I was doing some photographic housekeeping the other day when I came across this series of dark and dingy photographs. I never published them, each one is caked in a film of dirt, they are too bleak to ever see the light of day really. I remember crawling about in a series of stinky, nearly pitch black tents trying to get them and then realising it was unlikely anyone would ever want to see them. But if you’re still reading, maybe you do.
It began like this. I had been commissioned to go to Calais’s refugee camps to shoot scenes of young men trying to make their way to England. It is not hard. Over the last year the nightly charge of bodies hurling themselves over barbed wire fences before being rounded up and sent back to where they started again by bored French police has become a Sisyphean ritual of our time.
After several days of witnessing this grim task I and my colleague, journalist David Brown, were heading for the door labelled Exit, when a call came in to David’s phone from Sean on The Times’ crime desk.
On July 23rd 2015, at the exit of the Eurotunnel in Folkestone, British police had recovered the body of a young man from the top of a train, his face so badly damaged by an impact that they were unable to identify him. His body had lain on a slab in the coroner’s office, known only as Unknown Male 1 for three weeks. Of slight build, they suspected that he was a teenager from Southern or East Africa but their trail stopped there. Not having any ID they were preparing to bury him in an unmarked grave and so Sean just wondered if, as we happened to be in Calais….., well perhaps we could just look into it?
And then partly because when David relayed the details, it seemed hugely important to try, but more likely because I was manically tired and showing the first brain-addled signs of a probably sub-Saharan virus that would subsequently knock me out for a month, I looked around at the sodden camp of 4000 hopeless people, speaking several different languages between them, and said: “Yeah, no problem, we can do this.”
Two hours later a young and deeply concerned Sudanese man who had come to the camp from his home in England a day earlier, was walking towards us holding a piece of A4 paper that had been folded and unfolded many times. On it was a badly printed photograph of a young man he described as his brother, Husham Osman Al-zubair who had last been heard from about three weeks before. I looked at it for a moment and then I lied and said, ‘Look, there is still every chance that this won’t be him’.
As Husham’s friends relayed to David all the details they could remember of his clothes, height, build, the last time they had spoken to him, I crept inside their tent and looked around. There were five distinct places to sleep, a Quran carefully wrapped in a plastic bag hanging from the ceiling, candles, clothing and in the middle, playing host to a pack of cards but still neatly made, with a small hollow in the folded sleeping bag that he had used for a pillow, Husham’s bed.
And the reason I am writing up this enormously long-winded and thoroughly depressing story is that it occurred to me then that when you strip it all away – the drama, the politics, the arguments, the outrage, the fear, the power games and even the very word refugee, then our shared basic humanity is pretty much what you have left.
When our Neanderthal ancestors first sheltered in caves they probably put down furs and grasses, things to make a place to sleep softer or warmer. When they were still hulking about the landscape they began putting stones together to make homes and henges. Maybe they played games and argued about who had to sleep closest to the doorway. It’s what human beings do, we build things, we make them nice, and then we make wheels, books, spacecraft and smart phones, we strive to make a bolder, better life.
It is what Husham did, he searched for a better life and it is not a crime. Every morning after the long hopeless hours trying to achieve his dream, he walked back to the place he had made his home and whittled away the hours playing cards and drinking tea before going out again to try to get to England.
And these photographs are of my search for traces of that shared humanity as I crawled in and out of dozens of structures and homes just like Husham’s, looking for commonality and personality in Calais’s vast tented city. I found flowers, a football, Qurans, Bibles, toothpaste, stickers, toys, blankets – all donated by charities and the kindess of strangers, and above all, that uniquely human quality, personal pride.
As I explained my curious mission to a series of homeowners, they brought me cups of tea, shared their food, told me their stories and hopes for the future. None of these people are depicted in these photographs but their voices are there if you look. The pictures are grubby and bleak because that is the reality of life in a refugee camp.
Each one possesses something tangible and personal. There is the man who collects children’s toys donated by French charity workers because they remind him of the family he left behind, the man who attaches flowers to his home to make it look nice and the young woman who had a tiny room built for her by a group of young Egyptian and Sudanese men when they realised she was walking the streets every night fearing rape if she slept out in the Jungle. It might look almost empty to us but to her it is everything.
To each man or woman these things are important, theirs, a place of temporary safety after their long and brutal journeys. Husham’s friends knew it as they waited and prayed for him to either return home or make that phone call saying that he had arrived safely in the UK, and so they kept his neatly made bed just in case, as he left it, still bearing the fading imprint of his young life.