Determined to avoid shooting the camp residents directly, Gideon Mendel built an picture of their lives via a series of still life shots of their possessions
Gideon Mendel’s new series Dzhangal is a portrait of the Calais Jungle, told through its abandoned objects. The title is an Afghan/Pakistani Pashto word meaning ‘This is the forest’, which became the colloquial name for the migrant camp, which existed until 26 October 2016.
Mendel first went to the Jungle to teach photography with the University of East London’s Centre for Narrative Research, which was running courses and programmes for camp residents. He noticed a growing sense of antagonism towards photographers, with the refugees fearing that images would hinder rather than help their efforts to gain asylum, and looked to find a way of portraying them without identifying them.
He decided to turn to their discarded possessions, collecting and recording what he found and bringing it back to London. “When I first came back with a whole bunch of bags full of what looked like random rubbish, my wife thought I’d completely lost the plot,” he laughs. “She thought I’d really gone mad, finally.”
Some of this ‘random rubbish’ is now being housed at London’s Autograph ABP though, part of an exhibition of Mendel’s work from the Jungle. A collection of scorched and muddied items – toys, tear gas canisters, bedsprings and deflated footballs – they are arranged in front of Mendel’s images, in imitation of the camp.
“It feels like these are almost radioactive elements,” says Mendel. “These items, they have a really powerful energy of history and distress.”
In fact, such was their power that initially Mendel didn’t want to photograph them – “the collecting and the process came out of a strongly anti-photographic impulse,” he explains. “I thought at first maybe I’d just show the objects and not the photos. But then I realised that that would be a very limiting factor.”
Well-known for his striking portraits of those affected by Apartheid, climate change, and HIV/AIDS, Mendel had to adopt a much more forensic approach to this project. “I come from the tradition of working on 35mm or medium format, and working in a much more improvised way,” he explains. This time he went into a studio with a Linhof field camera and artificial lighting, aiming to create the “plainest, most direct photos I possibly could”.
“I wanted to somehow elevate the objects, and out of that chaos and create some order,” he says, adding that it took some time to work out the best way of doing so.
“I thought I would photograph everything with an authentic background so that a whole picture would emerge of the camp, but they were distracting from the objects,” he says. “So I eventually just hit upon the point of shooting everything with a very simple either black or white background.”
Dzhangal is also being published as a book by GOST, and in this iteration it will feature a number of texts – including writing by some of camp residents, plus short essays by academic Dominique Malaquais and journalist Paul Mason.
“It makes it a political book rather than only an art book” says Mendel. “I hope it might speak beyond the Calais Jungle, and say something about people and the sense of displacement around the world.”
Mendel’s mother and father were both forced to flee Nazi Germany, and he says this history makes him greatly aware of both the impact of displacement, and of his own good fortune today. “I’m aware of my privilege,” he says. “I live in London, I live in a safe society.
“This work speaks to the fact that the world is somewhat divided between places of safety and places of danger, and places of wealth and places of poverty, and that’s always going to cause these huge movements of people around the world.”
Dzhangal by Gideon Mendel is on show at Autograph ABP until 11 February. A special event titled Representing the Calais Jungle will take place at Autograph ABP on 28 January, in which Mendel will lead a guided tour of the exhibition in conversation with art historians Christine Eyene and Dominique Malaquais, and anthropologist Georgie Wemyss and refugee project co-ordinator Robert Lloyd will discussed forced migration and the ethics of representing it. This event is free but places must be booked via the Autograph ABP website.
Dzhangal will be published by GOST on 28 January, priced £25. For more information and pre-sale orders visit the GOST website