London Student

Flipping the lens: the refugee journey photographed from a new angle

Amy Lineham is a UCL medical student, photographer, and activist – of a kind. At the start of this year, she spent six weeks in France volunteering in refugee camps in Calais and then Paris’s newly opened Port de la Chapelle camp where the photography project Disposable Perspectives was launched. We caught up with her as she takes a break between her fourth and fifth years.

The method for the project is relatively straightforward: she gave out 15 disposable cameras to the refugees, in a bid to see the ongoing ‘refugee crisis’ dominated by mainstream media coverage from a different angle: one self-fashioned in the photos they took. The aim was not, as she explains, to sanctify the subjects. Often, she says, we see refugees as “fine as long as they’re good. But no, someone could be incredibly unpleasant but should still have a right to sanitation, education, and health. It would be dishonest and quite counterproductive to pretend that everyone there was a golden boy.”

The seven-day windows in which the cameras are distributed returns the narrative of ‘refugee’ to those who live through it. It’s a long exposure which bears witness to intense camaraderie, which could almost be a set of holiday photos, but also to the conditions of squalor and precarity in the camp and the uncertain prospects beyond it. This is one of the reasons that some cameras never returned: “these unexpected transitions tells as much of a story as the photos returned”, Amy tells me.

She has just finished working at the Amy Winehouse Foundation researching school students’ substance use to improve drugs education. She has previously written on systemic prejudice in science. We caught up with her as she takes a break between her fourth and fifth years.

London Student: You recently wrote a piece for the UK Huffington Post, in which you observed/ wrote of your antipathy for day-tripping journalists who, often visiting the [Port de la Chapelle] camp “without speaking to a single resident…” or others who would come though spend 95% of their time with volunteers: “by homogenizing the camp residents as ‘refugees’ the reporters, whether sympathetic or condemnatory, were undermining their status as individuals, defining them only in terms of their circumstance.”

This project instead allows its subjects to simply be, as they would like to be seen, mostly men in their twenties and thirties temporarily thrown together, and sometimes split as quickly as they’ve arrived. Do you think the aesthetic or formal delivery of these images is, in some sense, a key to the project’s power?

Amy Lineham: Absolutely, I think the key to the project is the medium – disposable cameras give a raw, unedited insight that no digital recording device can match. With the rise of social media the window we are given into anyone’s life is increasingly filtered and none more so than the hyper-resolution photographs taken by onlookers of humanitarian crises. Looking at much photojournalism I often feel the quality of the images actually detracts from the reporting, giving people an impression of ‘reality’ that can never be conveyed by an onlooker.

Along with the many beautiful and poignant shots in the series, I love the dud ones; the accidental knee shot, the finger-over-lens pink splodge that was supposed to be the Sacre Coeur. I think those are the prints people really connect with because they can empathise with them.

Another key feature of film is that the prints are time-ordered – you see day turn to night, day trips end and friends reconvene. I did my best to hang the photos along this arc, each day within the series is a smaller story in itself.

LS: As part of Refugee Week we’ve seen a glut of already-familiar images and articles, often of scenes of panic and distress in the Mediterranean Sea. While there isn’t the same consistent alarmism or urgency, what does come forcefully to the fore in these photos is self-artistry, the framing of the shots, what’s privileged and what is not. How does this photographic method not only reclaim personal narrative but actively teach lessons on what it means to be deprived of purposeful activity, to guarantees over sanitation, education and health; to the guarantees and protections of citizenship, the right to possess rights writ large?

AL: Offering ownership of this narrative was certainly a central aim of the project. My hope when distributing the cameras was to empower the men involved and give them a sense of agency in a situation where control is rarely available.

I became especially aware of the importance of choice to quality of life during my time on the clothing distribution desk – being able to select from a range of items made the process so much more dignified than when people were simply given the first item that came to hand. When peoples’ entire lives are at the whim of government officials and faceless institutions any opportunity to have their own say becomes an acknowledgement of their equal humanity and a symbol of respect.

Q. Though the display at Amnesty International’s Shoreditch offices where four series photos were on display (and before that, Dalston’s The Hive where all eight series were) has come to an end, are there any future plans for these photos? Anchoring these photos to other materials like the screenshots allows us to know what happened to these men. Is it not a bad idea to try and meet these photographers who happen to be refugees again?

AL: I agree, it would be very interesting to go back and meet with the participants again. I am still in contact with a number of them and this is certainly one of the directions I hope the project can take in the future. I am currently in talks with a large French charity about organising an exhibition in Paris in the autumn so will hopefully have the chance to catch up with some of the guys then (if they have time to see me of course). It would be a good study in the efficacy, or lack there of, of social care programs the men are going through and could hopefully shed some light on what is/isn’t working.

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Nicholas Pan