The Jungle is a name given to the ad hoc community of migrants that has existed for more than 15 years close to the French port town of Calais. The place has been a temporary home to people from around the world hoping to make their way across the English Channel to Britain, where, at least for a while, it was easier to work without papers. The camp is the subject of Henk Wildschut’s exhibition “Calais – From Jungle to City” at FOAM Amsterdam, on view until June 5. Wildschut became interested in how people live while their lives are in flux in 2005, after he was sent to cover the earthquake in Pakistan. There, he writes in a statement, “What caught the eye most of all was the fact that the tents in the camps had been given a homey touch. So I noticed that people had put up gardens around the entrance of their tent, an image as moving as it is surprising. In one way or another I could, through the need to create order and domesticity, empathize more strongly with their misery.” The experience attracted him to “the possibilities of photographing the phenomenon of domesticity in refugee camps, with the idea to help create an alternative image of refugees in a meaningful way.” Rather than highlighting squalor and desperation, Wildschut was interested in the ways people improvise and adapt in difficult circumstances — his larger project, “Shelter,” which was published as a book by post editions, examines these questions in locations around Europe.
As migration patterns have shifted over the years, the Jungle has grown and shrunk – in March parts of it were razed by bulldozers. But the Jungle lives on in Wildschut’s images as a particular chapter in a long-running story about the struggle to stay hopeful in hopeless situations. Wildschut urges viewers to “create an image of the preservation of universal human dignity in their own mind, set against the oppression of the deplorable housing and living conditions. That dignity is expressed mainly in the neatly folded or hanging clothes, sleeping bags and blankets, the clean-kept surroundings, and the eliminated waste. People remaining human in an inhuman situation.”