A typical view along many residences in the Calais Jungle refugee camp. In the subtlety of this cinemagraph, I wanted to capture a regular day as residents try to get on with their lives, such as doing the washing.
At the heart of everything I do with cinemagraphs, telling stories and setting scenes is at the core of what I love.
For that reason, using cinemagraphs in a photojournalistic context is something I’ve wanted to try for a long time – to take the medium to real world situations away from polished photoshoots, and hopefully be able to tell a more compelling story. It’s the heart behind my The Miracle Stories account on Instagram, and it has led me to my first opportunity to use cinemagraphs from a real, headline grabbing situation here in Europe: the refugee camp in Calais, France.
At the beginning of 2016, my wife and I went on our first volunteer trip to help in the Calais Jungle refugee camp in France.
The increase of conflict and humanitarian crises in countries around northern Africa and the Middle East, saw Europe flooded with millions of refugees over the last couple of years alone.
The term ‘refugee’ conjures up images with people that usually seem overly negative, but undeservedly so. We’ve heard of some negative instances involving refugees, but the fact is that the majority of refugees come from good homes and good backgrounds. We’d met refugees who had been engineers, teachers and lawyers in their own countries; people who’d had a career and had filled a productive role in their society, along with having their own homes, family and even money – in some cases people had even been wealthy – but in most cases lost all of that as a result of the political/humanitarian chaos or conflict they end up fleeing from.
Their journey was arduous and immensely dangerous, and we'd been no strangers to seeing the news headlined with stories of boats that capsized on the way to Greece or Italy across the Mediterranean, often leading to a really tragic loss of the most vulnerable lives, like that of the young boy who had washed up on a beach.
Sadly, for many, this crossing was only the start of what could still be an even more dangerous journey across Europe, where those seeking refuge faced hunger, homelessness, and women and children were vulnerable to other dangers, for instance, human trafficking and sexual exploitation.
But for many individuals, the desperation of trying to find a place to make a better living than what they left behind, motivates them to face any danger and overcome their challenges in whatever ways may be necessary.
Their journey across Europe to Calais could take well over a year, for some refugees, and along the way, families sometimes get separated and some even lose their lives in this quest for safety for them and their families.
Calais was, for most, their final stop as one of France’s busy ports that connect with the UK. It sees busy, daily traffic of travellers and freight that go back and forth, either via ferries, or the EuroTunnel, which runs trains that carry coaches and vehicles back and forth.
Because of the connection to the UK, many people descend on the area to try and sneak into any and all forms of transport that could get them to the UK.
Many individuals arrived in Calais with the belief that the UK – London in particular – was a place of utopia where there’s plenty of work and money to go around, and where life would be better than anywhere in Europe.
A few refugees actually found success in crossing the English Channel by hiding underneath trucks and coaches, while others had braved the EuroTunnel and even the Eurostar high speed train tunnel, often a step that costs them their lives.
The growth of the Jungle camp was at its height through the 2015/2016 winter period, and had brought about many, many needs that the residents of the camp were facing, where the rapid increase in numbers saw a huge increase in basic needs, such as food, clothes, shelter, clean water and basic, clean living conditions.
The camp had developed on a desolate area of sand dunes near the coast, which made it vulnerable to extreme winds, and it also offered no support to pitched tents and many huts that were built on dunes that eroded in the rain. This meant that families had very limited protection from the elements and often faced collapsed homes and torn tents.
Many charities and NGOs that had started to get involved in the camp, focused on the most obvious requirements, such as food, clothing, sleeping bags and tents, which meant that these needs quickly started to get addressed, but others were left unattended.
One such need was the cleanliness of the camp. A camp that hosted around nine to eleven thousand people, was bound to get dirty very quickly, which lead to squalid living conditions, an increase in rodents and an environment that was ripe for the spread of disease.
This is where Greenlight stepped in – a professional organisation based out of London that would go out every other week and help start with the most basic work in the camp: picking up trash.
One of the very few local dump sites for residents, often set alight an an attempt to empty them. Overflows meant rubbish filled the residential surroundings very rapidly.
Unglamorous as it sounds, it was arguably one of the most impactful acts of service to the camp, because over the course of 2016 the camp had not only gotten much cleaner, but the residents were also educated about the importance of proper waste disposal for health benefits – which in turn meant that a decrease in waste made for a healthier camp, where medical aid had already been a limited resource.
Greenlight later also provided the camp with some wash basins and mirrors fitted into shipping containers, where residents could, for the first time, use mirrors and have a bit of shelter while they shaved/washed up. One resident even said that it had made him feel human again to be able to see himself, rather than feeling like an animal in the jungle.
Despite the long day – not to mention dirty work and physically-demanding labour – involved in removing, quite literally, tons of rubbish from the camp, it was an incredible experience to be part of a team that was passionate about social justice/impact and had been willing to do whatever it took to help make daily living in the camp just that little bit more bearable for those who called it home.
It had also been really amazing to see the drive in the human spirit to survive, and to have seen refugees create opportunities for themselves, as well as taking pride in what they had. The camp had many shops that sold homemade food, drinks and fresh produce – including some of the best naan bread I'd ever had, bought from an Afghani restaurant.
We visited a ‘bike shop’ that built bikes for the refugees from discarded bicycle parts, while another residence we visited had a homemade garden, complete with some flowers, grass and a couple of garden chairs, where the owner had really just wanted to make his environment as pleasant as possible.
Since my first trip in February, I'd wanted to document some of the camp in a cinemagraph format, as I believe that they're incredibly powerful in helping set the scene so much more effectively than photographs would. My first trip was very cold and windy and a few cinemagraphs would've really helped to paint the picture of what refugees had been dealing with to survive in the camp.
These are examples of the donated tents that most people lived in initially, many of which collapsed or got ripped by winds.
The camp was a constant victim of strong winds and rain, and photographs just couldn't really capture that.
So my first and only opportunity to take my camera was in September but, by then, it was difficult to shoot very much. The majority of residents had become aggressive towards any media-looking people, and either shied away from cameras, or became aggressive at the sight of anyone with a camera. With sensationalist media outlets having spun so many negative stories about the camp and its residents, the residents just didn't trust anyone with a camera anymore, no matter who you had told them you were with.
As a result, most of what I had captured only featured the camp, and not really the residents, out of respect for them not wanting to be portrayed in the media.
The fate of the camp is now sealed, since French president, François Hollande had made his promises to clear the camp and, consequently, the whole camp had been demolished and residents relocated and entered into the French Asylum system. Some of the refugees we’d spoken to had come to accept that France might just be as far as they would get on their journey, and were preparing themselves to accept asylum under French law. Others, however, didn't want to be documented by the French system, as it would prevent them from getting documentation in the UK, should they ever make it over.
This uncertainty meant that some refugees were getting more desperate to try to get to the UK before they got relocated somewhere far away, and we'd even found stowaways hiding underneath our coach during our cleaning trips.
On a more positive note, the UK had finally started the process of allowing some of the unaccompanied minors, to be brought over to the UK and given asylum here, along with an opportunity to finally being reunited with any family they might have. Many of these kids had survived the journey to Calais, and their time in the camp, completely unaccompanied.
At the end of it all, it was heartbreaking to see so many people’s lives in complete and undeserved distress, having lost everything they once had.
It’s my hope that I can continue to work and help tell stories in situations like this in future, as the experience really teaches you so much about humanity, but also about how we should do all we can to look after each other in this world. No one deserves to lose their loved ones, job, career, safety, health, friends and ‘home’ in the manner that these millions of people have, but where it does happen, we should tell those stories and raise awareness so that more people can get together to help.
Working with people in need had long been something close to my heart, and while doing work on the ground is an incredible experience, I hope that I can continue to tell stories as well – and I've found cinemagraphs to be an incredible format for this.
There were two refugees who's stories I managed to capture on condition of anonymity. Please do have a look at The Miracle Stories on Instagram to read more about them.
An overview of the camp, showing the stronger housing structures residents now live in. The sand dune on the right offers very little protection against the wind, but does offer slightly higher ground for refugees looking for better phone signal.
*This blog was originally published on 22 October 2016, when the camp still existed. I have since updated the text to reflect the past tense nature of the camp's existence.
Below are just a few extra still shots taken in the camp.