Guest post by Maria Hagan. Maria is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Cambridge. Her recent Master’s research at the University of Amsterdam looked at the spatial politics of asylum-seeker encampment in Calais. In this blog post, Maria reflects on her struggles pursuing visual methodologies in the field, and how these struggles highlight the politics of visibility at play in negotiations surrounding migrant presence and encampment in the northern French border zone. Maria is the winner of the Border Criminologies’ Dissertation prize.   

CALAIS - When I asked Shahpur if he would like to take part in my research by taking pictures of his daily life with a disposable camera, he smirked. He craned his neck to take in the empty surroundings from where we were sitting for our interview, sipping tea together in an open field on a cold morning in October. ‘What is there to take pictures of?’ he said, gesturing towards the grey sky and a muddy cluster of trees neighbouring an unremarkable motorway. To him, the space he lived in was a waste of film, and in aesthetic terms, he made a good point. This nothingness was however precisely what interested me.

Life out of doors, Calais (Photo: Maria Hagan)

If you track Google Earth images of Calais from 2012 to 2018, you can see the ‘Jungle’ camp gradually coming together, growing, and being destroyed before disappearing altogether. On today’s images there is no trace of a camp. Not only is it impossible to guess that thousands of people once settled in the area, it is as though their presence has been erased. Arriving in Calais for fieldwork in 2017, I was struck by the eerie absence of a camp in the border zone even though hundreds of people were still living there. France has introduced a ‘zero camp tolerance’ policy, which plays out as a dark cat-and-mouse game between asylum seekers and the police: the displaced see their shelters destroyed, damaged or confiscated several times a week.

In response to this constant policing, which punishes informal presence, asylum seekers make themselves invisible in a bid for survival. They cleverly build camouflaged shelters hidden deep in bushes or forests and tread alternate routes through the city, which obscure them from the public. This makes their presence go less noticed. They are less reported on, their treatment less known and thus less contested. I had set myself the challenge of capturing this politics of visibility on the ground, but without necessarily crossing the threshold into asylum seekers’ life spaces myself, out of respect for privacy and their desire for concealment. Photography seemed like an ideal, less intrusive and collaborative option.

Destroyed shelter (Photo: Anonymous)

Most asylum seekers I approached with the idea of a disposable camera project however reacted in a similar way to Shahpur: they did not see the point or identified disadvantages, like the clunkiness of the camera, the risk of losing it, or suspicion from peers who often fear being photographed living in such dire conditions. Although I had intended it to be a participatory tool, my colourful supply of disposable cameras started to seem farcical; asking people so dispossessed and dissatisfied with their surroundings to frame them creatively and reveal them to others seemed insensitive. I decided to abandon the method, sticking to lengthy interviews and participant observation instead, to better understand the spaces communities inhabit and take my own photographs where appropriate.

It came as a surprise when after a few months in the field, some asylum seekers began to share images with me spontaneously, on their own terms and in their chosen form: these images were taken on mobile phones and shared via messaging apps. Most often, these photographs were of destroyed shelters, damaged possessions, or shacks rebuilt from the wreckage. For those sharing the images, taking photographs was a rare way they could capture and denounce the violence they faced. Many would collect this footage even if it put them – and their prized phones – at risk. Though helpless in the moment of violence, footage of authorities overstepping was widely considered a building block for a future asylum case. The ability to document abuses provides a sense of agency over an absurd living situation. In these images, the destroyed ‘home’ or object itself bears witness to an intentional and vicious attack on presence with clear human rights implications.

Burned valuables (Photo: Anonymous)

This unanticipated visual data gathering method significantly informed my understanding of the field context and the politics of visibility at play in Calais. But perhaps more importantly, it left me in a position in which I felt better able to take action beyond my research. I often sought permission to share images with human rights observation teams looking to document violence against the displaced in the northern French border zone. This experience of failing to implement a creative method and having it improved by the community I was working with in a way, which made it immediately useful to them revealed how I might use methodologies, which serve such a double purpose in the future.

Smashed phone (Photo: Maria Hagan)

Working through this methodological shift has helped me capture some of the everyday realities of living ‘invisibly’ at the border. Above all, the experience reveals the benefits of exchange and collaborative development of visual methodologies with respondents for future research, especially when visibility is a sensitive issue. Rather than imposing a method and asking respondents to take it on, true value emerged in my learning how best to carry out the methodological process from and with them. By negotiating the method, asylum seekers reclaim the visibility of their living situation, using photography to contest the silent and ritual violence inherent to their lives in the shadows of the border.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the individuals

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Hagan, M. (2018) Capturing the Invisible: The Challenges of Using Photography as Method with Asylum Seekers Living in Calais, France. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2018/10/capturing (Accessed [date]).