The South African who documented the Calais ‘Jungle’ in an unusual way
Unlike many photographers who visited the notorious refugee camp in Calais known as ‘The Jungle’, Gideon Mendel found much of the resulting imagery, candid and abundant as it was, to be distasteful and exploitative. So to provide the world with an alternate view, the renowned documentary photographer has crafted a unique book and exhibition that reveals a ‘sideways’ look at the people who at one time called The Jungle home.
Used toothbrushes, a tampon, teddy bears, teargas canisters, worn-out clothes, a doll’s head, a burnt bicycle, a mattress, and a saw. It’s perhaps not the most alluring list of subjects. But given their context, multi-award-winning photographer Gideon Mendel has created a body of work that could very well become a generation-defining masterpiece. The title of Mendel’s new book, Dzhangal, is a Pashto term that translates as ‘this is the forest’ – the origin of the word ‘jungle’ to describe the Calais migrant camp that was forcibly closed last October. In it, Mendel presents over 40 thought-provoking images of discarded items he discovered at the camp. But as provocative and sensational as this project has become, it wasn’t actually what the first and current winner of the Pollock Prize for Creativity had in mind when he set out for France last May. The South African photographer was already well known for his 20-year-strong collaborative photography project, ‘Through Positive Eyes’, where he turned his camera over to those living with HIV, allowing them to document their lives from a more personal point of view. So he was invited by the University of East London to complete a similar task in The Jungle. However, things didn’t go according to plan. “The idea was to give the residents cameras so they could make a personal photographic statement, rather than be represented by the hoards of photographers coming into the camp. We thought this would be more appropriate and could potentially say much more,” the 57-year-old photographer explains. “However, I quickly became aware that there was quite a lot of hostility to the camera. People were generally very polite and didn’t like to give offence, but I think there was a sense that a photographer can affect all kinds of things. “On one level, there was the threat of being identified in the camp, jeopardising their asylum claims. On another level, there had been so many photographers passing through, people felt used and abused by the press, and the camera had become the enemy. So I didn’t feel as through we’d succeeded despite the best of intentions. With the HIV positive project I’d really broken through, but here it just wasn’t working.” With these less than satisfactory results, Mendel – as he’s done on numerous occasions throughout his 34-year career focusing on global social issues – had to think on his feet. And it was precisely by his feet that he found the solution. “Almost instinctively, I began to look at all the stuff on the ground and almost curate and organise it,” he says. “I headed over to an area of the camp that had been demolished some months before and just went round picking up all kinds of things that seemed significant to me. These were things that you didn’t ordinarily see in a photograph but represented children or women, for example.” Laden with bags of what must have looked to his fellow train passengers like rubbish, Mendel arrived home to London with a fresh focus. After experimenting with various backgrounds collected from the camp, such as sand and fabric from tents, he eventually settled on a more simplistic approach.
“I shot the images on black and white, so the objects could come through more strongly,” he says. “I’d never done still life before; with my background in documentary photojournalism, I’ve worked a lot with Rolleiflex cameras and medium format, but never large format.” So with the help of Metz+Recine studio in Hackney, Mendel began the transformation from everyday object to symbolic art. “I worked on a Linhof field camera, which had been adapted with a PhaseOne back tethered to the computer, and we used a very high quality of lighting, so I was able to deliver a very meticulous way of photographing.” Unlike the more organic shooting-style associated with photojournalism, Mendel discovered the technique of still life to be more deliberate. “These items came out of a very chaotic environment, so I tried to bring some kind of order and organisation to that. I wanted to bring a kind of forensic, scientific approach to it, and photograph them as if they were archaeological items of great importance that represent more than what they first appear to, so that people can understand the place through these objects. They are very intimate, personal items. “You think about all those toothbrushes: they still contain the DNA of the people who used them. So it was a very painstaking process, laying things out and positioning them. Some of the shots took a very long time to perfect. For example, the toothbrush image took about eight hours to get right on a black and white, which you’ll notice match each other almost exactly.” The completed 80-page tome, which is available at gostbooks.com, also features writing by residents of the Jungle camp, and its launch coincides with an exhibition at London’s Autograph ABP presenting a combination of the real items and the photographs, which runs until 11 February. “This project actually came from quite an antiphotographic impulse,” Mendel says, reflecting on his work. “I felt like the photography response to the refugee migrant crisis in Europe had been a failure and, if anything, photography was part of the problem. So it became a case of trying to understand the place and make some kind of statement about it. “These pictures are trying to convey the humanity of the refugees who used these items, and in some ways show a sideways view of the issue. I’m not showing pictures of human beings, I’m showing pictures of things they’ve used, but people still have quite an emotional response to it.” As well as the standard £25 edition of Dzhangal, art aficionados can collect one of 50 special signed editions, complete with signed print and unique slipcase. Next up for the six-time World Press Photo winner is the conclusion of his lauded response to climate change, ‘Drowning World’. “I’ve been working on it for 10 years and I really want to move that towards a conclusion, so in this coming year I’m hoping to have a few opportunities to respond to floods.” With the world ever ready to provide constant crisis, Mendel’s adventures shows no signs of slowing. Keep up to date with his work at gideonmendel.com.