Photographer: Working with the ​charity, Just Shelter

As some followers of this blog will be aware, for several years I’ve been documenting trips to Northern France with London-based charity Just Shelter, who raise money, collect necessary items and organise educational activities for displaced children in France. For others, it might come as a surprise to hear that people are still living precariously in Calais and Dunkirk. The well-publicised Jungle closed in 2016 but families and individuals have continued to arrive in the area and many are existing without any of the basics most of us take for granted.

Donated toys are washed and books sorted in a warehouse in Calais before being given to children and families. Another warehouse nearby continues to provide food for people in need. (2020)

Over the last few years, I have focused on landscapes which aim to mark the passing of time, as well as the Just Shelter’s activities, and when appropriate I’ve photographed people we met. Cameras and displaced individuals are not a great mix, but one of Just Shelter’s aims is to remind people that there are still many in need as well as busy, underfunded, volunteer organisations providing support.

This weekend was the first time I accompanied Just Shelter after a break of several months, and it was distressing to see that, although some things have shifted, the situation is not improving. One is left wondering if it ever will. Today, as we remember some of the worst events from of our history, we can reflect on the way people are being treated in the US and across Europe, and consider the lack of empathy evidenced by Parliamentarians recently who voted not to reunite refugee children with family members in the UK.

Images of a workshop run by teachers with Just Shelter and volunteers from Project Play this weekend with children who really enjoyed the games and maths lessons provided. (2020)

To donate or offer support please visit Just Shelter’s Facebook page. You can find out more about Project Play here. 

All images (c)SJField2016-20

 

South London Photographer: With Just Shelter in Dunkirk & Calais

There seems to be so much upheaval and chaos surrounding us all today, it is very difficult to know how to write about Just Shelter’s trips to France. The team continue to gather donations which people kindly deliver when requested. As always Just Shelter takes everything over to Calais, where they transfer carefully packed boxes and bags filled with the simplest and most basic articles to a warehouse populated by volunteers who give up their time, often for weeks and months on end, in an attempt to help a situation which is seemingly helpless.

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Volunteers in the warehouse mending donations which can still be used

Thereafter the London based group travel to a field where people are living in the most appalling conditions, and try in as orderly a fashion as is possible to hand out much needed and appreciated packs of clothing, perhaps some fruit, whatever token of support they can offer.

**

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I thought the wood had been taken for firewood but I was told the police had deliberately destroyed the bridge

Each time, I aim to engage with people and I hear the same story. “The police slash our tents. They treat us like animals. The scream at us, push us, they don’t give us even five minutes to get our stuff. Then they take us somewhere. Do they think we would choose to leave our country, our homes to live like this if there was not a good reason? We don’t come here to live like this because we want to. We come because we cannot be free. But here we are treated worse than animals. If we can stay in the sports hall [an indoor space where limited numbers of people can shelter during the coldest months], we are like prisoners with so many rules, lining up, being told when we can come or go.” Another came up to me as I listened to the man and asked me if I knew who I was talking to. “Gengis Khan!!” he laughed. We all laughed. Even though it was bitterly cold, even though people are clearly bored, frustrated, desperate, there is time for irony and humour.

 

“Take my picture!” some young men invite me towards the fire they are burning. There is little wood and they are using inappropriate donations of women’s nylon underwear from another group visiting which can be worn by no-one here. I take their photos and then get them to message me so I can send them copies. A pair perform and pose with the female undergarments as I photograph them. We all enjoy the playfulness. A guy selling cigarettes stands nearby and asks me if I want to buy any. I don’t smoke, I tell him. We stand quietly and he lets me photograph his bag filled with well-known brands. “A good man. Cheap!” says one of the other guys who had been photographed earlier as he points to the seller. He then indicates to the barber, “A good man also, cheap haircuts.”

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The barber did not want to be photographed but was happy to speak to me. He made a living giving people affordable haircuts, which sometimes means free.

“I was a manager in a hotel back in my country. I had a good job. A car. A good home. But no freedom. You criticise the government. And within 24 hours you’re dead.”

When I first arrived at the car park where Just Shelter began the process of handing out backpacks, I noticed a boy who might have been in his late teens or early twenties. He sat on the wooden pole and listlessly watched people queuing patiently for the nominal packs we had gathered from people in London. “Don’t you want one, I asked?” He shrugged. He looked liked he could have done with something warmer to wear. They all did.

At the end of the day, Just Shelter travelled to a more disparate camp where there are many more groups of people. We visited the same camp during our previous visit. I had taken some photographs of boys and young men there before and they recognised me. We greeted each other warmly. Despite their smiles and friendliness, this camp feels darker, less safe. I try to engage with others but it is clear they are not willing. I don’t blame them. I head to the site where the old Jungle used to be and take some photographs to of it now so I can compare with the images I took before.

Afterwards, the group head back to get our ferry. I know we will see some of the same faces again next time.

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The area that was the Jungle

 

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The same view as an image taken at the bottom of the page in 2016

 

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When I first visited here in 2015 a man had covered the graffiti up and had become its gatekeeper. This was the first place I arrived and it was packed with tents. Two young women immediately offered me hot tea. The camp held 10 000  at its height. Now the smaller camp nearby is populated by about 300 men.  Variously sized groups are scattered all over the region and beyond making it hard for volunteers to distribute tents, sleeping bags, clothes and food.

 

 

**

While our group were there, another team of teachers had been working with children in a local building where families have been able to shelter for the worst of the winter months. The children were grateful for real lessons and their parents equally so. Please follow Just Shelter if you haven’t already so you can read about the work the teachers were able to do while they visited, and to find out how you can get involved.

(c)SJField 2019

 

South London Photographer: Just Shelter, Dunkirk

Last Saturday I travelled to Dunkirk once again with local charity, Just Shelter. As we drove into the wooded open spaces behind an out of town consumer village, which always reminds me of something from a J.G. Ballard novel, we saw an elderly man limping in front of us. He carried a small assortment of possessions, blankets perhaps, and his ill-fitting coat was barely wrapped around him despite the desperately cold and wet February weather. He noticed the car and moved over to the side of the road, and as we passed he thanked us for our patience as we had slowed down for him.

We parked and shortly afterwards one of the Just Shelter leaders went over to another group, a team of volunteers from Holland delivering food and blankets, so she could discuss distributing alongside them. The man we’d seen arrived at the same time and according to my colleague, the kindness of the strangers he met prompted him to break down and sob. He was in pain, hungry and cold. Exhausted. He’d only just reached the location, with nothing except the support of his son. They had no tent or any of the items people who have been there a little longer manage to keep hold of. I say manage because often the police visit and destroy or confiscate everything. Volunteers hand out coats, blankets, and tents and then the police come along a few days later and tear it all down. All that any of us could do for the elderly man was offer him a handful of paracetamol and a single meal handed out by the Dutch volunteers. There were no tents left on the shelves of the local shops and as we were leaving later that day the man was sitting under a tarpaulin in the rain waiting for something or someone because he had come as far as he could go. (continued below)

 

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This water covers the ground where just a few months ago you might have seen people gathering to charge their phones on portable generators. That now takes place further along on a tarred surface as this space has become too wet. The images below are of the same position and were taken last year in August, September, and November.

We were able to move him to a more sheltered space and alert a visiting medical team who went to see what they could do to help. We also asked one of our contacts working in France to find him and his son a tent so he could at least get out of the rain.

I can’t stop thinking about that man, who in the last years of his life felt that living in the country he thought of as home was so dire, it would be worth the momentous and risky journey across Europe in search of safety; a better existence. And while I have no idea where he’ll end up, it seems desperately wrong that Europe should do so little to help him and all the other people who have made the same decision.

One of Just Shelter’s aims is making sure we don’t forget the many, many people living without basic amenities all over Europe, as they flee countries which have become untenable for a number of reasons. At a time when here in the UK we are faced with difficult news on a daily basis, which alarms us and makes us angry about how people in this country are being treated, it is not always easy to find ways to keep this story alive. Understandably, many people are worried about homelessness in the UK, or the fact that workers are being fined for taking sick days and dying as they try to avoid punitive measures. Or how a system has evolved which allows companies to make vast profits while the people working for them sit on pavements in all weathers, often unpaid, until they deliver our pizzas and curries, and with no workplace benefits whatsoever. We are horrified by stories about claims being stopped when people fail to turn up for interviews because they are in hospital. Across the political divide, we are angry that many of our politicians seem so disconnected from the reality of our lives. Thinking about people from other countries when we have so many issues to think about here can seem like too much. But there is a strong argument to suggest all of these things are connected in some way. And perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear, I do not believe refugees are to blame for the world’s ills. (continued below)

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This was taken on a walk through the woods beside a lake, which resulted in a meeting with some men living there. They invited us to sit down for a talk and a cup of tea outside a tent situated in the woods.
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The police arrived before the tea was made forcing everyone to move away as they hoped to avoid confrontation or worse.

The dejected man I saw in Dunkirk reminded me a little of my late father. His life was obviously very different but he too was broken during the latter years of his life. However, he could get out of the rain. He could sit in front of the TV and escape a depressing reality with his favourite soap operas. He could drink and eat what he liked and he could go to bed under a roof with central heating warming up his rather dilapidated flat. These things are such basic requirements and no-one in Europe regardless of how they arrived here should be without a roof. I am well aware that people here in the UK are struggling to pay for heating, but again, it isn’t any refugee’s fault. The man we saw in Dunkirk is not just a story on your social media feed. He’s far more than a collection of pixels. He’s real. He’s a person. And he’s somebody’s father, grandfather, somebody’s loved one. And he’s old and living on the ground behind a supermarket car park.

If anyone is interested in helping Just Shelter either practically or with donations, please get in touch via their Facebook page.

All images (c)SJField 2018

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The presence of people is less obvious than before but look carefully and you’ll see the coloured tents behind and peeking above bushes all along the entrance road.
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Across the road the land has been cleared which prevents anyone from hiding in there. When we visited before you could see people entering through this broken bit of fence.
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It rained all day when we were there. My car got stuck in the mud and the men living there helped me to get it out. They were overjoyed to be able to help us.
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London based artist and teacher, Emily Gopaul, spent several hours with young children in a temporary shelter for people with young children.
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There were about ten families with young children living in the temporary shelter but I understand it will close in a few weeks. It is unclear where the families will go at the point.
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It was difficult being in this storeroom where donations are waiting to be handed out. The neat and methodical way all the items are arranged represents real people who they are destined to reach. Seeing the items this way was haunting.
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Again, these empty clothes waiting for people to wear them reminded us of the reality of the situation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South London Photographer: Dunkirk

Writing about the state of education today, Julian Astle*, of the Royal Society of the Arts, expressed himself so eloquently that I start by quoting his words alongside the latest series of images taken during Just Shelter’s recent trip.

“The root causes of the West’s culture wars are many and complex. But chief among them is the fact we live on a dangerously overheating and ever more densely populated planet where conflict and persecution, flooding and drought and vast inequalities of opportunity and wealth have displaced 65 million people and created a migrant population greater than that of Brazil. Amid the backlash to this unprecedented movement of people from poorer to richer nations, liberalism is in full retreat, while nationalism, nativism and protectionism are all on the rise. And with an angry populist politics on the Right feeding off, and feeding, an intolerant and censorious strain of identity politics on the Left, our ability to transcend our hardwired instinct to tribalism — to put our shared humanity before our group loyalties — is once again being severely tested.” (2017) (Bold lettering mine.)

These photographs show the area in Dunkirk which Just Shelter has been visiting to deliver donations for the last few months. They include an image of a man who said he was beaten by the police who, according to reports, regularly tear down and destroy tents, confiscate belongings and attempt to move people on. He is not the first person to show me such injuries. As we drive to the woods after disembarking from the ferry, we pass several groups of people in and around the area. There are an estimated 1000 people living rough in Calais and Dunkirk according to Care4Calais**. Each time I’ve travelled with Just Shelter I have met people who have lived in the area for over a year, several months and some who have only just arrived.

If you are interested in supporting Just Shelter you can find out how here.

*Director of Creative Learning and Development

** 3000 across France See Care4Calais‘s latest appeal

Images (c)SJField 2017

Reference

Astle, J. 2017. The Ideal School Exhibition, https://medium.com/rsa-reports/the-ideal-school-exhibition-74cee1951c75 [Accessed 26th November 2017]

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South London Photographer: Refugees in Dunkirk with Just Shelter

This morning I read a newspaper headline which suggested it is a delusion to think we are a kind society, and sadly, it does feel more and more difficult to disagree with that sentiment, even if you don’t buy into the writer’s arguments. It doesn’t take long to find examples of behaviour exhibiting an utter lack of empathy; political rhetoric, responses beneath online newspaper articles, or comments on Twitter, for instance, which often demonstrate a callousness that never fails to stun. However, I am able to take comfort from spending time with people who are doing whatever they can, no matter how small it might seem, to contribute positive and empathetic actions in a world that appears increasingly un-empathetic and indifferent to the suffering of others. We may indeed be an unkind society but there are plenty of kind-hearted people from all walks of life out there, including those with virtually nothing to offer.

When I go with Just Shelter to Dunkirk, I am very lucky to be given the freedom to go off and speak with people as I collect stories, and images where possible, from men and women who tell me what it is like to be living in fields, behind supermarkets and next to motorways. I want to repeat some of the reports but I am in two minds about this. I can’t corroborate anything. I’m not a journalist and although I spend what time I can documenting the situation, verifying what I hear would demand resources I don’t have. I am also very aware that few believe much of what they read online anyway. Nevertheless, despite living in an era of intense cynicism, I know that the empathetic amongst you would be appalled by what I am told in Dunkirk.

I am also wary of revealing details about people that would put them in danger. But we need to consider our responsibility as we allow this situation to exist, without proper facilities and processes in place. And so I will write carefully about the reports of police intimidation, of brutality, bribery, extortion. I will describe a man who wanted shoes and a sleeping bag, and whose broken fingers were causing him such pain. Fingers reportedly crushed by police officers forcing him to register in one country when he was desperate go to another, for reasons that we can’t fully understand and therefore can’t make judgments about. Because we don’t know what it’s like to be forced to flee, leave behind jobs, loved ones, our own history, citizenship. I will let you know that traffickers were referred to as ‘the mafia’ by everybody I spoke with; their presence in the camp engenders such fear and suspicion. Or that it reportedly costs €5000 per person to pay someone to smuggle you across the Channel without guarantee of success, and €10 000 if you want to be sure of arriving in the UK. Or that there are rumours of collusion and dodgy deals between various authorities. Or that the police routinely visit the area with knives to destroy and cut down tents, batons to beat people, and dogs to terrify them. ‘Residents’ often mention the aggressive dogs. These are things I have been told about by numerous people specifically during my previous two visits. While in the makeshift camp during the last two journeys I met a barber, an estate agent, a lawyer, a chauffeur, a mechanic, someone who told me he worked with CNN. I met a father of young children, two girls and one boy, whose right arm was horribly bent and disfigured. He told me it had been being broken when he was tortured back home, and not set properly before healing. I met someone fleeing his government, persecuted for his work with human rights. I had philosophical discussions about the meaning of borders, religion and some of our innate animalistic traits. A few of the people I spoke with were in the camp the last time I was there, and one family in particular, I had met in the Dunkirk camp which burnt down earlier this year. Many were new though, fleeing horrors and desperation we in the West can only imagine.

I have been travelling to the area in Northern France since the end of 2015 and it has always seemed hopeless and shocking. But this latest visit somehow seemed more so than ever. We had just a few pair of shoes to hand out, and the sense of panic as our small stock ran low was palpable and frightening at times. The people there really have so little and what is given to them is often taken away by the police soon after, so must be given again. And critically they have no-where to go or to be. No-where. No-one wants them. Many cannot go home. In some cases there is no home to go to. Or it is too dangerous.

I know as I write this that there will be readers who don’t believe any of it, who believe it but say, so what? Or who think, ‘not my problem… we have our own issues.” There are also those who will be appalled and horrified. We humans are difficult creatures. We are frightened and suspicious, some of us damaged beyond repair, some of us sadly born with little hope of ever being able to cope in life, perhaps due to genetics, perhaps to circumstances. There is something very strange going on in our world at the moment, and the sort of damage I’m describing,  which negates or impinges on empathy for others, seems to be driving economic, political and social  agendas in many parts of the world, including our own, leading to world that does seem extremely unkind. And yes, we do have plenty of problems to solve here in the UK too. But dehumanising desperate people who live on our doorstep without ensuring even the most basic of human needs are met, and in effect therefore dehumanising ourselves, will not help us find workable solutions. Surely it will only compound problems in the future.

To those of you who want to know how it is possible to contribute, no matter how insignificant you think it may be (it isn’t incidentally), you can do so by supporting Just Shelter or any one of their associates.  To borrow a phrase, “If you’re not doing something to address the problem, you’re part of the problem.”

Views my own. Images (c)SJField 2017

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An abandoned animal pen and farm house next to the camp show signs of having been used by people for protection against the cold. Most people sleep in the woods trying to avoid detection. Not having a fire to cook or keep warm stops the police from seeing you in the dark.
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A river and lake is used as the bathroom…
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…and the only place to wash clothes.
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This woman has moved her tent since the last time we were there after the police destroyed everything. She has much further to walk with fresh water for her family now.

 

 

South London Photographer: Calais

Recently I was asked to accompany an Earlsfield based association to document their trip to The Jungle in Calais. In the near future Just Shelter aim to raise funds for charities, Calais Kitchen and Jungle Canopy,  who feed and help people living in the camp. Please follow Just Shelter to find out more about upcoming fundraising events. There are no NGOs operating properly in Calais and so the volunteers working there are doing so under extremely difficult conditions and really need any help they can get, as do the people living in the camp. With so much going on in the world the media have moved away from The Jungle and donations are less forthcoming. It is becoming harder to maintain the support that is required.

Here are a handful of the images from my previous trip. Please see my site for other images showing some of the conditions people are living under. You can also visit Just Shelter or Calaid-ipedia for further information about what is needed and how you can help. Just Shelter is planning another trip very soon and will welcome donations of money or goods, but please check with Just Shelter about what is  required.

All images (c)SJField 2016

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Taken from inside a makeshift kitchen. We were offered tea, coffee and snacks, as is usual there. The people I spoke to here had been living in The Jungle for almost a year.
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Although the authorities succeeded in demolishing this section of the camp there are still just as many people living very close by and about a hundred arriving daily*.
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The packing containers which have been used to house some people are woefully inadequate. There are no cooking facilities and limited bathrooms.
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I was told that one of the hardest things, amongst many, is having very little to do. Kite flying is perhaps difficult for the authorities to prevent. Destroying the street with its makeshift cafes, as well as preventing external groups from being there in order to provide something to occupy people’s time, is a cynical strategy aimed at breaking down morale amongst residents.
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Although this church was left standing another was demolished despite assurances it wouldn’t be. As was a school. This church is now surrounded by wild scrub when just a few months back it was surrounded by the people it served.
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Another area where once there were tents and shelters.  These were bulldozed in March. Thousands of already displaced people were forced to set up just a few yards away.  There are more than 7,000 people living there and no NGOs in place. The charities work tirelessly to help and are privately funded with donations. Volunteers fund their own travel and board.
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Sanitary towels are of course really important for women. I can imagine how uncomfortable and difficult it must be to have your period and not have a bathroom to use.
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The warehouse we visited is a huge operation being run entirely by self-funded volunteers.

 

*https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/jul/27/calais-camp-france-food-refugees-business-companies-support

South London Photographer: Why we must override our ‘groupishness’

It’s the end of half term, which with three boys can be more than a little demanding. I mustn’t complain too much though because we have spent the week relaxing after a very busy few weeks moving house. And how lucky we are to have found a really lovely, spacious home near to everything we need; most importantly for all of us, we are still within the community that I love so much. Of course, most rooms still have a final cardboard box waiting patiently for me to decide whether the things inside are ever going to have a place, or else be ditched like so much other junk I managed to get rid of when I was packing up the old place. I’ve promised myself to be rid of these boxes very soon one way or another because it’s really rather nice having a home where I can put everything away in its proper place, probably for the first time in my entire adult life. Now all I have to do is pay for it. Which means my discomfort around marketing myself is going to have to be pushed aside – I really have no choice about it anymore.  Probably a good thing!

However, all of that that pales into insignificance when I am reminded of people travelling the world, having been forced to escape from villages and towns that have been bombed to smithereens.  Or where they fear for their lives for any number of impossible to imagine reasons. It might be constant bombing, the threat of starvation, brutality from governing states and other groups, in the form of senseless executions, gender based violence or mindless, heavy-handed coercive measures.

When I see footage and still photographs of people fleeing, and consider the risks and lengths people will go to to reach safety, it makes me feel incredibly grateful to have been born at a time and in a part of the world that is relatively stable.  Perhaps the fact that we haven’t had bombs dropped on us for over 70 years is what prompts some to be extraordinarily unflinching and lacking in compassion.

I am prompted to express this after reading some comments on social media, and beneath news articles yesterday, which were really quite distressing. Are people really that wrapped up in their own lives? So hardened to other people’s suffering that they simply cannot imagine what it must be like for a child or teen to be living without adult care in a tent for months. Even with adult care.  And I wonder what it must be like to have had no choice but to put your children though that kind of journey. To leave everything you know behind, and exist in transit for months on end, and to top it off, then be faced with so much enmity from people in the countries you travel to.

I was, as I always am, gobsmacked and appalled by the words “them” and “they” – the connotations of “Other”, a people separate and different in some fundamental way from the writers of these comments. “They have places to go….” was one such comment. Really?

As people who read this blog will know I visited the camp in Calais just before Christmas. As we drove towards France my companions and I discussed the shipping containers that have been put in place to house refugees and I thought to myself, well surely that must be better than the cheap nylon tents that are so woefully inadequate. And then I saw the crates.  The reality. And I discovered that the authorities were planning to bulldoze the high street, churches, mosques and school that had sprung up in the shanty-town that the Jungle has become. At that time it had been promised that the school and religious buildings would not be bulldozed, but some of them disappeared a couple of weeks ago. More of the Jungle is scheduled to be demolished on Tuesday, although a census indicating that there are many more vulnerable children living there than previously thought has delayed further destruction until a judge has seen it for himself.  Whether or not it goes ahead on Wednesday morning, the physical signs of humanity’s resourcefulness are deemed a threat; and so the innate need and ability to create a community, even under the most awful circumstances, is under attack from people who have the resources to do far, far better.

The crates, where a limited number of Jungle refugees may stay, look hard, cold and soulless. They are packed on top of each other and surrounded by a tall metal fence. In effect, a prison has been built for desperate people who have escaped the brutality of their own lands, and everyone wonders why some are reluctant to sign up for it. We shouldn’t be surprised since the UK also has a long record of holding people in ‘detention centres’, including children, where adverse effects on mental wellbeing is well documented. Just this afternoon, I read about someone recently committing suicide in an immigration detention centre in the UK [1].

Us humans have a long history of being extraordinarily cruel to people from other groups, especially when we fear that they are after our most precious resource – space in which to exist. Sociobiologist, Edward O  Wilson, has coined the term ‘groupishness’. Groups are very good at dehumanising different peoples that they fear might be a threat. We are genetically primed for it.

However, when I went to Calais, I saw human beings, who despite having suffered a great deal, greeted me with kindness, generosity, and gratitude for my interest.

We have to do better. Leading economists and international officials wrote an open letter to our prime minister at the beginning of this month critisising the UK’s response so far, calling it ‘woefully inadequate, morally unacceptable and economically wrong”. And last week another letter from celebrities and business leaders*, which can be signed by everyone, implores the UK government to consider the children and families who are being forced out of their makeshift shelters, and ensure they are taken care of properly.

No-one wants a shanty town on the shores of the English Channel.  But had the area been declared an emergency zone, making it possible for proper refugee camps to be set up, we might not now be sitting by while people are put inside packing crates.

My oldest son just came downstairs and said to me, without knowing what I was writing about, “Mum, I’ve been thinking… we are so lucky to have been born in the time and place where we are now…”

Yes, my little boy, we really are.

 

*Add your name to the letter urging our government to act positively for children who need to be taken care of properly and fairly.

[1] An extract below from an article about a detainee’s suicide, and a review into detention centres, from Politics.co.uk  17th February 2016

“The death comes a month after the long-awaited Shaw review into detention centres concluded that numbers should be reduced “for reasons of welfare”.

It found that the process of indefinite detention with heavily-restricted access to a lawyer was mentally traumatic for many detainees and that there should be a “presumption against detention” for victims of rape and sexual violence, people with learning difficulties, and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

[Shaw] also found that the academic literature “demonstrates incontrovertibly that detention in and of itself undermines welfare and contributes to vulnerability”.”

(c)Images SJField 2016

 

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The area where the shipping containers are situated was being prepared when I visited in December. Even if these were more humane there are not nearly enough spaces.  Since the beginning of the year, several areas of The Jungle have been bulldozed, displacing people and requiring temporary wooden shacks that were built by volunteers, as well as tents, to be moved.  Larger areas are scheduled to be bulldozed later this week but a judge has postponed the eviction and will decide on Tuesday evening if it should go ahead.  The number of children, including unaccompanied minors, is significantly higher than was thought.

South London Photographer: Visiting a refugee camp

Yesterday I went to the refugee camp in Calais, known to most of us nowadays as The Jungle. I have spent the last weeks and months watching the story unfold in the media and found it increasingly difficult to understand how we can allow people to exist in such conditions. As a developing photographer I felt compelled to go and see what was going on for myself; I’m not sure why but I knew I had to.

I won’t lie; I was very worried and nervous about it. I’m not a journalist and have never been anywhere like that before. I didn’t know if I’d have the strength. I was also afraid of feeling out of my depth.

As time went on though I felt more and more frustrated by my fear and thanks to encouragement and support from various people I eventually found the nerve to book a ferry crossing, which I did a couple of weeks ago now. I know journalists are telling the story for the newspapers but I wanted to see if there was a story I could tell from a different point of view. From the point of view of a mother since there so many very young people there, and also as someone who just finds the situation shocking, extraordinary and really difficult to understand.

Any trepidation I felt vanished very quickly once we arrived. And not only because I was lucky enough to have an extremely kind hearted friend, Jane, accompany me. We were very quickly invited by two sisters, young women from Eritrea, for a cup of tea. They told us they had arrived in Calais after a three-month journey and that their dream was to get to the UK. Their tent was filled with dolls and soft toys. The welcome we had was the first of many kind gestures throughout the afternoon.  After our short visit we hugged the sisters goodbye and then moved on, spending the afternoon meeting people from Eritrea, Syria, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. Most had harrowing stories to tell about why they had left their homes, and about what it was like living in The Jungle.

I could write for hours about who we met but I want this to be read to so I will keep it brief for now.

I will say everyone without fail is extremely cold and damp. The temporary structures that some people live in are not watertight and the damp can be seen and wiped off the walls. People try to insulate them with sleeping bags. It isn’t very effective. Goodness knows how the tents compare.

There is very little to do, so people are bored as they wait for months and months to find out if the UK will take them, or if they might go elsewhere.  Grassroots charities have been doing what they can to help alleviate that but that has led to criticism in some corners of the press and gross misrepresentation.

I would love to show you some of the people I met, but having been told by several charities as well as the people living there that portraits can potentially jeopordise asylum applications, I cannot publish them at the moment.  I hope the time will come when it is appropriate to reveal those portraits. You will see eyes that are kind and generous, faces that look lost, or in some cases hopeful and even filled with joyful spirit. Often there is a harrowed, desperately sad look too, as you might imagine. And fear, of course. But mostly you will just see people; fellow human beings who have been abandoned by the world at a time when they need the world’s support more than ever.

For now the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) is not in place helping to process people. And although I met an independent charity worker there who was assessing the situation to see how it could be improved, I find it shocking that there is so little in place to ensure vulnerable people are being taken care of.  I saw and met people who were doing what they could, but other than a few Medicin San Frontiers’ coats, everyone else I noticed helping out was a volunteer attached to a grass roots movement. I don’t understand why other larger organisations aren’t in place.  It’s truly baffling.  I suppose the policy is to leave it so people might be put off coming but they are still fleeing situations we can only imagine,  and it cannot be ignored.  It will not go away.  It has to be addressed. I wonder how long it will take for the people in power to stop waiting for it to simply go away.

I do not yet know how or even if my own photographic work will develop in relation to the people of Calais. But I will return in the new year if it is possible, if only to give prints to the people I photographed. Of course, I hope very much to do more than that. I could say so much more here but I think I should just leave you with some images that express what I saw.  As a photographer I have taken a big step. I know it is possible to go into places that at first seem daunting; in this case however, I was only shown kindness and generosity, and I was able to record some of the impressions that I thought were worth seeing.

I will say, before I go, I met people who were kind, intelligent, articulate and welcoming. I was offered tea, someone’s last cigarette and then a chocolate bar by people who had virtually nothing. We were invited by a group of boys not much older than my 11 year old son to warm our hands above the small fire they had built.  Jane and I were guided by several people who were happy to share their stories with us, and who made us feel extremely warm, despite the dropping temperature.  We, however, were able to leave and to drive home through the rain in a heated car, knowing that where we were headed was safe and secure. The people we left behind have nothing like that; none of the very basics that human beings should able to expect.

SJ

All images (c)Sarah-Jane Field 2015

 

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South London Photographer: In Northern France

This will be just a short post.  I am currently surrounded by three little boys who really need to go back to school.  It’s quite loud!

We have just got back from our annual camping holiday.  Camping isn’t my favourite way of going about things to be honest, but it’s cheap and the children absolutely love it – their enjoyment definitely makes it worth the effort.  I’m OK with a couple of days, but after a week I’m always very glad to get back to having a roof and windows. And my own shower is always extremely welcome when I return home.

However, I do thoroughly enjoy my coffee outside in the morning and a glass of wine as the sun sets in the evening. But really, I find it hard work and the whole camping experience takes up so much time you don’t get to do all the other things you’d like to do.  We had a great week nevertheless.

I really, really loved Normandy.  The beaches are absolutely stunning; the tide goes out so far which means they are huge and expansive for much of the time.  It never felt crowded even on the hot sunny days when there were plenty of people about.

There are also lots of beautiful forests about and I would have liked to have spent some more time exploring those, but it’s not far so we’ll certainly return.  Plus all the fascinating war memorials  – I am really disappointed we never made it to any of those.  Maybe next time and in a proper building too.

Here are a just handful of images from my time there.  Shame about the endless rain back in Blighty – apparently it’s here for much of the week.  I do hope we have more sun before the end of the school holidays as I’m looking forward to a last little visit to the seaside.

I must go – I’ve just heard Son No 2 listening to something on YouTube which is utterly inappropriate … geez!  Come on school, we need you back!

SJx

 

Here are a few of my favourites from the beautiful Normandy…

(c)Sarah-Jane Field 2015

 

 

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