In some way or another, we are all in search of a home. Most of us are lucky to have one; a place where we usually take everything for granted, most likely because it was handed to us. For others, like the young people in Andrea Gjestvang’s project Return, the search for a new home was made in order to avoid dire circumstances in their countries—an undeniably a difficult task—and a return back to their place of origin became an unavoidable circumstance of this move.
Gjestvang’s year long project Return delves deep into the heart of the asylum-seeking process in Norway and the effects it has had on families; those hoping for a positive decision from the government that would result in a more prosperous life than the one they had to abandon. Instead, they were deported back to their own countries.
In this interview, Gjestvang talks to Niko J. Kallianiotis for LensCulture about her approach to covering contemporary social issues and the importance of moving beyond the headlines to tell a nuanced story.
Niko J. Kallianiotis: Let us take the preliminaries out of the way and tell our readers about your background and how you got involved with photography and more specifically your interest on social issues.
Andrea Gjestvang: When I was 16 years old, my grandmother gave me an old analog camera with multiple lenses. I started photographing and I built a darkroom at home. Working on social issues came naturally because I have a strong commitment to the world that surrounds us. I look beyond the headlines and try to understand the human costs of today’s politics or dramatic events such as the July 22nd terrorist attacks in Norway.
NJK: What is the background story of your project Return?
AG: In 2014, the Norwegian Government decided to accelerate the deportation of undocumented migrants—those who have been rejected for asylum but for various reasons still lived in Norway. Until then, it had been a silent political agreement that families with children, who had lived in Norway for several years, were allowed to stay. But to achieve a high number of deportations, the politicians began to deport families. I was shocked to read how immigration police arrived at night to get children and youth and transport them back to a country that, per definition, was their home, but where they had not lived for many years.
One of the families I photographed had spent nine years in Norway. They were well integrated, the children went to school, they played in the local football team, had friends and spoke the language. Locally people protested loudly. Teachers, neighbours, parents of the children’s friends etc organized demonstrations and petitions. Eventually the law was changed, and children who had lived in the country for more than four and a half years, were allowed to stay. But for the children and youth I photographed it was already too late—they were sent back to their home country.
NJK: How did you locate your subjects and what was involved in the deciding factor of working with a particular asylum seeker or family?
AG: My research was very systematic. In the media there were many stories and a big debate about transportation. I found support groups for the deported families on Facebook, and contacted the spokespersons. Through them, I managed to draw a map of the deported families, and I started to contact them. I wanted to present a diverse group of stories, with different locations in Norway and their countries of origin. I was interested in adolescents who had lived a normal teenage life here, and then were forced back into the unknown. The families I decided to photograph had been sent to Nigeria, Iran, Afghanistan and Jordan. By the time I met them, most of them had returned to Europe.
NJK: What were some of the logistics and obstacles you had to overcome in order to depart on this visual journey?
AG: The biggest obstacle was to face their expectation that my project would change their situation, and take them back to Norway. I am always very clear about my limitations as a photographer. But it was tough though. Since the youth I photographed had lived in Norway between four and nine years, they all spoke perfect Norwegian, even with local dialects. I was welcomed with open arms.
During my stay with the families, I asked them detailed information about their lives in Norway. Their daily habits, the view from their bedroom window, their friends and where they used to hang out. Back in Norway, I visited the places and people who used to be part of their lives. I photographed the best friends, their former homes, the bench they used to sit, the route to school. In the final project, these images are mixed together.
NJK: Needless to say, developing a level of trust with the subjects is imperative and looking at the photographs in Return there is a very intimate and emotionally charged patina. Tell us a little behind the thought process and actions that resulted in such evocative and lyrical photographs.
AG: I always spend time with my subjects, and really listen to them. I have photographed sensitive themes related to adolescents in previous projects, and bring this experience and knowledge with me. Needless to say, I engage with my subjects emotionally. I try to really understand the world they see and experience, and to capture that feeling in my photographs.
I have been thinking a lot about geographic boundaries and how we build visible and invisible walls. In a way, the world is more globalized than ever, but at the same time borders and national identity seem all the more important. It’s a paradox, and it’s very frightening.
NJK: I find your images being very alluring, assertive yet not forced, creating a visual continuum that oscillates between direct and suggestive representation; between description and feelings. What were some of the aesthetic decisions you made and how important were they in representing their story?
AG: Persistence and waiting were two important keywords. The youth I photographed were in limbo, hoping to return to their lives in Norway, thus had failed to settle into their new everyday life. I tried to capture that feeling, and the silence, in my photographs. A day can feel endless when you don’t go to school or interact with the community outside your home. I also wanted the viewer to be confronted by their gaze.
Even if many people disagreed with the current immigration policy in Europe, we have a responsibility as fellow humans. Of course they are in an extreme situation, but at the same time they are also just normal youths—with hopes, desires and ambitions—just like any other young person. So I decided to create simple but direct portraits, using an analog medium format camera.
NJK: Recently, Europe is experiencing a wave of refugees and although you finished the project four years ago, the situation is prevalent and seems never-ending. I personally find it very ironic that some countries in the ‘Union’ are not as welcoming to refugees as others. What are your thoughts on the humanitarian differences regarding tolerance?
AG: I have been thinking a lot about geographic boundaries and how we build visible and invisible walls. In a way, the world is more globalized than ever, but at the same time borders and national identity seem all the more important. It’s a paradox, and it’s very frightening.
NJK: What have you personally learned from spending time with the young asylum seekers and how, if at all, has this experience affected you? Did you unexpectedly discover similarities and commonalities?
AG: Every project I do affects me personally and my work. In what way? It is a difficult question. The world is unfair, but we cannot accept it. This recognition motivates me to continue to explore new topics.
NJK: Are there any plans to continue this project? What is in the works for the future?
AG: I stay in touch with my subjects, but I have moved on to new projects. I just finished a slightly different long-term work on communities in the Faroe Islands where the women have moved away. Which means that I am now in the exciting phase of gathering ideas, researching and trying to figure out my next project!