Between 2017 and 2018, Sebastian Wells, a member of international photography agency Ostkreuz, travelled to 24 refugee camps in 7 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Focusing on the everyday life of the refugees living in these supposedly temporary camps, Wells’ images depict and explore the limits and impossibilities they impose on spatial and social infrastructure.
Though each camp had its own complex histories, Wells encountered certain recurring structural qualities. On all of the sites he visited, he found similar architectural structures in how the camps were set up and therefore organized. “Basically, I have been looking for patterns that repeat themselves. Especially when it refers to the structure of containers or tents, the same constellation of people and spaces,” Wells says of his photographic approach. “I have tried to echo this visually or to trace it again at the different sites, no matter whether it was in Germany, in Turkey or in Kenya.”
The choice of location for building the camps was also similar across the countries he visited. Away from local civilizations, the camps are mostly based in deserts, hard-to-reach locations or remote urban areas, making social exchange between those seeking protection and the states that temporarily offer them shelter near non-existent. While the lives of the residents are strictly regulated by both visible and invisible barriers, Wells’ efforts to gain access to the camps were not easy either. It was often a challenge to obtain official permission as a photographer, without which he would have been denied entry.
While the photographer often had only a few hours to familiarize himself with the camps and their inhabitants, there is little hope for the refugees to ever leave these places. “In Kenya, in Dadaab or Kakuma, the camps have existed for over 30 years now. A large part of the people were born there—we cannot even speak of refugees any more,” says Wells. “The residents have simply grown up in this place and have taken root there. That is the absurdity of these camps; they keep up this refugee status and statelessness, although this has long since become the status quo.”
The UNHCR currently has more than 70 million refugees worldwide. About 10 million are housed in so-called refugee camps, although for many of them, life in the camps has become the norm. Despite the time pressure, linguistic differences and varying life paths, Wells met many people who he identified with, who left a profound impression on him with their incredible resourcefulness to survive and even establish some form of normality.
When asked how he perceives the media representation of refugee camps, Wells answers: “Normally there are always pictures where there is an extreme amount of action, an extreme amount of drama; pictures that arise in acute emergency situations.” In Utopia, he wanted to draw attention to a permanent and ongoing state by showing a reality that was not intended but which, despite tough circumstances, has become everyday life for the refugees.
“This work could have probably been photographed in the same way 10 years ago, and unfortunately it will be photographed in the same way 10 years from now,” he explains. “This replication of living conditions, people left behind in a provisional state, that is what is important to me in this work and probably does not appear very often in the media.”
By documenting refugee camps around the world, Wells demonstrates the universality of the experience of living in one of them. Envisioned as a temporary refuge, they become an unwanted home for many residents, not the home of a better future, but a place that carries within it the original meaning of the Greek word ‘utopia’: οὐ (‘not’) and τόπος (‘place’).