Interview: Daniel Castro Garcia & Thomas Saxby

Our next talk will be on the subject of HOME on Mon Feb 20th in Brighton. To warm up for it, we spoke to Daniel Castro Garcia and Thomas Saxby from John Radcliffe Studio about their work Foreigner: Migration into Europe 2015-2016, which has earned Daniel the BJP International Photography Award 2017…

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Foreigner: Migration into Europe 2015-2016 is a response to the media coverage of the European migration phenomenon. How was the project born?

Thomas Saxby: The story of migration to Italy from Northern Africa was something we had been following for a while. Then in April 2015 two boats carrying migrants towards the Italian island of Lampedusa capsized, over 1000 people lost their lives, and the survivors were taken to the island. This catastrophic event was the catalyst that spurred us into action. Daniel had recently completed a series taking portraits of the various characters he had met living in Amsterdam. We wanted to take the same approach and apply it to the people arriving from Africa. We wanted to find out who they were, hear their stories and use photography to represent them with respect and dignity.

Whilst we were formulating these ideas we were simultaneously horrified by the imagery and headlines that we were seeing in the mainstream press. Phrases like “swarm” and “invasion” were being used to describe people fleeing from war, persecution and poverty. A quick google image search of the term “migrants Europe” shows the typical kind of imagery that was (and is) being used to accompany this rhetoric. The effect is to depict an atmosphere of fear, chaos and panic, with an emphasis on the mass rather than the individual.

So the project came from our natural curiosity to meet the people at the centre of the crisis, a feeling of not being represented by the discourse in mainstream media and a desire to make our own investigation and response to the issue – drawing our own, independent conclusions.

It is also important to mention the work of our producer, Jade Morris, who accompanied Daniel on a great number of the trips. Coming from a production background she had a key role in the organisation of the trips and did a great deal of post-production also. She is very much a key member of the team.

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The photographs were taken with a medium format camera, which is quite unusual for this sort of scenario and photojournalism in general. How did the use of that technology influence the approach to the subjects?

Daniel Castro Garcia: Primarily, I feel there is a need to define my own role as a photographer. Although the subject matter is very much a news story I have never considered myself as a photojournalist or a journalist. My interest has always been in creating images and more precisely, portraits.

On a personal level, my reasons for using medium format film are numerous. Firstly the precision and pace at which I work is more suited to this approach. You have to work slowly and you cannot shoot as many images or as freely as you can with a digital camera. I find it difficult to deal with the vast number of images that can be produced when shooting digitally and I feel that the very essence of photography is that you are creating an image in one exact moment. Often with digital you can end up with ten or twenty identical frames and choosing “the one” can become an arduous process and I believe the feeling of the image changes. It almost dilutes it.

One of my concerns before tackling this project was the idea of image saturation and the life span of images. This humanitarian crisis has been defined visually by dramatic crowd shots, which I felt were a serious problem when it came to capturing the realities of the situation in any given place.

By choosing to shoot with film I was also making the choice to keep my camera in my bag and take the time to approach people, talk to them, learn about their lives and the reasons why they had taken the journey. After establishing a connection and relationship with people it was generally very easy to gain trust and photograph in a collaborative way. It was important to provide people with a chance to present themselves how they would like to be seen.

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Some of the subjects appear in more than one photograph in the book. Did you travel with them or meet them at different points during the journey?

DCG: It was different at different times. In Calais, for example, I visited the camp on five different occasions and I would revisit the individuals that I had the strongest relationships with. Some times I would lose contact with for a few months people only to find them again by chance when I least expected to. One thing I remember about Calais specifically was the way my relationship would change with the actual place. It was interesting to observe how the camp changed from being mainly tents, to wooden shacks, to shipping containers and ultimately fire and rubble. There was a constantly developing infrastructure and strong sense of community in Calais.

With Aly and Madia I have a very different relationship, it is deeply personal. They are people that I have spoken to every day since I met them. They are friends… in many ways they are family now. They are the creators of this project too. They shared their lives with us and opened up about everything.

I met Kimya (12 year old Iranian girl) in Lesbos on the day she arrived from Turkey across the sea. She was with her mother and I took her photograph. I exchanged numbers with her mum and fortunately after three weeks she messaged me to say that they had arrived in Berlin and they would like to see me, so I drove with Jade Morris (producer) from Sicily to Berlin to meet her again and photograph her by the Berlin Wall.

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The design of the book has an important role in the narration of the story: The foil blanket and cover emulating a passport prepare us to experience Foreigner in a certain way. Can you tell us about the process of designing and editing the book?

TS: One of the earliest ideas we had for the design of the book was to make it resemble a passport. Daniel had pointed out that his Spanish passport was filled with illustrations of migratory animals, using maps to show their seasonal movements, and it struck us that passports symbolised many of the issues at the centre of the project – nationality, borders, identity, freedom of movement. As well as dictating the design of the cover, passports also influenced the typographic elements in the book, and inspired us to include the maps. The printing of the maps on tracing paper was meant to allow the first photograph of each chapter to interact with the map, and reference the way that the subjects were travelling, passing through the landscape. The gold foil was a way to make the book feel precious, and bring in a something that was so prevalent and stood out so much in the places we visited. Both the foil and the maps were an attempt to bring different textures to the book and add layers that you cannot experience through purely digital consumption of images.

Alongside this design process we were deciding how to structure the images. We had six chapters which were defined by geographical location, and the sequence we eventually arrived at aimed to present several different journeys. In the first sense the book depicts the migrant’s journey – early chapters dealing with boat crossing and arrival in Europe, the middle section dealing with travelling across the Balkans, and the final chapters covering the informal migrant camps where many people find their journey’s stalling.

In another sense the book is chronological, the first chapter on Lampedusa being the first trip we made and the final one in Idomeni being the last (it was an attempt to make the book as up to date as possible and the photos were in fact taken just a couple of weeks before we sent files to print).

Because of the chronological aspect to the book, there is also a journey of understanding that we experienced whilst making it. The first chapter in Lampedusa is in fact devoid of people. The Italian government had changed their policy a week before we arrived, and had begun to take all rescued migrants to Sicily rather than Lampedusa. So the lack of people in that chapter fittingly reflects our lack of knowledge and experience at the start of the project. We were simply seeing the signs and the aftermath of the events we had read about back home. As the book progresses, so does the proximity to the subjects – emotionally and physically – and it’s not until half way through the book that you get some of the diptychs and stories of people we met. This progressive proximity reaches its climax with the final image – our friend Aly Gadiaga dressed in a red robe. This image was the result of the deepest relationship we made with anyone in the book.

Migration has been in the spotlight due to the present political course of events. Will you keep developing these topics or are you moving onto something else as a team?

DCG: The aim is to continue working on this subject and continue exploring new ways of documenting it and creating alternative types of information. I feel that it would be insincere to have embarked on this journey to now walk away from it. I have plans to return to Sicily for an extended period of time later this year and continue working there. I am also looking forward to introducing moving image into the work, which is really where my background lies.

Tom and I will continue to work together and also be aiming to develop our studio together and opening it up to new contributors and new projects. We already have a new team member, Gus Palmer, who is a great photojournalist and has very exciting ideas and projects in mind that we can collaborate on.

www.johnradcliffestudio.com

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Monday 20th Feb, 2017. Doors at 6pm, kicks off at 7pm.  The Old Market, Brighton. 

Free Entry.

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