Refugee week: 18-24 June - The Open College of the Arts
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Refugee week: 18-24 June

I wanted to write a blog post for Refugee Week. A tweet by Dr. Yvette Greslé gave me pause. Its worth reading her whole thread, informed as it is by her background, her practice, her research and her lived experience.
Who are we to represent others is a central question to the ‘Other’ section of OCA’s Level 2 (HE5) Photography’s The Self and the Other that I co-wrote with Moira Lovell.
Greslé’s comment that she is,

‘utterly opposed to white writers, artists and scholars speaking for experiences that are not theirs to speak of. This happens a lot in the art world and it is unethical, opportunistic and spurious’

points to why Self and Other has a lot about class – the working class experience being something I feel able to make work about. The idea that pointing your camera at things that are not part of your experience can only be tourism is also problematic – if you have privilege why not use that to highlight those less fortunate?

Drop-in for asylum seekers, Doncaster, 2005

Who has the privilege is not always obvious even within a photograph.
Mary from Uganda feeding homeless at Baxter Avenue, Doncaster, 2005

In the Assimilation (2006-8) project I deliberately included subjects with different statuses calling everyone new arrivals. Some were on student visas, many were EU nationals, some were fleeing known, or unknown, horrors, others came to live with family

Who are the refugees in this image?
As John Tagg reminds us a portrait is a social inscription, its use by authority is categorise, Assimilation played with the idea that the portrait spoke a truth about the portrayed.

States and institutions need their dividing lines, their categories, to manage. A refugee can be denied asylum, returned ‘home’, forgotten.

I wanted to include refugees in The Desire Project (2015-16) elevating those with little to the atrium heights of the very public Frenchgate Centre. The project’s premise that participants expressed the thing they most wanted meant that a refugee’s desire could correspond with a shopper’s, teacher’s, mine, yours… There are no lines between us.

Ideally we should all be able to speak for ourselves on an equal footing. But when was the last time you, or your community was heard? Facilitating those with little voice to make work can help –
Asylum Seekers board game (2010)

It also took Ania Bas and I to territory that we would probably never have visited – a seemingly trivial board game used to talk about the labyrinthine experiences of those seeking asylum?
untitled from A Dream of Doncaster (2016)

I used my privilege once more to include refugees in a challenging work for the DNweekeND festival in 2016. In A Dream of Doncaster (2016) participants are glimpsed in a pitch black room illuminated only by the torches of other refugees. Is it right that I asked refugees to participate in art work that suggested darkened ships’ holds or shipping containers?
Refugee Week is 18 -24 June, pause, think.

Posted by author: Les Monaghan
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6 thoughts on “Refugee week: 18-24 June

  • It is a difficult conundrum. On the one hand almost all who report/document on the refugee crisis other themselves in the process. I remember, in the early seventies being provided with a Nikon from college and considering myself quite smart to “document” the homeless alcoholics on the banks of the Ouse in Bedford, being the first (in my imagination) to reveal their “plight”. I now think my consideration may have exacerbated their situation – drawing people to view them as opposed to comprehend them. No easy task.

  • It is tricky John. We were very conscious when writing Self and Other that we didn’t want to stop anyone from making work, perhaps the pause should come before dissemination…

  • They are only less fortunate compared to western Standards. There home land is less polluted than the west all live in a warm climate. They received aid for medicine, food etc when required.
    If you listen to British Overseas broadcasting the families of these immigrants pay for their sons to be brought to Europe to work so they can earn money and send it back home. This in itself is a form of slavery.
    The families in Africa use their money to enlarge and build bigger and better compounds.
    I know where I would prefer to live and that is Africa.

    • Eric, this link is to the “List of 34,361 documented deaths of refugees and migrants due to the restrictive policies of “Fortress Europe”. And you think they come here because where they come from is better, or at least only “slightly less fortunate”?
      And where in “Africa” is this idyll that you find so attractive? Would that be Tripoli or Khartoum? Or the leafy suburbs of Port Elizabeth?

  • Fair play to you Les for responding so articulately about Gresle’s comments. If we only ever made art about our own experience we’d never engage with anyone else, never use art to explore or develop empathy, never give a voice to others who cannot do so for themselves.
    It is a difficult line to tread between documenting others and producing art of them for your own ends, but ultimately that’s what we have to do unless a project is entirely introspective. The alternative (don’t document the plight of others) would mean that all war photographers would have to start shooting at each other just to know what it’s like to really be in a war – as if being shot at isn’t enough? I make a point of choosing projects that are out of my comfort zone as part of my learning experience, to stretch myself: racism in the UK and gender stereotyping for example. I haven’t had negative comments on either – far from it, so I guess either I am playing too safe, or treading that line very carefully. It is a question of quality isn’t it? Does the art actually do what it sets out to do (to paraphrase Ronseal)? Is it well conceived? if not then it isn’t good art, or well thought out and may well be exploitative either intentionally or unitentionally.

  • Read your article with great interest.
    I have a daughter who has recently quit social services as a social worker as she can no longer cope with the lack of
    funding / care / interest in those who are less fortunate or for some reason, unfortunate. She dealt with adults who are close to the bottom of the pile and she had a work schedule that meant her time with highly vulnerable or really needy people was limited to minutes. As an example, decisions being made on cost rather than need meant that one MS sufferer whose condition was better on some days than others was told that as his son was able to visit once a week that was enough to cover his shopping needs and if that wasn’t enough, he needed to use his “good” days to cover other needs (albeit in this wheelchair).
    It is nigh on impossible to sort those who really need help from those who are the “scroungers” but the proportion of these people to the overall local population is miniscule – unfortunately they are visible.
    Attitudes in the UK are driven by the biggest selling newspaper (print and online) – The Mail.
    Politicians are scared of this paper and it is a comfort blanket for those who want to find blame in others.

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