In recent years, immigration, flight and displacement have dominated the news cycle and occupied a central position in the public discourse. For many, migrants are seen as a potential threat to social peace and cohesion in Europe and abroad. On the other side of this debate, persecution and violence have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and make their way to safer countries.
Instead of making the complex reasons that catalyze migration visible, the representation of this crisis in mass media is often limited to the political drama of negotiations, the accuracy of statistics or the global outrage at a single photo—all treatments which barely reflect the ongoing humanitarian tragedy that continues in a vicious circle.
Since 2007, photographer Samuel Gratacap has documented the stories of migrants he has met in Tunisia, Libya, Italy and other countries. At times, he stayed in the refugee camps for several months; otherwise, he actually made the long journey with the migrants, gaining a deep understanding of their situation. On the basis of these encounters, he creates a visual narrative that traces their path from Africa to Europe, taking into account their written and recorded testimonies. Through his works, Gratacap reveals the economy around migration—a self-perpetuating system—which is regularly overlooked or ignored by the mass media.
The documentary and conceptual works resulting from his observations are now on view in the exhibition Les Invisibles at the Foam Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam until September 9, 2018. Following Henk Wildschut’s Calais - From Jungle to City and Ai Weiwei’s #SafePassage, it is Foam’s third exhibition that directly addresses the current reality of migration.
“The variety of artistic approaches towards the topic have raised the level of discussion not only on the subject of migration itself, but moreover on how artists, or we as an audience, can or should relate to the topic from the position of bystanders,” explains Foam curator Mirjam Kooiman. “This awareness of one’s own free position in relation to people who are stuck in a situation is also something Samuel Gratacap has incorporated as an essential consciousness in his artistic approach.“
The exhibited photos and video works, as well as audio excerpts, must be seen as a search for the human reality of this massive movement. Gratacap’s photographic approach to his subjects is sensitive and intuitive; the individual living circumstances depicted in his “portraits” make visible the contours of their lives beyond numbers, stereotypes or media figures.
Primarily revealed through the testimonies that Gratacap documented during his travels, the high price paid by people fleeing their country of origin becomes apparent. Without their fundamental rights, they have to live a life on the margins. “Undocumented,” they have to hide, leading an existence in anonymity. Many are forced into dependence on human smuggling and slavery, thus becoming victims of a system that rarely gives them a chance to continue their lives in humane conditions.
In his current exhibition, Gratacap also investigates the connection between geopolitical decisions and economic interests. The international community’s failure in the face of the migration crisis—most countries have passed on the responsibility, economic motives and domestic political power games—has led to an erosion of humanitarian values. We have seen far too many images of politicians in their negotiations and agreements for a new Fortress Europe. An antidote to those kinds of images, Gratacap’s work is a necessary corrective when he steals those politicians’ identities in “Bilateral, 2018,” making them faceless and juxtaposing them in his exhibition with photographs of the many nameless migrants whose fates we have ignored for too long.
If a single photograph can expose a greater truth, then Samuel Gratacap’s photos force us to confront the lack of empathy that has become characteristic of public discourse on this subject. Without claiming absolute truth, Gratacap shows a reality that demands our compassion for the individuals portrayed in his images.
Based on his previous work, Gratacap is already thinking of a follow-up project on migration and how it affects and provokes reactions in civil societies within Italy and France. “Migration is obviously a humanitarian issue, which might be solved not only by laws but by people’s reactions. Since it has become a contemporary issue, migration is creating both tension and solidarity,“ Gratacap notes, adding, “Our media, the photographers, the journalists, the politicians, they all have a major impact on our perception of this topic. [Are we] with or against, in or out?”
Samuel Gratacap’s exhibition Les Invisibles is on view at Foam until September 9, 2018.
Author Magnus Pölcher is an assistant curator at the House of Photography in Hamburg.