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The future of everyday living
EU2016 arts & design programme

Henk Wildschut on his pictures of Calais

This month, The Wall shows the consequences of walls.
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‘A carousel you can’t get out of’

HenkWildschut(c)RdePuyThis month, The Wall shows the consequences of walls. Walls around Europe and Great Britain, keeping refugees out. In Calais, people are literally stuck on their way to England, but they keep on dreaming. And they keep on creating a home for themselves, with improvised doors and gardens. Henk Wildschut photographed these symbols of human resilience and resourcefulness in Calais, a place where he has been coming since 2005. ‘The problem has always been here.’

The pictures shown on The Wall aren’t pretty at first sight. But when you take a longer look, you can see the human hand behind the self-built tents and huts, in the middle of Calais’ bush. ‘I can see beauty in the flexibility and power of these people’, Wildschut says. ‘In a short time, they have managed to build something for themselves. It’s an expression of people’s basic need for security and dignity. You can see how they keep their improvised huts tidy, how they try to make them homely and cosy.’

I can see beauty in the flexibility and power of these people

One of the pictures even shows a tiny front yard, with a decorative fence, flowers and even garden chairs. ‘It gives people hope to be able to create something, to see things grow. This is what people draw strength from.’

Beauty and drama

The campsite that Wildschut photographed, is in the midst of being evicted, a process that started some weeks ago. The photographer, who is always looking for ‘urgent, invisible societies’, first heard about the phenomenon in 2001, when a group of refugees, fleeing the Kosovo war, stormed the Calais tunnel in Sangatte. The destruction of that campsite was ordered by then France’s Home Secretary Sarkozy. ‘In 2005 I read about groups of immigrants who were again living in the woods around Calais, so I went there. I discovered these tiny huts and was actually struck by the beauty of it. The combination of this beauty and the underlying drama made me keep coming back. Also, the problem didn’t go away. I wanted to find a new way of telling this story. In pictures, as I am an image maker. I travelled all over Europe to look at these places of transit, where people gather in search of their dreams. But for me, Calais remained the barometer for Europe’s refugees problem.’

The camps in the woods were destroyed also, which drove its inhabitants to the dunes. ‘Over the course of ten years, the problem diminished somewhat. The camp grew smaller around 2009, but in 2014, it was again getting worse. I revisited in 2015 and was shocked by the size of it. It made me quite gloomy at first because I realised this would just continue as long as Europe keeps closing its eyes. Some of the people I’ve met have been on the run for ten years now. They’ve been back and forward three times. It is like a carousel you can’t get out of. With the recent eviction, I’ve heard people say they’re tired of everything and would want to go home. But they can’t just fly back. They would have to travel the same gruelling journey back.’

Power of the people

Wildschut takes hope from his pictures. ‘When people moved to the dunes, they built a new city out of nothing, in no time. This shows the power of these people. And it makes you wonder why we’re not using this creativity and strength. We could let our own society benefit from the qualities of these people, rather then keep them separated. It is a movement that has never stopped and will not stop. A movement our own society is actually built on – you only have to look at Amsterdam to see it.’ Wildschut also maintains a positive attitude by watching the volunteers working at the campsite. ‘At one point the volunteers almost outnumbered the refugees. The solidarity and empathy shown by them are heart warming.’

Over 2015, Wildschut visited the campsite some twenty times. ‘Usually for one or two days and sometimes three days in a row. It is not a very nice place to stay, even though it is a miniature society, with restaurants – which were also visited by refugees’ friends from Paris because the food’s really good and cheap – and a barber, where I would get a shave and haircut. There’s a lot of violence in the camps and at night, you don’t want to be out there. There are so many different groups and cultures – it does clash.’ The people Wildschut met mainly came from Afghanistan and Sudan (‘they are the masters of building gardens!’), but also from Pakistan, Eritrea, Syria, India and Iran.

At one point the volunteers almost outnumbered the refugees. The solidarity and empathy shown by them are heart warming.

Wake-up call

‘For me, Calais is a wake-up call. This problem won’t go away. The tragedy is here and it is knocking at our door. We can’t keep this door closed because things will just escalate. Maybe we can’t let everyone in, but we have to find a way to regulate the influx in a fair way. And maybe look at the possibilities rather than the problems. I want very much to contribute to a more nuanced point of view. Take a look at it without judgement and drama.’

Wildschut considers the exhibition at The Wall more than just a stage. ‘The European politicians are meeting behind this wall. When they go through the gate, they are surrounded by the pictures of Calais, by the consequences of their policies. On both sites of the entrance pictures of the fences in Calais are strategically placed. ‘The politicians have to face it.’