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Seeing the “Jungle” through What’s Left Behind

Gideon Mendel describes life in the “Jungle,” the recently-closed refugee camp in Calais, France, by photographing objects left behind there. His new book Dzhangal, published recently by GOST Books, includes images of rusty bicycles and crushed cooking pots, children’s toys and fragments of clothing, toothbrushes and canisters of teargas, all carefully arranged on a black backdrop in a London studio, photographed from above using a Linhof field camera attached to a copy stand.

The camp has been the subject of intensive media attention, and its residents have been thoroughly documented by photojournalists looking to tell their story. As Dominique Malaquais writes in the book, “The overwhelming majority of images shot [in the camp] are of people. The focus is on bodies—on facial expressions and gestures, on poses struck in the midst of an apocalyptic landscape.” Mendel, whose longterm series “Drowning World” documents the effects of climate change and flooding, came to the camp to teach photography to refugees as part of a collaborative project. While there, he found that many residents had come to resent being photographed, fearing that being identified might hurt their chances at asylum, and angry that photographs of their plight seemed to do little good. In response, Mendel decided to forgo using his camera and instead sifted through the debris that was left behind, collecting a range of objects to take home and photograph. The book presents his images along with poetry and prose written by residents of the camp, who describe their daily lives, how they got to the camp and their attempts to escape.

By picturing objects rather than people, Mendel attempts to avoid exploiting the residents of the “Jungle,” and begins to address the ways that photographers with the best intentions have been unable to offer real aid. As he writes in a statement, “I hope that these images, as alternative portraits of the “Jungle” residents, will portray the residents’ humanity, and also stand in for the plight of displaced people everywhere.”

An exhibition of the series was held at Autograph ABP in London earlier this year.

Related Stories:
Tender Portraits from the Refugee Crisis
At Home in an Improvised City
Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: Through Positive Eyes (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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