harley weir talks about shooting the homes and houses of the calais jungle
Homes is a new photobook by Harley Weir that documents the landscape of the Calais Jungle with a raw beauty and emotional tenderness.
Beauty isn't often something you associate with Calais' refugee camp, The Jungle, for obvious reasons. Yet the images that make up Harley Weir's new photobook, Homes, a document of the camp, undeniably have a sense of beauty about them. Something melancholic too, but certainly, Harley's photos are unlike most of the photos you'll have seen coming out of Calais in the last year.
Because Homes, instead of focussing on images of people, shifts its lens onto the structures they built and inhabited; it's a temporary landscape of tents, churches, and shacks. It's beautiful because Harley captures, with a poetic honesty, the time and love that the people who called the camp home put into their buildings. She's captured the details of the dwellings and imbued them with a dignity and tenderness often missing in the portrayal of The Jungle. And, in this, Harley's images reach towards an incredibly powerful universalism of the home as a symbol of what unites us. Homes is potent document of the refugee crisis, one that will make you stand up and want to do something. Not only that, shot during, before and after the camp was demolished, Homes now forms an invaluable record of what the Jungle was like as a landscape and place to live. We caught up with Harley to talk over the project.
What inspired this project? I know the pictures were taken over three days, but what was the lead up to that?
Calais, and borders in general, have been on my mind for a long time. There was a part of me though that was too self-conscious to meddle with such huge issues; I felt I didn't have a voice on such topics. Or rather wasn't allowed one. People are often offended if you fraternise with fashion and are also interested in the rest of the world. I felt that pressure so stepped back, thinking my opinion on such things wasn't necessary, or even offensive.
Then this spring, a friend and I were driving to Paris, via Calais. The scene that unfolded as we drove through was madness. There were men running in every direction, there was tear gas in the air, traffic piled up, guys squatting on the roofs of lorries. These images stayed with me and when I heard they were closing the camp I knew I had to go.
Were you nervous about the way the public might react to a fashion photographer going there?
I definitely felt that people wouldn't take me seriously. But at this point in my life I'm prepared to be taken seriously by anyone who will take me seriously. If someone looks at the book, and it makes them more aware, I'm happy.
So what was your initial emotional reaction to what you saw there?
I was overwhelmed by how beautifully crafted their homes were, and how warm and welcoming they had been to me, a complete stranger. The balance of luck seemed so unjust.
So the focus on homes and structures, did that come naturally whilst you were there? It wasn't something you'd planned to focus on?
I found it just as powerful not to show peoples faces. I feel you can see them in their homes, in the beauty and ingenuity they put into them. A lot of the people I met told me they didn't like journalists and most people said "no photo" as I walked by, it's important to respect that. The friends I made, the people who took me around, who I shared food with, I didn't want to then ask, "Now can I take your photo?". There's something creepy about that, it's transactional. Taking a picture of someone's home, it feels like something people are more comfortable with.
The images are very beautiful too. It's not something you often see.
When I arrived I was shocked, everyone had told me that it was the dirtiest camp they had ever seen, and actually, it wasn't. I'm not saying it was a paradise, but I felt there was something lacking in the reportage images, that were often desaturated, distant depictions of war torn souls throwing stones and hurling abuse at police and each other, it all seemed very one sided. We certainly need those images but I wanted to see things with my own eyes. There is a deep sadness to the place but there is also a positivity that is rarely shown. I saw people getting on with things with an incredible tenderness and splendour. Beauty for me is integral when describing human nature and I wanted to show that in some form, to see the person rather than the situation.
Would you say that the project is about raising awareness of the stories of the people?
I was so affected by going there, other people need to see that. I hope the book raises awareness, allows people to see the world for what it is but also shows that life is beautiful and is never futile no matter what circumstance. To do something is important.
The home is one of the most universal symbols of humanity.
The home is where is the heart is! Without sounding too much like a cliché, it's true. I can see personality in their homes, I can see someone just like me, images can help people to feel closer to others that might feel very foreign to them. From a historical point of view I'm glad to have recorded these temporary spaces, so these homes and these people aren't so easily erased.
At what point, did you decide it was going to become a book?
I was going to do a print sale at first, but a book is a much better platform to create a dialogue about something you feel strongly about, it's more accessible than buying a print. People don't even need to buy the book, the fact that I've made it allows me the platform to speak up about the issues the book raises.
What do you hope we take away from the book, from seeing the pictures?
I hope people come away feeling that life is beautiful, that nothing is futile. I hope that people see that everyone deserves a chance to have a place to call their own. I hope that awareness is brought to the situation, because even though the camp has been cleared away, the problem hasn't changed. There's still more work to do. Most of the people from the camp have been tidied away, banished to far off lands around France. It feels like a punishment from Greek Mythology. One guy -- who I've stayed in touch with -- is now in Noirmoutier, which is this tiny island that looks like a paradise but it's a prison. He has no chance of getting a job, all the locals are afraid of him, he's bored.
Is this most shocking thing then? Not just the way people are treated in the Jungle, but the way they are treated afterwards.
The frustration of not having good answer is the worst thing. When I returned after the demolition, it got late and people starting making fires, I was pacing around trying to get a taxi to pick me up. An Afghani man who had just arrived, and had not known that the Jungle was closed, asked me for help. He was freezing and told me the few aid workers left had said he was too old to be helped. I offered him some food but he was too polite to accept. I didn't have any answers, and this was the single most heart breaking moment for me. The whole situation felt impossible to solve.
I watched him walk off and could see him clearly stop to cry, huge body shaking with tears every 10 steps or so. It was pitch black by now and I had called every taxi company in the Calais radius but to no avail. I had 30 minutes left to get to my Eurostar and decided to join the man in weeping on the roadside. Almost five minutes later I was picked up by two ladies passing by, they raced me to my train. I made it with three minutes to spare.
The whole journey home I quietly wept thinking how sad and unjust it was that a white girl weeps on the side of a road for five minutes and is immediately rescued and this poor guy is left to wonder the roadside lonely. The problems really hit home, because what can we do? How do we help? That was what shocked me, the reality that I can't actually help that much, but that never means I won't try.
Text Felix Petty
Photography courtesy Harley Weir