Media coverage of the migrant crisis has been scrutinised throughout Europe and across the world. Often deemed as insensitive and unethical, a recent report by the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) suggested that news outlets are politically led and follow an agenda dominated by right-wing propaganda and political gain.
Daniel Castro Garcia and Thomas Saxby, who work under the collective pseudonym John Radcliffe Studio, were among those concerned with the current ethical practice and coverage. In an attempt to reveal an authentic picture of the migrant crisis – and as an antidote to the sensationalist and alarmist tabloid headlines – the duo collaborated to create a photo book called Foreigner: Migration into Europe 2015–2016.
The result of the pair spending the past year documenting the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, Foreigner revokes sensationalism by telling the migrants’ stories from their point of view. An authentic and unbiased visual narrative, they document the lives of people at various stages of their migration to Europe, focusing on migration to Italy from North Africa, migration to Greece and through the Balkans from the Middle East, and the migrant camp in Calais known as The Jungle.
We caught up with Daniel and Thomas to speak about how priorities are being skewed and why they hope people will begin to see the larger picture.
Charles McQuaid: What Inspired you to create this book?
Daniel Castro Garcia: A number of things really, first of all, we were really concerned about the type of image that was being associated with the story. This kind of wide shot image that is used to explain the situation, when really there are far more complicated individuals in these images. They tend to get tarnished with the same brush. Personally, as a photographer, I kind of felt there was a real gap for a far more intimate and personal image to be made. It’s something me and Tom have discussed before.
Thomas Saxby: We had discussed it before but this was essentially our first major project together. It was when we both left our day jobs and we were looking at something to work together on. Dani had just done a series of projects in Amsterdam to do with people on the fringes of society. The idea was to apply that same approach of portraiture to people migrating to Europe. We wanted to use it as a means of making connections to people. Another catalyst was an incident in April 2015 when two boats went down in the same week and over a 1000 people drowned. They were people on their way to Lampedusa which is this tiny fishing Island in the Mediterranean. How that story was reported really grabbed our attention, it was the real catalyst and made us say “right, well let’s go out there and actually do the project and offer another perspective.”
Charles: So you went to Lampedusa?
Daniel: Yeah, that was our first checkpoint because a lot of the stories that were coming from the Mediterranean pointed to there. We thought it would be a great place to start but a few days before we went there the Italian Government diverted all rescue missions to Sicily and Southern Italy. So it was quite strange, there wasn’t anyone on the island. In a way, it was a bit of a blessing in disguise because it gave us an opportunity to consider the aftermath of this movement of people. We found items of clothing that had belonged to migrants, investigated ship graveyards and found silent cemeteries. It was kind of eerie because it was all against the backdrop of this dry and arid island. It offered a very slow approach to image making and a poetic interpretation of the situation.
Thomas: Yeah, we went to Lampedusa quite naively, we expected to arrive and find loads of people around to photograph and then that would be that. I’m glad it happened the way it did though, it made us realise that we needed to take our time and research. We found out we needed to go to Sicily and then we needed to find out where in Sicily people were. Our research led us to a migrant camp in Mineo and a city close to it called Catania. That’s where we took a lot of the photos.
“The aim of the work is to offer and try to create a more well-rounded debate… There has to be an opportunity to show people in a positive light and offer them some dignity.”
Charles: When you met these migrants, what kind of stories did you hear?
Daniel: Obviously there were people that had gone through a hell of a lot of different ordeals. Whether it’s from the country they have departed from or on the journey away from it. In the case of Sicily, most came from central Africa, anywhere from Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Sudan, Ethiopia. They’ve all gone through the torment of crossing the Sahara dessert, witnessed people falling off pick up trucks and dying, not having water for days on end, the nightmare that is Lybia, being held in cells with 75 other people. There are all these complicated issues that, more or less, everybody has faced. But that’s not something we necessarily wanted to focus on. The aim of the work is to offer and try to create a more well-rounded debate. It’s not just about the terrifying scenes of people falling out of boats in Greece, it’s not just about queues of hungry people through the Balkans or living in misery in Serbia. There has to be an opportunity to show people in a positive light and offer them some dignity.
“I definitely think that our media is quite voyeuristic and our politics are very weak. That combo has led to our slightly tired and confused society.”
Charles: Have you seen a change in the British and/or global media towards migrants, even in the past year alone?
Daniel: I don’t know if it’s just British Media but I think there has definitely been a shift in public opinion if you consider the phenomenon of #refugeeswelcome. When arriving in Germany you see all these jubilant scenes of the German people applauding families and everyone arriving. Then with more shocking imagery, like the picture of Alan Kurdi on the beach which circulated internationally, and rightly so, because it was a huge tragedy. I think personally, maybe it’s a strong opinion, but I think generally the public are very fickle and very hypocritical. There is a very short term reaction, I almost feel like the media, especially with the 24/7 coverage and instant journalism, is very saturating. Obviously, society coming together to make a point and comment on injustices is great, but what’s the actual reaction? What’s the actual solution? I think it’s very short lived, we’re living in a period where there is compassion fatigue. I think that’s leading to a lot of people being neglected and distributing false information and quite dangerous opinions. Especially when you consider there is a lot of concern throughout Europe because there is a very significant turn to right wing conservative politics which, generally has some quite frightening undertones. That’s my personal opinion. I definitely think that our media is quite voyeuristic and our politics are very weak. That combo has led to our slightly tired and confused society.
Charles: Do you think there has to be a change in the way we shape conversation around migrants, towards a more sympathetic, human discourse?
Daniel: I recently read an article on Magnum Photos called In rebuke of Forgetfulness. They have basically put together a bunch of photographs, using their archive as well as modern work, on the topic of migration. The article that accompanied it was making this point about modern memory, attention spans and how it’s been shocking to see places that recently were experiencing their own problems and now had just done a 180 as soon as the problems are somewhere else. Part of what our book is trying to do is to remind people how this particular refugee crisis isn’t isolated and it’s something that has been going on for a long time.
Charles: Do you have any plans to expand your work on the migrant crisis in the future?
Daniel: We’re planning to spend quite a lot of time in Sicily in 2017. What we’ve created so far is potentially quite a macro vision of things and this year we want to go more micro. We want to take a closer look.
Thomas: Yeah, I think our main objective is to go back to Italy and get deeper into the relationships and create more imagery to reflect the lives of people there. I think a strong aspect of the book, up to now, is returning to meet people. We didn’t manage it with everyone but, with certain numbers of people we managed to visit them several times and I think that makes the distinction between this work and other journalistic works where you are there for that day and then you just crack off and never come back. We definitely want to carry that on and revisit those stories.