When UK photographer Daniel Castro Garcia won the prestigious W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund Grant in Humanistic Photography in 2017, he said it represented “the most humbling and extraordinary achievement in my professional career.”
The award was given to Garcia for his work ‘Foreigner’, a far-reaching and ongoing project on the migrant crisis in Europe that focuses on the lives and stories of people attempting to integrate into a foreign land. Read on to learn more about the impetus behind the series and the stories of the unique individuals it presents.
LensCulture: In the project’s statement, you underlined that the aim of this series was to contribute an alternative type of image to the visual landscape of the humanitarian crisis. What did you feel was missing in the mainstream media’s representation of the crisis, and why was it so important for you to bring it to light?
Daniel Castro Garcia: With regards to the mainstream media’s representation of the crisis, more often than not, we [Ed note: “Foreigner” was created in close collaboration with graphic designer Thomas Saxby and producer Jade Morris] felt that the individuals experiencing the situation firsthand were not being depicted in a decent or dignified manner. Fundamentally, people weren’t able to control the way they were being seen.
The general public also plays a crucial role in the unfolding of events. We live in an image-saturated society with endless sources of breaking news that are extraordinarily reactionary. I would encourage anyone out there to type “migrant crisis” or “migrant crisis headlines” into Google to further cement this point. Fake news and misinformation seem to be considered a modern phenomenon, when in reality they could or (should) be considered a modern approach to traditional propaganda.
At the heart of the “Foreigner” project lies a motivation to connect with people, primarily through photography (and as the project has advanced, through film, graphic design and publications). We wanted to contribute to a well-rounded debate by affording our collaborators and subjects the opportunity to share their own personal accounts.
In addition, it was essential to not undermine anyone’s intellectual capacity, subsequently emphasising that each and every individual counts. Those that have suffered the hardship of war or poverty should be given a chance to communicate their truth, and the audience should be given the chance to consider as many versions of this truth as possible. This is not a clear-cut, black-and-white situation. It is deeply complex and delicate. As a result, a delicate approach is essential.
LC: Your parents emigrated to the UK for economic reasons long before you were born. How did your familial circumstances influence your approach to this theme? Were there any recurrent questions in your mind as you covered the crisis?
DCG: I think my background has influenced this project a great deal. One of my main concerns about this crisis was the effect it was having on identity, be it personal identity, national identity, or European identity.
I grew up in what seemed like a pretty tolerant country. The UK was a very forward-thinking place that embraced multi-culturalism and diversity, and it has been shocking to witness the change in people’s mentalities over the last few years. The financial crisis, terrorism, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamophobia…they have all contributed to a rapid mental shift in the general population. That is not to say that racism didn’t exist prior to the refugee crisis, but I don’t believe it was as systematic and widespread as it is right now.
For much of my life, the idea of national identity was confusing. In the UK, I never felt fully British, and in Spain I never felt fully Spanish. In all honesty it has taken me up until this project to understand that it’s OK to simply be both, or neither. I find nationalism a strange concept—ugly in many ways. It is of course perfectly understandable to have pride in your nation and culture etc., but when that sentiment becomes isolationist, I feel this demonstrates a grave failure.
LC: You went to several places to cover the crisis. How did the different places and communities react to you? What were your biggest challenges while you shot this project? Where did you manage to establish the strongest connections and produce your best work?
DCG: Each location had its own set of challenges. One of the most important things I learnt very early on in this project was to not have preconceived ideas about what I would find, because in each instance where I went somewhere with an idea in mind, it would always be different.
Generally I was welcomed at every single place I traveled, but the people that were hardest to deal with or the most frightening were the authorities. In Calais, the police were brutal (to say the least). I also experienced this in the Balkans. Furthermore, the conditions I found were very distressing. Idomeni was a particularly difficult place to work because people were genuinely reduced to animal status. The conditions we shocking. A village, which in a 2011 census has 154 people living there, was now home to approximately 12,000 people, with an estimated 40% children under the age of 12.
Overall, one of the aspects that I found hard to document was the situation endured by women. This is predominantly due to cultural and religious boundaries, but working with Jade (the producer) facilitated a certain degree of access that I would not have had on my own.
It is hard for me to quantify or consider where I created my best work, but I feel I managed to gain the greatest depth in Sicily. It is a part of the European migrant narrative that is grossly misrepresented and underreported, and I feel very comfortable working here. At present I am based in central Sicily and am working with young, unaccompanied minors in reception centers. As future Europeans, theirs is a story that needs to be understood and documented. They are at a great risk of exploitation and ghettoization.
LC: I imagine it was not easy to establish an intimate connection with your subjects in such a delicate context. Nevertheless, looking at your photographs, it’s evident that you succeeded in putting them at ease. How did you work to create a safe environment for your subjects?
DCG: Being honest was the most important starting point. At no time did I take a portrait of anyone without explaining that I was doing a long-term project about the migrant/refugee crisis and I never pressured anyone into having his or her picture taken. As strange as this may sound, photography in many ways plays a small role in this project, because the main aim was to learn about people’s stories—you don’t necessarily need a photograph to do that. Words, and their use, are also extremely powerful when creating a portrait of someone.
The conversations that take place prior to holding up the camera have defined the images in this project. Some images are calm and simple and result from shorter interactions, while others come as a result of learning something painful about a person, and that sentiment carries through also. In other, more precise cases, the visual output came from days, months or years of knowing someone and pushing forward to create images together that are multi-faceted.
The act of engaging in portraiture is a deeply personal and emotional experience—and I say this hoping to evade any trace of pretention. Ever since I started taking pictures almost a decade ago, I recognised that portraiture had a unique way of allowing me to connect with people. The camera served as an excuse to share a moment with strangers and loved ones alike. It provided an opportunity to discover something unique about a person and also a chance to learn something about myself.
Creating a “safe space” in this project entailed providing people with the room to move and compose themselves. More often than not, I would encourage people to take a walk with me, if even just a few meters, so that they could relax and find comfort in a new space. That was important, as I feel it removed some of the “human zoo” element that working in these environments can sometimes have.
With this project, I have never been concerned about projecting myself or my “style” onto anyone. I believe the images are generally very simple, straight portraits, but the confidence or emotions of the individuals are what dictate their strength. That is what interests me about them.
LC: An increasingly important debate in the documentary field is the collaboration between photographer and subject. I think we all realize that taking a still image of someone doesn’t necessarily “give them a voice” just by itself. How did you work to make your subject an active agent in this narrative? In your mind, who controls the narrative in the end?
DCG: Being mentally and physically present has been the key. I like this idea of someone being an active agent or an active citizen because it supposes movement as opposed to stagnation. The people I am working with are trapped in bureaucratic limbo, and their futures are very uncertain, so to be able to engage them in something that can have positive outcomes is important. They are, by and large, ill-informed about their own status, and there is very little effort being made to integrate and educate people. Language is a fundamental element of the process.
I think the general public will always control the narrative, eventually. The media and politicians play a big role in events, but ultimately pointing the finger at them is the easy option. The Western world is theoretically a democratic landscape, but our leaders are influenced and benefit from the posture of media outlets. There is a cycle at work, that is quite clear, and it’s up to the public to choose what type of information and leadership they are willing to tolerate. The position of this project is simple: to provide balanced and considered information to a public that is willing to engage and be open.
LC: Would you define yourself as a photojournalist, or would you prefer a different term to define your approach to photography?
DCG: I have never considered myself a photojournalist. For me, that is a very heavy term and a practice that deserves the utmost respect and consideration. Where photography has become a highly accessible art form for a wider population to interact with, it has also resulted in a great number of people labelling themselves as “photojournalists.” I am of the impression that it is a trade that requires great knowledge and understanding. There are ethical standards and rules that need to be respected and adhered to, and someone doesn’t learn that from simply going out and taking pictures.
That is not to say you can’t self-teach and learn as you go along, but I feel that it is a profession that has a slightly muddied reputation at the moment. In order for it to heal, there needs to be a clearer understanding of the responsibility that this profession both deserves and entails. I know a great deal of extraordinary photojournalists that care immensely about their practice that find themselves having to compete with people who don’t respect the craft.
In my case, I consider myself to be a photographer working in the documentary field. Prior to this project, I was a street photographer working on personal projects, using photography as a tool to understand the world and express something. Now I am using whatever ability I have as a photographer to work on a very precise subject that requires less of a personal, artistic urge and instead a focus on other people.
LC: Can you talk about your decision to shoot this project on medium-format film? Most documentary photographers and photojournalists shoot digital images these days. Why did you decide on film?
DCG: For a number of years prior to this project, film was my preferred method of working, and it was the most natural way for this project to develop. In that sense, there was no decision to be made—I was simply following the development of my practice. I have found that the images I have made digitally are quite thin and fleeting and lacking in a certain character or substance.
I don’t like the feeling of taking hundreds of images and having so many variations of the same thing, and I don’t enjoy looking at the screen moments after taking the photo. I find it removes me from my environment. A different type of thought process enters the interaction with the scene, and something gets diluted. With medium-format film, I have a limited number of shots available to me, so I think much harder before hitting the shutter. Subsequently I will only ever end up with two or three frames to consider.
It’s important to also go back to the point that this whole project was self-initiated. I haven’t worked on assignment for anyone, so no one dictated how I worked. I haven’t had the need to work quickly. Ultimately, substance is more important than style, and the camera is just a tool. I think people can get a bit caught up in the notion that there is some sort of battle between film and digital, but I think that is rather narrow-minded. I personally respect both, have used both and will continue to use both depending on circumstance.
LC: You are regularly in contact with some of your subjects, and they have become close friends. One of them traveled to an exhibition of this work in Cortona, Italy over the summer. What does this project mean for them? How did they react to it?
DCG: It means a lot to all of us. We are more like colleagues than anything else when we work. The idea of them being subjects isn’t relevant anymore—it hasn’t been for a long time. Like you say, we are friends, and we are working together to produce first-hand information, without a filter or hidden agenda.
The whole point of the project is to ensure that these collaborators are given as many inches as possible to communicate their views. As a result, they are sharing a platform with some of the world’s leading experts on the refugee and migrant crisis, and no one is being underestimated.
At present, while working with teenagers, I have to find new ways to continue the project. One of the main focuses is the impact of trauma, so the work needs to be approached extremely gently.
Education is an exciting new element. The kids have no schooling, no books and little mental stimulation, so I teach them how to use the cameras and load film, how to use video cameras, laptops and email. We will be running a graphic design workshop to try and find ways for them to manifest themselves and learn new ways of communicating. It is a very reciprocal process, and there is a lot of trust and faith involved.
The boys have never seen themselves photographed in such a way. They love the film work; it is a new language for them. In many ways this is a crucial aspect to the broader, more general potential of this project: we are looking for methods of integration and communication, nothing more.
—Daniel Castro Garcia, interviewed by Winifred Chiocchia
To learn more about this remarkable work, please visit Garcia’s personal website.