Close to the seaport of Calais in France—lying at the heart of democratic Europe—a parallel world has existed for well over ten years. Here, refugees from Africa and the Middle East wait for a chance to cross to the United Kingdom. This unplanned city was long ago dubbed the “Calais Jungle.”

Henk Wildschut has been following and photographing the growing influx of refugees in Calais since 2005. Over the past year, he increased his visits and watched as the long-time refugee camp increasingly became a city in its own right. A city that took on increasing prominence and notoriety in the news. And thus, a city that, due to political decisions, began being dismantled starting on February 29, 2016.

In 2011, Wildschut published a book titled Shelter. This series featured photos of huts, built by refugees, scattered in the woods surrounding Calais. These places, once inhabited by refugees, have now been taken back by nature. Only faint traces of their ephemeral human occupation remain.

Meanwhile, the idea of “The Jungle” has proven harder to efface. Since first being recognized in 1999, various iterations of the refugee encampment have cropped up around the city. Despite repeated efforts of displacement and destruction by the French authorities, new informal settlements continue to appear.

Recently, after the latest clearing of “The Jungle,” a new camp emerged in the dunes just outside Calais. In its latest form, the city had houses, restaurants, places of worship and even libraries. The paths become broader and the beginnings of a true road network were evident. Later, toilet blocks were laid out and electricity arrived.

For Wildschut, who has seen his subject take on so many different forms, the key is to avoid concentrating on images of the immediate, heartbreaking personal stories of refugees and instead to take on a longer view. Yet the human element is continually and tellingly present—as seen in the tenacious attempts of creating shelter and finding a way to survive.

Though nominally “invisible,” (officially, these people do not exist), their tracks and traces are impossible to miss. Wildschut’s perspective does justice to the complexity of the problem by examining these key questions: visibility/invisibility, recognition/denial, temporary/structural, restrained/uncontrolled, local/international. In the end, Europe’s refugee crisis is really a complex tension between political and social realities.

For the exhibition “Calais: From Jungle to City,” photographic and cinematic images are presented in alternating form, giving insight into how the camp is ever-changing. Over the course of the show, the transformations will continue and new work will steadily be added, so be sure to visit more than once.

—LensCulture


Editors’ Note:
The exhibition “Calais: From Jungle to City” was shown from April 8 – June 5, 2016 at Foam in Amsterdam.

This project was made possible through the support of The Democracy and Media Foundation, the Mondriaan Fund and Kleurgamma.