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Thursday, 4 July 2019

Pictures Made with Thought and Love: Migration Research, Claude and Lilly

Yesterday I posted about Censorship and Instagram and the day before I attended a really interesting workshop on Image Making in migration research and campaigns in Bristol.

Questions of identity, consent, evidence, story-telling, authorship, witnessing and the functions of photography were just some of the things that came up.

In the work that was shown, faces were blurred, backs were turned, photographs were rejected and there was a strange sense of control at work, very often for good reason. But it was still control and still censorship and it was very much connected with the ease of sharing images on social media and ideas of identification. Which matters of course, but I wonder if there isn't leakage from other areas and we aren't in danger of over-fetishising the image. Sometimes it is really important and is more than just a picture.

Most often, however, it is not. It is just a picture.

How people dealt with consent was interesting. This ranged from Jess Crombie and the research for  guidelines for the People in the Pictures (download the report here). Here the emphasis was not just on consent but on authorship and how voices can be amplified. It's not about giving a voice because people already have a voice. It's about making that voice heard.

Then there was work about the process which included the Asylum Navigaton board. This looks like a game but it's not a game. The game is the hook but actually it's a resource that maps out the process of seeking asylum, of going through a system that Vicky Canning said was "endemically violent" and "designed to fail asylum seekers".

You go into that system and the default position is that you will be humiliated, imprisoned and deported. Physical and psychological violence is done to you and, says Canning, we need to recognise that in the language we use. We need to be more direct in how we communicate about injustices and use direct and hard language. We equivocate too much, there needs to be less ambiguity in key situations.

That has implications for photography where meta-narrative work is often emotionally distancing, dismissive and serving a closed audience. There is no room for ambiguity.

At the other end of the spectrum, consent was informally written into the process of making work by Camilla Morelli In her work with the Matses .. in Ecuador, This looked at the Matses people and focussed on young Matses ideas of living on the fringes of Ecuadorian society - not in tune with their parents' tradition of living in and with the forest, instead 'craving the concrete of the city' (this is what they said) - where they would live a different kind of marginalised life.

Morelli didn't use consent forms of any kind in this work as the alienating nature of consent forms, the barriers they create when making work. It was a kind of theme in all the talks - how do you balance the rights (and they are fragile rights) of people you are photographing or filming or interviewing with a lightness of touch of making the work.

Sometimes the very making of collaborative projects, with patronising ideas of empowerment and giving a voice, is just another burden on people who are burdened already. If every encounter you have is mediated through forms, bureaucracy, technology, really you are just another part of the economic structure that forms around refugees, asylum seekers, migrants.

So how do you make something a simple pleasure and part of a life-enriching creative flow is one element of working in this field ? But this is in conflcit with  if you're working for an NGO and there are funding imperatives, how do you tend to those needs, when the historical template for raising funds is still the crying child - a template that is recognised comes with historically questionable perspectives.

And then the other elements are how can you be direct in your work, using language that doesn't sugarcoat or sentimentalise. Which ends up being how can you tell a story well, how can you make a 360 degree story that is meaningful and leads to a longer lasting change of consciousness that goes beyond the £10 pity donation.

Strip all that down and it comes back to how can you tell a story well.

Anyway, I don't think there are simple, clean-cut answers to any of those questions. I like the simplicity of Camilla Morelli piece. It reminded me of my favourite new project of the year, Vincen Beeckman's Claude and Lilly.

The simplicity and open-ness of the images which are not pretending to be something they are not is what appealed to me (and many, many others). It's one of those really basic rounded stories which is not especially collaborative, which is  a simple series of pictures of Claude and Lilly hugging. They are pictures made for Claude and Lilly, but in the book they got a new life and became pictures made for everybody. They are pictures stripped of all the layers that agrandize and conceal, they are open pictures. They are pictures made with love, about love.

I wrote the text for the book, and it's my favourite thing I've written for a long, long time. They are pictures made with love and consideration and caring, combined with words made with love, consideration and caring that also lead to deeper, more meaningful questions that go beneath the surface and strip away all those layers of bureaucracy, dishonesty, pretension and virtue-signalling.

And maybe that'swhat the message of the Migrations Research was about. And there endeth the lesson. Amen ...

This is the story of Claude and Lilly (think of it as a starting point, not an end point).

Buy the book here.

And see Vincen's and other Belgian work if you're at Arles.

“I met Lilly when I was working at the Foire du Midi fair in Brussels,” says Claude van Halen of his late partner, Liliane Maes. “I met her on the 14th of July 1995. The boss of a bar asked me, "Claude do you want to go with her because her man is beating her?" I said yes. I even left my job for her. I went with her and and we stayed together for so long, for 23 years.”
“We stayed together from the first day. It was love at first sight. She said, “Claude I have to tell you - I cannot cook”. And then I said, “No problem, I'm a butcher and I can cook for you”. The thing was she really loved to eat so I did cook for her. Maybe that’s what made her strong. But even when Lilly was young, she was strong, even when her husband asked her to prostitute herself she said no and was able to fight back against him and beat him.”
“I fell in love with her simplicity. She was not a woman who lived in luxury or wanted luxury. She never wore make up, there was no product on her face. She just said all the time, “I have a problem. They are too little…" She meant her boobs) ...And I would say “it's not important. That’s what God gave you.””
“We lived on the streets in different places in front of Pierrot rue des Fleuristes, then in my brother’s place, the place where he committed suicide. After that we lived on the streets for more than 10 years on and off, but also in small flats until she got evicted. But we always found a new place in the end. We got by.”
“The most romantic moment we had together was when we were in the woods in Rhode-Saint-Genèse close to Brussels where I grew up. The mayor of the town saw us making love. But luckily I knew her and she said “just remember to take all your stuff with you”. And you know what we forget our underwear. Both of us. That's the truth.”
Lilly passed away on 6th June 2018, Claude by her side till the end. The romance between them is kept alive through Vincen Beeckman’s pictures of Claude and Lilly. They are pictures of love, small sequences of affection, of touching, holding, kissing and being together in each other’s company.
“I met Vincen because of a picture he took at Brussels Central Station,” says Claude. “It’s my favourite, the one where Lilly is wearing the blue jacket. But I like them all and I remember all the places where he made them, and the times he made them, including the time on Lilly’s birthday when Vincen brought us a bottle of champagne to celebrate.”
That first picture shows Claude with his arms around Lilly in the blue jacket, then as the sequence progresses the hats change, the coats change, Claude’s hair changes. Lilly puts her hand on Claude’s leg, they both look at the camera, him in a sheepskin jacket, both looking at the camera. In the next picture, they’ve turned and kissed. They kiss for the camera but also for themselves, for the love that lives on through the memory. Claude grows a beard, he has his head shaved, they wear Belgium football shirts for the big match, they kiss, Claude wraps his arms around Lilly and Lilly wraps her arms around Claude, Claude strokes his beard, they kiss, they are in love. And then gradually Lilly fades away, she’s sick, she falls into her bed, she falls into herself with Claude at her side, and so she passes.
The memories and Vincen’s photographs are what remain but these are not the only pictures that Claude has of himself and Lilly. “One time Vincen gave us disposable cameras and five of my pictures were shown when he exhibited some images in a little exhibition. It was really nice, we had beer and shared some beautiful moments. But I have 2 pictures of Lilly and me from a disposable camera that I didn’t give back to Vincen that I don't want to show anybody. We are naked in them. We made some nude images and I went on my own to get the images at the photo shop. I told the person “don't look at that too much”.”
“I will never find another Lilly. That's why I want to go into an old people’s home. I’m waiting for that to happen.”
Lilly may be gone, but Claude still has his pictures and memories of the love and affection that helped them both make it through the hard times, with the only warmth and comfort that which came from the love they felt for each other.
“I was in love more and more each year,” says Claude. “My love grew and grew, it never stopped.”

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