In the summer of 2016, French photographer Jean-Michel André went to the “Calais Jungle,” which had been housing several thousand migrants for a little over a year. His idea was to start a new project around the notion of borders. Shortly after his arrival there, the French government decided to dismantle what is considered to be the largest slum in France. During the months that followed, André interacted with not-for-profits organizations and refugees, engaging in extensive conversation and not using his camera much. In fact, only one photograph taken during that period made it into his final project, the one of a man shot from behind looking at a wall of barbed wire. This image was the trigger that would lead him to embark on his four-year “Borders” project, currently on view at the Rencontres d’Arles 2021 photography festival and released in book form by French publisher Actes Sud.
After the Calais camp was dismantled, leaving the men and women living there in a precarious situation, an outraged André continued to talk to them. He was interested in their stories, their journeys, their outlandish lives. In Tourcoing, where he lived, he also organized photography workshops with refugees for a not-for-profit organization called Cada (Reception Center for Asylum Seekers). At the same time, he continued his research and drew in particular from the anthropological work of Michel Agier, who specializes in the question of borders. He also drew inspiration from literature, such as from the work of his writer friend Wilfried N’Sondé, as well as Patrick Chamoiseau’s Migrant Brothers and Eldorado by Laurent Gaudé.
Thanks to a grant from the CNAP, he was able to travel and develop his project. He journeyed to Italy, Spain and Tunisia, following the footsteps of migrants from whom he had collected numerous testimonies. With the help of local associations, such as Calfata and Arci Porco Rosso, he met new refugees, with whom he developed a strong bond, and went with them to the places they had passed through on their journeys. He photographed landscapes that he views as “the mirror of his exchanges” with the migrants. Throughout his journey, he also kept in touch with N’Sondé, to whom he would send photos and who in turn would send texts, many of which have been included in both the exhibit and the book. The two mutually inspired each other, and it was actually the writer who talked André into photographing the migrants full-face. Prior to that, André had only been photographing them from behind, out of respect for their privacy.
In this series, which isn’t really constructed in a linear fashion but rather as a “collection” that doesn’t come with any captions in order to retain its universal scope, André sought to “gain height” and “find spectacular images and pathos,” which are often linked to this tragic subject. Between long wandering road and hope, between dreams and reality, the photographer pays tribute to these women and men and their “unfailing determination.” In his mind, they are heroes whose dignity he wanted to show through his images.
By Sabyl Ghoussoub
Born in Paris in 1988 into a Lebanese family, Sabyl Ghoussoub is a writer, columnist and curator. His second novel, Beyrouth entre parenthèses [Beirut in Parentheses] was released by Antilope editions in August 2020.
“Borders”, on view through September 26, 2021 at the Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles. Croisière, 65 boulevard Emile Combes, 13200 Arles.
Borders by Jean-Michel André, text by Wilfried N’Sondé, published by Actes Sud.