Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to seek, and to enjoy in other countries, asylum from persecution.” The UK was one of 48 nations to vote in favour of this document at the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and now, 68 years later, British photographer Sam Ivin prints the full statement at the start of his first photobook, Lingering Ghosts. Made up entirely of portraits of people who have applied for asylum here, the book is a reminder – and an interrogation – of the codified notions of morality and fairness that Britain voted for but is not living up to.
Published by Fabrica, Lingering Ghosts asks a simple but thorny question – what does it mean to be an asylum seeker in the UK? Ivin scratched out the eyes of his subjects to induce a sense of foreboding, discomfort and alienation. As Gemma Padley notes in the foreword, “Once we remove our ability to connect with a subject through a person’s eyes, what remains?”
Ivin, a graduate of the documentary photography programme at the University of Wales in Newport, began the project in early 2013 while he was still a student. Visiting a Cardiff drop-in centre, he spent time with people waiting for their asylum applications to be processed. “When you read about how the Home Office treats tens of thousands of people, and how people are kept in detention centres for extended periods of time, you get pretty angry,” he says.
A total of 28 subjects from 28 territories are featured in the book, from places such as Albania, Eritrea, Kashmir, Palestine, Syria and Zimbabwe. Since arriving in the UK, they have been kept waiting for anywhere between five months and 21 years. Some are fleeing oppressive governments that discriminate on grounds of ethnicity, sexuality or faith. Some hail from countries torn apart by wars, foreign or domestic. For most of those pictured, leaving is their best chance of survival, yet they’re left in a state of limbo, awaiting a future.
Designed as a twisted facsimile of a British passport (complete with gold foil and national seals), the book also includes quotes from the subjects, who Ivin interviewed at different centres over a two-year period, allowing them to voice their exasperation anonymously. “I don’t want them to treat me like a king or whatever, but like a human, you know,” one notes. “I’m hoping, hoping, hoping, hoping,” another implores.
“I didn’t really know what an asylum seeker was because in the media the term is thrown around like a dirty word,” Ivin explains. “How we treat those seeking safety, and the borders that we create out of fear, is inhumane.”
After graduating in 2014, Ivin was awarded a residency at Fabrica, the Benetton Group’s celebrated communication research centre in Treviso, which gives young people in a variety of creative disciplines a chance to develop research projects; it previously helped incubate talent such as Lorenzo Vitturi and Olivia Arthur. During his stay in Italy, Ivin managed to flesh out and finalise Lingering Ghosts.
The process of disfiguring the images – which, he says, took hours at a time – was done entirely manually, applying sandpaper and a Stanley knife indiscriminately to the prints, which Fabrica had printed 76cm×55cm and then bound on to aluminium. “I’d remember people’s stories as I would scratch their faces – a detail would jump out and it would make me even angrier,” Ivin recalls.
The aggressive defacement of these faces is at first jarring. Most projects that focus on issues of migration, conflict and refuge do their utmost to allow subjects to maintain their humanity, but Ivin forces us to examine faces torn asunder, devoid of the obvious points of emotional contact. Instead, what we’re left with is a series of images reflecting the pain, disorientation and anger of those looking for sanctuary but faced with uncertainty, in which absence is made inescapable.
Or, as Ivin puts it: “It was a way of doing it that gives the people dignity but also communicates the problem.”
samivin.com Lingering Ghosts is published by Fabrica, priced £19.50 fabrica.it Lingering Ghosts is on show at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London from 16th June – 31st August www.stmartin-in-the-fields.org/whatson-event/lingering-ghosts-exhibition
This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of BJP.