Above: Selected images from Border Country
The exhibition presents photographs of the orderly landscapes and institutional interiors (Visits Rooms) of the UK’s Immigration Removal Centres together with soundtracks of voice recordings conveying the complex identities of detainees and the physical, psychological and emotional aspects of life in detention. Border Country offers a rare insight into the experiences of immigration detainees, particularly through the use of the voice as an emotional force acting as a counterpoint to the formal images of the institutions. Dominant representations of asylum seekers and migrants focus on ‘our’ view of ‘them’ as ‘Other’. The interview extracts in Border Country’s soundtracks employ the asylum seekers’ and migrants’ perspectives as a mirror, reflecting both on the immigration system itself and on our own culture.
I started researching Border Country early in 2003 and began visiting male detainees in Dover Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) that spring, while waiting for permission from the Home Office to bring in a tape recorder and camera. Note: the vast majority of IRC detainees are male. That summer I was allowed to record interviews in the legal cubicles adjoining the visits room, and to take portraits of detainees in the visits room against a particular patch of wall (selected by the security officer for its lack of a view of exits or windows). I was not allowed to make general photographs of detainees in the visits room or to include members of staff in any part of the photograph.
I obtained access to detainees with the help of the Dover Detainee Visitor Group who made initial contact on my behalf. Interviews developed slowly to build up trust. Each detainee and I met on at least two or three occasions and discussed the implications of possible future exhibition/book/web coverage. I was upfront about the fact that this was a slow long term project – and that by the time the show was exhibited, the individual would have likely been either deported, ‘removed’ or released. Such a project therefore could not help publicize his individual case for asylum. Despite this, we built strong bonds, and I tried to help in other ways. I was moved by the fact that, while in a very vulnerable position, the detainees who put themselves forward for interview were eager to articulate their experiences and express their opinions for posterity.
However, several male detainees at Dover did not wish to be photographed for fear of repercussions on their asylum cases here in the UK, but also for fear of being identified in their home countries (via the circulation of web images or by the chance that the book might get into the ‘wrong hands’). Others enjoyed the experience of the photo sessions, and two wanted the prints sent to their families back in their home countries. When, in the spring of 2007, I eventually gained access to speak to women in Yarl’s Wood (four interviewees initially) all were too nervous to be photographed, having fled abusive marriages or other persecution in their home country.
In 2004 Isaac, whom I had previously met in Dover, had just been transferred to Tinsley House, Gatwick. When I first walked into the visits room at the start of visiting hours, it was empty, and I was immediately struck by the space and how it was organised. I was inspired to try and photograph both Tinsley House and other IRC visits rooms in the UK.
I was not given access to the living quarters in any IRC. However, in 2005, I was permitted access to the Napoleonic moat fortifications surrounding the Dover IRC, which had fascinated me. And in 2006, I was allowed to photograph the spaces for religious worship (Christian chapel; Mosque; Multi-Faith room) and landscapes at Lindholme and Colnbrook.
During the editing process for Border Country I decided to leave the portraits out because portraits, particularly of such vulnerable individuals as asylum seekers, risk objectification and stereotyping. Besides which, more than half of the detainees did not wish to be photographed. I felt that the project would be more focused, more coherent and more challenging without the visual identification of the speakers on the soundtrack.
I have written more about the project in the publication Border Country, which includes 19 images, essays by Mark Durden and Alex Hall and the complete exhibition soundtrack on an audio CD. The publication is available on Amazon.
I have also published an article about the making of Border Country called “Representing Immigration Detainees: The Juxtaposition of Image and Sound in Border Country” in the online sociological journal Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung (its Thematic issue called “Visualizing Migration and Social Division: Insights from Social Sciences and the Visual Arts”). Here is the link: Representing Immigration Detainees
Warm thanks to all the participants in this project. I will not forget their generosity of spirit, their resilience, their intelligence and wit. Their voices live on in the audio CD accompanying the publication, and in the exhibition itself.
Thanks to the Home Office (Border and Immigration Agency) and all the Immigration Removal Centre (IRC) managers in England, particularly the governor and staff of Dover IRC. I'm indebted to Vebi Kosumi of the Dover Detainee Visitor Group, Heather Jones of Yarl's Wood Befrienders and BID (Bail for Immigration Detainees).
Many thanks to Karen Downey of Belfast Exposed Photography, John Gillett of the Winchester Gallery, and Anne Williams of the University of the Arts London, Eva Munoz-Marti and Dawn Giles of BCA Gallery and Katy McCormick, curator for the Gallery 44 show, Toronto.
Thanks to Caleb Knightley for sound design. Thanks to Gordon MacDonald of Photoworks, Anne McNeill of Impressions Gallery, Susie Medley of Fotonet and Helen Sloan of SCAN for their support. Among many who have helped me during the making of Border Country I am particularly grateful to Frederique Delacoste, Anthony Haughey, Crispin Hughes, Anthony Lam and Annie Mitchell.
Border Country is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the Research Fund of the School of Humanities at the University of Sussex, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI), Arts Council England (ACE), Belfast Exposed Photography, Fotonet, the University of Southampton, SCAN Media Arts Agency, the London College of Communication (University of the Arts London), Spectrum and