• Photography  Daniel Castro Garcia
  • Words  Maria Edmée Di Sambuy

Daniel Castro Garcia, a London based photographer, spent two years travelling across Europe to photograph migrants fleeing war and persecution in their home countries. From scenes of everyday life to posed portraiture, Castro Garcia’s photographs oppose the shock culture often diffused by the media, and that surrounds the refugee crisis, instead offering an empathic and moving account of the migrants’ journeys and their yearning for a better life. Last year, Castro Garcia self-published his photographs with graphic designer and John Radcliffe Studio partner Thomas Saxby, and producer Jade Morris. The publication, titled Foreigner: Migration into Europe 2015-2016, saw him awarded the British Journal of Photography’s International Photography Award (2017), was the subject of an exhibition at TJBoulting Gallery in London and will be showcased in Italy, Croatia and New York this summer. He has subsequently been named as one of the winners of the Magnum Foundation Fund 2017, which will enable him to carry on the Foreigner project this year.

PYLOT met with Castro Garcia to discuss the vision of his inaugural photobook, and his future plans for the project.

At the Port of Catania in Sicily I witnessed two separate migrant and refugee landings and I was immediately impressed by the level of organisation and care shown by Italian authorities. In contrast to Lesbos, the Port of Catania had a very calm and effective system for processing people arriving in rescue boats, making sure all were safe and nourished. […] This calmness prevailed even during the HMS Bulwark rescue operation in June 2015 when 1,100 migrants were rescued by the British Navy during the night.

Port of Catania, Sicily, Italy, June 2015 A queue of migrants wait to be processed by the Italian authorities. Upon arrival the first items people are given by the Italian Red Cross are a bottle of water and a pair of white socks

Michael, Augusta, Sicily, Italy, June 2015
Aly Gadiaga, Catania, Sicily, Italy, November 2015 Aly Gadiaga “Gucci”, 26, left Senegal and spent three years travelling to Libya, washing dishes in Mali and Burkina Faso in order to earn the money to board one of the dangerous convoys and cross the Sahara. Aly speaks Wolof (a language of Senegal), French, Italian and English fluently.
He has lived in Catania for two years and has not yet received a work permit. Everyone in the market knows him as “Gucci”, a slang term for “good” or “all right”, because of his remarkably positive attitude. He has not seen his family for six years.

Tell me more about the John Radcliffe Studio and your collaboration with Thomas Saxby?
Tom and I have known each other our whole lives. I come from a film photography background and Tom comes from a graphic design background. A couple of years ago both of us got to a stage in our careers where we felt we wanted to have a little bit more control over the work that we were doing and we always used to bounce ideas off each other before we started working together. In that sense, the project started out with us debating the ideas and concepts that we wanted to try and portray. Equally we went into it completely blind, we had never done a project like this before so we are very much learning as we go along. Our skill sets complement one another nicely. I effectively take photos and Tom can package it up. When the project progressed into book form, Tom’s role increased in terms of the execution of the actual book, which was a major consideration for us because the whole idea was to create alternative information, and subsequently present it in a different way. This is why we eventually ended up with the passport idea for the book.

I analysed my Spanish passport in great detail and we found little traces in there that we wanted to bring through in the book that led to all of our typographic decisions. It’s a very natural and relaxed working relationship.When did the project start and how did it develop in the year you spent working on it?It started pretty much two years ago; in April of 2015, two boats capsized in the Mediterranean that had departed North Africa for Italy, and hundreds of people drowned. The media reaction to this is what I found so disconcerting. I had wanted to start a new project for a while and portraiture has been at the heart of my practice. This was a story that I had naturally strong feelings for because my parents came to the UK in the late 60’s. I felt that my family history, combined with my natural urge to take portraits, made this a good opportunity for me to go out and create a different type of photography about this crisis, to get more in-depth and detailed stories from people.

On my previous trips around Europe, the majority of refugee camps were masculine dominated environments. However, in Idomeni the presence of women and children was much more prominent. I was told by a member of Médecins Sans Frontières that up to 40% of the people in the camp were under the age of 12. The people that have made it to this town will not necessarily be deported, but nor can they move north.

Daniel Castro Garcia, Foreigner: Migration into Europe 2015-2016

Idomeni, Greece, April 2016

Sara, Idomeni, Greece, April 2016
Sara, Idomeni, Greece, April 2016

How do you feel the media’s portrayal of the migrant crisis was harmful, and what does your project offer instead?
I think it was harmful in the way it manipulated certain incidents for potential political swaying, and it was just an inaccurate representation of events at certain times. In particular, one of the things that majorly concerned us [the John Radcliffe Studio] was the type of vocabulary that was used to describe certain parts of this story over the last few years. Personally, my unrest was to do with the images more than anything – the mass crowd shots and violent scenes. Calais, for example, was always depicted by images of people climbing on the back of trucks. There is a far more complex reality to the story than the one that is generally presented by the media. I found it unbelievable that even though there are thousands of people arriving into Europe, so few media outlets thought that it would be worth asking an individual directly to put across a clear version of their story.

Overall media representation has been quite unbalanced, in both directions, you have organisations that have demonised refugees and you have organisations that have sanctified refugees and I think that both options are unhelpful. There needs to be room for a really critical debate and analysis of a situation like this because it will affect all of us and not just during the years of active migration. It’s a change for European society, people are coming to live here and we need to have a more open and considered debate about the realities of this situation, rather than just dramatic headlines that aim to destabilise public opinion.

The reactionary tone of much of the media’s response seemed highly irresponsible to us. The speed at which we consume news stories majorly affected the perception of the European Refugee crisis in particular, and it was our belief that a project like Foreigner could offer a more intimate and sobering account of it. We are not trying to take a moral high ground by any means, but we want to listen to people, engage with them, and make them a part of the project’s process.

Did you travel alone?
Tom came with me on the first trip, then the majority of trips I did with my producer, Jade Morris, and other trips I did by myself. Jade was pivotal in the whole project and book coming together. She comes from a film background, so this work was natural for her. She has been a complete unsung hero in all of this and the project is as much hers as it is Tom’s and mine. When we were traveling through the Balkans and Greece in November / December 2015 it was vital for me to be working with her. There were many tough moments, frightening and stressful situations, that we shared. I feel it is important for me to stress that this has been a genuine team effort.

Kimya, Lesbos, Greece, November 2015
Kimya, Berlin Wall Memorial, Berlin, December 2015 Kimya is a 12-year-old Iranian girl who I photographed on two different parts of her journey through Europe, in Lesbos the day she arrived from Turkey (November 2015) and in Berlin beside the remains of the Berlin Wall (December 2015). Soon after the second photograph was taken, Kimya and her mother returned to Iran.

Did you interact with other photographers covering the crisis?
I didn’t have any strong personal relationships with other photographers. There were a lot of very powerful photographs being taken, but I also felt that there were some ethical aspects of photography being compromised when I was out in the field. In places like Lesbos, where there could be twenty or thirty boats arriving on the beaches every day, there would be a mad scramble of photographers and camera crews, almost trying to get in the boats. It was very shocking, and the whole thing seemed so out of control. But there has also been some incredible photography work done on the subject.

I do feel that photographers could be a lot more careful about how their images are used. I think a good example of this is Nigel Farage’s misappropriation of an image on a poster during the UK’s EU referendum that depicted a queue of Syrian refugees walking through the Balkans, which had absolutely nothing to do with migration in the context he was using it. His suggestion was that the UK would be “flooded” and that British life would be affected negatively. There needs to be a degree of protection over the imagery and it can’t just be made so readily available to organisations to be misused.

In February 2016 a court in Lille approved the French government’s petition to clear the southern section of “The Jungle” camp in Calais. These images were taken as the work commenced on 1 March 2016. The French authorities claimed that 1,000 people were living in this section of the camp, but aid agencies suggest the number was much higher, with 3,455 inhabitants including 205 women and 651 children. Although the inhabitants were given warning of the clearance, many were moved by force. They were given the option to move into alternative container accommodation, or to claim asylum in France rather than the United Kingdom. A small group of activists joined some of the camp’s inhabitants in a sit down protest against the clearance. Twelve shelters were set ablaze in an act of symbolic defiance

Calais, France, November 2015
Calais, France, November 2015

Abraham, Calais, France, November 2015
Calais, France, December 2015
Calais, France, December 2015

Calais, France, March 2016

Do you think your work falls more into the category of photojournalism or art photography. Or do you believe that such a distinction should exist at all?
I have been thinking a lot about that question recently. I have never considered myself a photojournalist and I have never considered myself an artist. I do consider myself a photographer and I think some of the images have more of a photojournalistic quality to them, some of them have a more artistic or considered approach to them, and there is valuable information in both approaches.

For me one of the most fundamental aspects of my work is that I genuinely consider the portraiture to be a collaboration. A lot of the time when I meet people my camera is in my bag, I am not walking around advertising the fact I am a photographer. It is more about getting to know someone. Sometimes you turn up, you meet someone – an old lady, an old man, or a young kid – and they are sitting on the floor somewhere. I am not interested in taking that picture. I would rather that individual perhaps stood up and walked with me for a few minutes and we find a new environment to take the photograph. Ultimately I found that there was a need to allow the people in this story to represent themselves and explore how they want to be seen. I don’t think anybody would like someone with a camera to run up to them and start photographing them without consent, especially if they are in a distressing situation. But if someone came over to you to explain what they are doing and what they want to do with the photograph, then the subject is more likely to present a stronger version of themselves. The images are not about pity. Our hope is that they transmit dignity and respect to the individuals and the situation they are in.

As to whether or not the distinction between art and photojournalism should exist, it is a wide and extensive debate. Ultimately yes, because the photojournalists I have met have very strict ethical codes of conduct. Photojournalism in itself is a craft that deserves deep respect. I feel that it is equally valid for art to be made on the subject of war and social issues. Picasso’s Guernica is a perfect example of an artist interpreting a situation and his work has only nourished man’s understanding of war in an enlightened and intelligent way. As long as the artist is well intentioned, and the work is not ego driven, then there should be room for layered and varied work to exist.

You intend to continue and extend your project, what direction will it take now? Do you have any plans for the future?
I really hope I can carry on with this work for as long as possible because I think that the project and the approach that we have had towards it can offer a really valid alternative to the general way the European migrant crisis is covered. Thanks to the Magnum Foundation Fund, I will be going back to Sicily where I will be working in a centre with unaccompanied minors. You never know where that can lead. I am going into a new, long-term body of work that will involve a lot of sacrifice but I’m ready for that. I’m committed to this work and refuse to give up.

Having had the opportunity to exhibit at the TJBoulting Gallery and produce our new publication, ‘Foreigner: Collected Writings 2017’ that we released in March, it all seems to be developing and growing quite naturally and I am really excited about that. It would be lovely to come back from Italy later this year with the chance to self-publish another volume of photographs about this subject. That’s the aim.

The small fishing island of Lampedusa is the southernmost island of Italy, and is in fact closer to Tunisia than Italy. Over the past decade it has become a primary European entry point for migrants and refugees coming from Africa and the Middle East.

Abandoned swimming pool complex, Lempedusa, Italy, May 2015

Before I arrived in Lampedusa, Italian authorities had diverted all rescue boats to Sicily, meaning there were no migrants or refugees on the island while I was there. The island has seen both its tourism and fishing industries suffer greatly as a result of both the overwhelming numbers of people arriving and most notably, due to the number of deaths that have taken place over the last few years in its sea […] The absence of migrants and refugees served as an opportunity to examine the immediate aftermath of people movement through the island.

All excerpts from Daniel Castro Garcia, Foreigner: Migration into Europe 2015-2016