significance and meaning, but it is skewed by the mind: the ‘backdrop’ always ‘intervenes’ and changes what is in front of the eye.
In the preface of his fascinating book ‘The Unseen Eye’, W.M Hunt describes his images of people whose eyes ‘are somehow obscured, veiled, hidden, blocked, averted or closed,’ as somehow portraits of himself. They are all, he says, ‘in their unique way, manifestations of my unconscious.’
Similarly, the lone figures with their backs to the viewer in the maquette I made are all pictures of me, walking away into my new life.
Incoming is a multi-media instillation on show at the Barbican Gallery in London by the artist Richard Mosse in collaboration with the cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and the composer Ben Frost. Its theme is the migration crisis of refugees into Europe, and branches off into independent but related scenarios such as the demolished ‘Jungle’ Camp in Calais and naval operations in the Mediterranean.
Mosse uses a military grade thermal imaging camera to represent migrants as monochromatic, anonymous figures irradiating heat signatures in varying tonalities, depending on their circumstance and predicament. The thermal rays bounce off a metallic blanket like light, and the tips of fingers and the ends of noses fade against warm palms and faces. The vision of this highly sophisticated camera in this context is resolutely other: a piercing dystopian eye which sees like an alien and renders those within its gaze as heat maps, rather than identifiable individuals.
As a linear progression from his previous work Enclave, where the artist used discontinued military grade infra-red film to reveal Congolese fighters in deep jungle, Incoming utilizes the technology of surveillance as a medium of artful reflection, rather than for, as in this case, its intended purpose – as a tool for battlefield awareness or the long range enforcement of border crossings and other state sponsored surveillance. Where Incoming departs from Enclave, and expands the critique on the use of such systems, is in the insidious rendering of all human life as equally vulnerable to the camera’s technology.
The ethical use of this medium is born out of the artist’s desire to diverge from the common use of images in the mass media, and showcase the awesome (it provokes awe) properties of the camera itself. In simple terms, this means that the gallery visitor can see what the soldier or law enforcement officer sees. More importantly however, it highlights the complicity of this ‘seeing’ in the context of the gallery space, and casts the unwitting witness as complicit in this crisis. The result is that one emerges into the daylight equally moved and troubled by the experience. Yes, the refugee ‘other’ is represented as stark, featureless biological traces, but so too are the aid workers, doctors, police officers and military personnel. Indeed, anyone who strays into the dehumanising vision of the all-seeing-eye is deprived of humanity.
In this way, the gallery visitor, by association, is implicated in the work, and this fact could be used to respond to criticism of Mosse’s approach as mere gimmickry. The discrepancy of power relations between migrants and governments create an unnerving undercurrent, raising questions about the ethical use of surveillance techniques against people who are essentially rendered (in their essence) the same as us – just another heat source. This could be seen as helping to break down barriers of representation, rather than re-enforcing usual stereotypical narratives. However, it is complicated by the inherent sense of voyeurism – the overall production values borrow from the language of entertainment – the lingering close up and the stylized slo-mo being two obvious examples.
In short, Incoming refers as much to the new frontiers of military hardware available to the State as to the vulnerable refugees that this project seeks to represent.
The powerful and emotive Incoming is a free exhibition on at the Barbican until April 23rd.
Part two of three part post…
The following day I met up with Sophie again after she invited me to an Arabic film at a community centre. I made my way across the city just in time only to be told it was a women’s only screening. No problem, I thought, I’ll sit in on an Arabic class instead.
One of the volunteers stood in while we waited for the usual teacher, Raman to arrive. We were all there for our different reasons, and not all because we had nothing better to do. Olga’s Iranian husband always spoke to her in Russian, but she’d never been able to reciprocate in his native tongue, so this was her big chance. She seemed touchingly determined to change this discrepancy in one go.
Our three British classmates were there in various capacities to fill the void for aid and services – English language classes, community aid and social work – each providing a link between charity groups and displaced peoples. I was beginning to get a sense of the roles carved out by the arrival of migrants and, equally, the diversity of those who choose to respond to their calls.
Raman helped us wrap our mouths round unfamiliar words and phrases, laughing with every failed vowel and mispronounced glottal stop…
Kefak/Kefek – How are you? (Male/female)
Alhamdulillah – Praise (be to God)
Taman – Good
Sho ho Esmak/Esmek – What is your name?
Ismi – My name is…
Sophie’s interactions in Arabic had impressed me, but also reinforced how fluency builds trust between the displaced people Safe Passage was here to help. This brief Arabic lesson only reinforced the sense that a language barrier can lead to antipathy, then perhaps inexorably on to more obvious physical borders, boundaries and ill conceived walls. An obvious question now seemed to hang in the air: would we in the west be so xenophobic if we shared the ability, or even the desire, to communicate on equal terms? I left the centre with a new sense of empathy wondering how long it would last.
Tonight was the night I had promised to hook up with Ahmed and Akram and I couldn’t help wishing I’d postponed the meeting till later in the week. It was now 5, so I had to kick around until they surfaced at 10. I wandered back towards Exarchia, pausing to stare in through bookshop windows, admiring the exotic beauty of the Greek alphabet. I had no real desire to decipher the many titles on offer, my eyes just luxuriated in their foreignness: aesthetically accessible but resolutely incomprehensible – like some kind of enigmatic code.
Eight O’clock came round and I was beginning to flag. My gut, now full of greasy Gyros said this was voyeuristic, given that I had no real reason to be at the squat full of asylum seekers, yet the toothbrush in my bag told a different story and weighed more heavily on my mind than its diminutive size might suggest. The whole escapade now felt vaguely surreal. Everything was set apart from my conviction that this was a good idea. I wandered back across town, back to the apartment and spent a couple of hours with my host and his friends playing snakes and ladders of all things, feeling guilty about my lack of commitment. Were they really expecting me to spend the night with them?
In the morning I logged in to the house wifi and picked up the WhatsApp messages from Ahmed.
‘Where are you?’ hit me like a punch in the side. I apologized, then hurriedly arranged to meet them the following night. I promised I wouldn’t let them down again.
‘If you stay there one night, you will want to kill yourself.’
I was sitting outside a bar overlooking Exarchia Square in central Athens, scoffing pizza with some new acquaintances, two of whom happened to be Syrian refugees. We’d been talking about the journey the sixteen and eighteen year olds had had to endure to get to their current place of residence – a squat in an abandoned school close to the centre of Athens. Ahmed was describing in great detail what it was like to be living persona non grata in a foreign country. The pizza had come as a welcome distraction from the more pressing thoughts of an uncertain future.
‘If you like you can stay the night with us,’ he continues, giving a cheeky smile across the table to his friend who is occupied with a particularly large and unwieldy slice. Akram smiles with his eyes, knowing exactly the hospitality his friend has in mind. His mouth is far too busy with the pizza to reply.
Just before my week long trip to Athens I’d been mulling over ideas about how to interpret questions of social cohesion, economic depression and individual discontent. It put me in a reflective mood, but already this encounter was helping to understand the truth about what it was like to be displaced, miles away from home. I got the impression Ahmed was making the most of his last year of boyhood, and was enjoying some aspects of his pioneering adventure. He wore his displacement on his sleeve, and my subdued reaction to the thought of spending a night there only seemed to bolster his sense of pride and resilience, with a smattering of school-boy excitement thrown in.
I’d been to Athens before, in the summer of 2012, again for a frustratingly short amount of time, but had returned with something approaching a visual style and a vocabulary of themes. Then I had stayed just down the road from this spot, in a small apartment with a friend from Estonia, and had walked these same streets in an effort to understand the symptoms of the financial crisis facing the country. Exarchia Square and its surrounding neighbourhood had become something of a safe haven for demonstrators – the Police unwilling to venture into a space where the consent between the agency of the state and the population had been repealed, and I found that nothing much had changed.
In my peregrinations this time, I find myself sitting outside a smokey bar, a favourite haunt for left leaning literati, overlooking the same tree lined Square I got to know four years ago. Lost in my own thoughts, I’m asked in English ‘do you order drinks at the bar, or is there table service?’ I thought I fitted in quite well as a local, but obviously not. Strangely, I felt my cover blown. Sophie, an Arabic speaking charity coordinator working for Safe Passage, was out at the end of the working week taking the pulse of the city. As we sit together overlooking the Square, she is recognised by the two boys, whom she had helped when they were both living in a camp on a nearby Island.
‘Where is this place? Where are you staying?’ I ask, trying to get a sense of whether staying a night in the squat is a good idea or not.
‘It’s only just around the corner, just up there,’ says Ahmed pointing over his shoulder and lifting his chin at the same time.
‘We can find a place for you, no problem. But no pictures.’
‘How many people are there,’ I ask.
‘About one hundred and fifty.’
Sophie, peers over in my direction.
‘What an opportunity,’ she says. ‘Are you going to do it?’
‘Err…Yes’, I reply hesitantly. ‘Why not? My project isn’t primarily about refugees, but it’s part of the broader picture, and I can put it down as research.’
Those last words make me feel uncomfortable, like some kind of disaster tourist, but I push these thoughts aside, together with Ahmed’s rather dramatic warning, and resolve to get in touch with them both the following evening.
We exchange numbers, friend each other on Facebook (of course) and dissipate into the night, the cold Athenian air tinged with the taint of tear gas.
These graffiti covered vans seen recently in Athens seem to distil many of the arguments about the economic woes of a country coupled with the migrant crisis we hear so much about in the media.
I spent a day walking around the neighbourhood near the flat, which happened to be close to Athens China Town. If ever there was a success story of economic migration, surely this was it. Nothing glamorous about the location but the fashion draped over mannequins on pavement corners had more than a hint of glitz. One wondered how the dark warehouses behind, full of sequinned dresses and racy underwear could sustain themselves, yet business seemed to be booming. In harsh times a little bit of luxury seemed to go a long way.
Keeping watch like sentries outside the store fronts were dilapidated vans, mostly white and mostly adorned with a livery of spray can tags. The tipping point of resistance to this criminal damage had long been surpassed, and now these most utilitarian of vehicles were slowly morphing into their surroundings.
The vans show something of the industrial heartland of commercial Athens, away from tourist attractions. They are a modern symbol of what the Ancient Greeks termed ‘Polis’ – the agents of citizenship which help drive, literally in this case, the economic well-being of a city.