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CLICK HERE TO EXPLORE GALLERY​​

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REFUGIA​​


This black and white photography series captures the everyday lives and environment of refugees from Sudan and Afghanistan living in Paris and brings to the attention of the viewer a sense of urgency.
This series has stripped me of most all sense of control in what my lens captures but has given me the most sense of purpose. These images freeze in time moments from the lives and journeys of these strong-willed people who have left their homes seeking a better and safer life but who have only been met with scrutiny since their arrival.
The following are diary entries which describe my two-day encounter with the Sudanese refugees living in Paris.
    

   Day 1
March 17, 2018. It's -1 degrees Celsius today. It's one of the coldest days of this year I think, or maybe it's just this icy journey ahead of us that took the temperature down a few notches. My friend L and I head out to meet our newly made friend Baldé; a man who came here from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, to seek refuge. The first time we set out to find refugees, we headed towards the outskirts of Paris. Baldé approached us and offered to guide and lead us to other locations where other immigrants had taken shelter. We met him under a bridge at Porte de la Villette. We said our bonjours, and we followed Baldé towards the spot he thought should be brought to our attention. He warned us it would be a long walk. It was terribly cold. We were a band of chattering teeth, making our way through the snowfall.

            After a strenuous march, we reached a flight of stairs that leads to an area below a bridge where a river passes through. We could see tents in green, blue and red,  arranged next to each other in numerous columns under the bridges. As we walked down, it felt that there were more tents appearing with each step. I felt very nervous as I felt that I stepped into a truly cruel injustice. He takes a sharp right turn where there were more or less eight tents lined up against the under-bridge wall along the concrete river bank. There was some trash piled up on either sides on the tents. The water was almost still, though it felt like it was shivering like the rest of us. There was grafitti of faces all over the inner walls of the tunnel, staring at us. As we walked towards the few men that were outside their tents talking, I attempted to put a brave face on and mask my emotions to a certain extent or else I wasn’t going to be able to make coherent sentences. The men started looking in our direction as we got closer, eyeing us suspiciously. I can imagine they are tired of being scrutinized by passing pedestrians. My primary concern was to prove to them that they were looking at a friendly face, so I walked up enthusiastically to one of them and stuck out my hand, introducing myself.

            "Hello, my name is Carole, what's yours?" I said in French with a smile. They each introduced themselves, still suspicious of my presence among them. They were dressed in mainly dark clothing but it was very « mix & match » A lot of them had red eyes from the cold and the fatigue. Briefly, I explained what I was doing there, and asked them if they needed anything. They were reluctant to speak to me; I believe that they had created a natural social barrier, a result of being looked down on since they arrived to Paris. They turned to each other and spoke in their language, which happened to be Arabic, as they were from Sudan. I saw this as a perfect way to express myself and explain to them that I'm not just an outsider, neither am I here to exploit, as they might have thought once they saw my unsettlingly large camera. I started to converse with them in Arabic, my mother tongue. Something in their eyes glistened just for a split second, and I felt a fraction of the tension fade instantly once the language barrier had been broken.

            The refugees expressed their concern about being shown in the media and press. One of them who introduced himself as Faysal said to me "We are all people, just like everyone else. We have families and had lives before this. It would be devastating if a mother would to turn on her television to see her son being shown living on the street" My stomach ached as he uttered that last sentence, and I imagined what my mother would feel if she had seen me in that state. I became anxious but strived not to show it. I was starting to have second thoughts about going through with this project, for these are human beings who had lived through great traumas. I explained how I do not work for the press, that I was just an artist, but even more relevantly, I was a person who had to experience similar journeys, though not as grave.

 The mood lightened slightly, and I thought this was a right moment to turn on my camera. I said to the men with the sincerest face I could muster that If they did not want me to photograph their faces, I would more than happily comply. I told them that I have nothing but respect for their privacy and would never want to do anything to make them uncomfortable. They relaxed. A few of the men expressed how they absolutely did not want to be photographed. Perhaps these men are naturally very private, or they feel like engaging with me won’t lead to anything except bad news. Others were okay with it as long as I didn't include their faces, which I believed was fair. A small few just outright posed for me, it looked like they had some strong spirits and still wanted to enjoy themselves a bit, even with a stranger like me. I started snapping away. Working intermittently since I frequently stopped to talk to them and took breaks to warm my hands. I could  feel my friend L suffering himself from this weather. It was freezing.

It was cold hard concrete beneath us and around us, the grafitti and tags all over the walls of the tunnel were impossible to ignore. Large cartoon-like faces looking down at them. A row of tents on the other side of the water - can they even be called neighbors? There was the occasional person or two who would walk buy, forever holding that judging look in their eyes, I never understood that. The arc of the tunnel created this hull that surrounded them, for some reason it ironically reminded me of a furnace…

One of the men, interested in the work I was doing, came up to me and told me to follow him all the way to the end of the column of tents. He wanted to show me the inside of his tent, wanted me to photograph it. As he unzipped the tent I saw that there was a very small mattress, and some light blankets inside, too light for this weather I noted.

Twenty minutes in, the sting in my fingers caused by the heinous below zero wind was really starting to get to me. I could barely feel them anymore and I was working at a fraction of my usual pace. This made me feel silly since they are going through this torment every day, but I felt weary and decided to leave and come back the next day, more prepared for the weather. I gave my number to two of the people to whom I had spoken to and asked them to call me if ever they needed anything. I announced I was coming back tomorrow, said my goodbyes and headed off feeling a bit unsuccessful and weak. I thanked Baldé for showing me this place and insisted on taking him out to lunch and covering his fees to get to where he was staying, which was an unfortunate two hours away. After the hot meal, we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

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Day 2
March 18, 2018. It’s a new day and it felt a bit more optimistic. I made my way down the now familiar road down the steps to the tunnels on the water. This time I didn’t come empty-handed. I got bottles of water, bananas, and bread with me. It was a little early in the day and only one person was out of their tent. I decided I’d come in with a smile a little cheer. I asked the man that was awake to help me wake the others so that I could give them some breakfast. I started fake knocking on some the tents saying « Sabah al kheir » in a cheery voice, which meant good morning in Arabic. Heads started popping out from beneath tent zippers with sleepy eyes on them. I even got a few smiles.

I started handing out water bottles to everyone which they all took. Not everyone wanted a banana or a piece of bread though. I had noted to self that it was strange but didn’t think much of it at the time. A few of them did ask for cigarettes tho, but alas i don't smoke and therefore didn't have any on me. I made some small talk with the few who gathered round to drink and eat. There was a new tent here today; it created a new column (of tents) by itself, it sat very near to the edge of the water.

I started photographing whatever caught my eye. From moments in the little actions they performed on some of their belongings I felt was interesting, to just the disposition of the tents. After a while I felt overpowered by the situation and felt powerless as well as guilty for going home to a warm bed later this evening. Tears were starting to swell up in my eyes, and just as I was going to take a break, two of the refugees stuck their hand out of the odd tent near the water and waved peace signs. That immediately drew a huge smile on my face and I knelt down to photograph it. After they saw I was done they completely unzipped the tent and looked at me. I walked over to them and sat on the ground infront of them.

What was their story? How did they get here? Would they tell me? I asked hoping to find out. “Ezay wesselt le hena?” which translates to “How did you get here?” I asked the man sitting on the right (name omitted for privacy – Let’s call him B).

 “It was a very long journey. I was actually initially living in Zalingei. We were already living in very bad conditions, there is a lot of poverty there. I have a family you see… One day someone came and took me, I was kidnapped. They moved me to Darfur and there they forced me to work in gold mines. It’s very dangerous and the work conditions were horrifying but we were given no choice. I don’t know how long I stayed there but one night I managed to escape. I had to leave the country, so I moved through Chad to the south of Libya, then to the capital called Tripoli. From there I took a blow-up raft with a few other people hoping to cross the sea to Europe. We spent three days at sea before arriving, it was scary and we weren’t sure what was going to happen to us.
We were in Sicily now, I thought that my situation was going to improve now but I was very wrong. I was held at the refugee camp there, they wanted to keep me there against my will. They wanted to process me but I refused. They threatened me with sending me back to my country if I didn’t comply. I told them they would be sentencing me to death if they did that. I finally managed to leave Sicily after 3 months. I made my way to Rome, and then finally arrived here Paris. I had a sliver of hope that it would be better here but here I am. I’m living on the streets, I’m freezing and hungry and I don’t know what I’m going to do next.
            People walk past us every day, looking at us like we’re criminals, like we’re living the easy life, but they don’t know. They don’t know what we had to go through just to arrive here and end up living on the street. Ever since I arrived to Europe, I feel like I’ve only seen more and more proof that people have lost their humanity."

            That last word broke me.

            I had the desperate need to prove to B that not all humanity was lost, I wanted to try and show them that some people actually do care and do want to make a difference. I needed to spread his story. They all deserve more than what life had handed them, more than the scrutinizing eyes that were pointed in their direction. More than this.

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