This series began as a reaction to the visual culture that has developed around the topic of migration. When the British media covered the refugee crisis, they focused on the people drowning in the Mediterranean, reproducing only dramatic images that were alienating and judgmental. I knew that this was not the whole story and it made me want to go out there, to see it for myself.
With my partners from John Radcliffe Studio, Thomas Saxby and Jade Morris, we headed to Lampedusa, the largest of the Italian Pelagie Islands. Situated midway between Sicily and Tunisia, since the early-2000s Lampedusa has been one of the main entry point for refugees into Europe. When we arrived, however, passing cemeteries with unmarked graves and an empty swimming pool, littered with abandoned items of clothing, we discovered that the refugees had left to Sicily on orders of the Italian government.
So we went to Sicily where we began to meet the refugees and develop relationships with them. We didn’t want our images to focus on life jackets or crowded boats, but on more subtle elements that would add humanity to the story. In many ways the project had very little to do with photography – you don’t need a camera to try to understand what someone has been through. But as the relationships developed, I started explaining what we were doing and, more often than not, people were happy to have their picture taken.
Before the trip I’d done a lot of research into explorers like Ernest Shackleton, pioneers who we celebrate, who have their place in history. Just like these explorers, refugees today have crossed mountains, seas and risked their lives; and they are just as worthy of respect. It’s not just about poverty and pity – they should be able to look strong and proud, and I tried to bring this through in the work. Before photographing Madia, for example, I asked for his opinion, even though I had an idea of how I would like to take his picture. Allowing refugees to decide how they want to present themselves gave the photographs a dignifying quality that I felt was needed, and the project became an outlet for them to express their feelings.
Then I returned to London and the drama of the refugee crisis in the Balkans unfolded. I couldn’t stand still and set off on another journey – this time across Slovenia, Greece, France and Britain, to document the crisis from a macro-scale. It has been incredibly eye opening. The notion of what I believed Europe was or what I thought Europeans were like was completely shattered – corruption and racism is rife.
The final work is called Foreigner because I believe the concept of the foreigner will always be an intrinsic part of our lives. What I saw satisfied my desire to create an alternative visual story but it’s difficult to know what influence this particular set of photographs will have. I hope, though, that the public will see them and take some time to reflect on their attitude to the refugee crisis.
PHOTOGRAPHY + WORDS: Daniel Castro Garcia
Foreigner will be exhibited at TJ Boulting, 59 Riding House St, London, until the 8th of April 2017.