“It’s time to leave! If you must die, die in the open sea! You must not return. If any of you come back you’re dead. If any of you come back and report me, you’re dead. If you have to die, you die all together! Now go!”
With these words, Aly Gadiaga, one of the migrants portrayed in Daniel Castro Garcia’s Foreigner project, describes his journey from the Libyan coast to Italy.
Gadiaga tells his story in a long interview recorded by the artist and included in his exhibition at London’s TJ Boulting, his prize for winning the BJP‘s International Photography Award 2017. The work on show is delicate and sensitive, a far cry from the sensationalised accounts often offered up in the press. “We are all foreigners,” says Castro Garcia, adding that he hopes to inspire respect rather than pity.
“It’s not just about respecting those in the photographs – the audience also deserves respect,” he says. “At the heart of this work was the desire to create a dignified response to this humanitarian crisis, that was not about sensationalism. I think that although it is very hard, both the photographer and the audience should make the effort to try to put themselves in the shoes of the person in the image. If you or I were going through a traumatic situation we would not want a photographer coming up to us and taking photographs without permission.
“I am not interested in objectivity and I fundamentally feel that it is impossible to be objective with a camera anyway. Thomas Saxby [co-founder of John Radcliffe Studio] and I felt that the balance in the story was not there [in the press], so our work is aiming to create more balance. To hopefully make the audience realise that this is not a black-and-white story, but in fact a very complicated one that needs thought and patience.”
The exhibition considerably expands on the duo’s photobook, which was self-published but promoted by MACK Books. The viewer is invited not just to stand in front of the images but to take an active role in the exhibition, to take in video, audio, a newspaper and almost sculptural images. Often literally allowing the migrant to speak, the exhibition blurs the boundaries between who controls the narrative, and dissolves the distance between the subject and the viewer.
“I feel that there is a notion that those arriving in Europe are uneducated or not very intelligent, almost like they are only a strain on society,” says Castro Garcia. “When we generalise like this we are failing to make the most of the talent and skills people have. Aly, for example, speaks five languages fluently, he is extremely intelligent and aware of his society. Given the chance people like Madia and Aly could offer so much to their communities. They themselves deserve so much more than the stifled existence they are presently in.
Castro Garcia continues: “The underlying idea was to focus on making the show a celebration of life. To offer a chance for people to spare a thought for all of the people that passed away trying to make it here. I also hope that the video work too also serves as a celebration of life. Aly and Madia are incredible guys – so intelligent and sensitive and thoughtful. They deserve to be celebrated.
“They are explorers and adventurers. Strong, kind men. They are survivors. They have crossed deserts and seas and survived. They deserve for their voices to be heard. If a politician that has no idea what the life or journey of a refugee/migrant’s is like is listened to, then we really do need to start listening to those arriving.”
In fact, appropriately, it’s Aly Gadiaga who best sums up the migrant experience, in a recording included in the show. “Explaining the reason of this wave of migration to Europe is easy,” he says. “I’ll give you an example. If you take a room, put a cat inside and for two days you don’t feed him or give him water.
“The room is locked, but if you forgot to close the window and after two days the cat realises it’s open, what does the cat do? He escapes, he goes through the window and escapes due to hunger. The cat knows that if he stays in the room he dies. If the window is the only chance to escape, what would you do?”
FOREIGNER will be exhibited at London’s TJ Boulting gallery until Saturday 8th April. You can also follow the show during Daniel’s BJP Instagram takeover this week: @bjp1854