Interview – John Radcliffe Studio
Between May 2015 and April 2016, photographer Daniel Castro Garcia and graphic designer Thomas Saxby, who collaborate as John Radcliffe Studio, made several trips across Europe to key locations in the ongoing European refugee crisis. They witnessed and documented events – from port landings in Sicily, to the camps at Calais – seeking a more personal, reciprocal approach to documentary photography. The photobook that brings together these images, Foreigner: Migration into Europe 2015-2016, was shortlisted for the Mack First Book Award, and after a successful Kickstarter campaign, launched at Photo London in May 2016.
The majority of the photographs in the book were shot on medium format film, demanding a slower methodology, which allowed Daniel to develop relationships with the people represented in the project, maintaining contact and meeting them again at different points on their journey. The project identifies individuals among the mass movement, giving them faces and the opportunity to share their stories through collaboratively created portraits.
The book, designed by Thomas, is ambitious and multifaceted in its scope, with landscape and documentary photographs providing a wider context to the portraits. Rather than offer a neat summary it portrays a complex situation in a nuanced way, prompting consideration of Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis as well as issues of identity, media representation and freedom of movement. Throughout, portraiture is used as a tool to find connection and a sense of shared humanity.
As the first major project for John Radcliffe Studio, Foreigner has set a precedent for future projects. I spoke with Daniel and Thomas about the motivation behind the project, working as a studio and creating the book.
How did the project come about?
Daniel Castro Garcia (DCG): I’ve always been interested in portraiture and really using photography as a tool to connect with people. In April last year two boats went down in the Mediterranean in the space of a week and 1,000 people drowned. There was growing media attention on the subject that, as far as we were concerned, was very cold and very clinical; articles with adjectives like ‘cockroaches’, David Cameron referring to people as ‘swarms’, and the images being released were very distant, often of faceless crowds. For us, this raised the idea of the positioning of the media and how it allows certain dialogues to develop and grow, that people then consume.
Thomas Saxby (TS): We wanted to go and make our own telling of the story because we didn’t like the version being offered. I absolutely felt the project needed to be part of providing a more rounded conversation, a more rounded debate.
The first images in the book are almost serene landscapes, void of people. Why does the book begin there?
DCG: Our first flight out was to Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island closer to Tunisia than it is to Italy, which at one stage was the entry point for migrants from North Africa into Europe. That was where most of the rescued migrant ships got taken and people were processed. But when we got there, there were no migrants because the Italian authorities had diverted all rescue operations to Sicily. It served as a good benchmark for the rest of the project because we were often looking at the aftermath of the movement of people through these European migrant hotspots, which meant that we approached things in a much slower, almost forensic way. Right from the start we were able to think more about the consequences of these journeys, like the cemetery on the island with unmarked graves, or graves with just numbers.
In the preface to the book, you describe wanting to use photography as a peaceful and empowering tool. How was this realised or embodied in the photographs you took?
DCG: There was a particular incident that was a real reminder of the approach I wanted to take. In Lesbos, everyday there were 25-30 dinghies arriving with maybe 60 people onboard each one. It was a very dramatic, intense situation. There were people crying, people screaming, people fainting, people praying, people shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’. This was coupled with 20 to 30 press photographers, each doubling up with two big cameras. I found myself in a situation where I was interacting with a mother and her child, and had made enough of a connection to take an image. All of a sudden all I could hear around me was ‘clack clack clack’: hundreds of photos were being taken. On a visual level I feel there was something incredibly violent and completely non-intimate about that – to rob someone’s grief in that way – there was no permission asked or granted.
Every portrait in the book is a portrait where I’ve interacted with someone. Portraiture is collaborative; it doesn’t work without both parties really giving something. There is some incredible photojournalistic work being done on the subject but more often than not, you’re seeing images of people climbing through barbed wire or getting tear-gassed. For me it was very important to give people enough time and enough interaction whereby they had the opportunity to present themselves, even if that is just walking away a few meters or turning around.
TS: They are striking their own pose; they get the chance to have some control back by choosing how they are seen. There is one photograph of a girl in Idomeni holding her two siblings. She’s looking straight in the camera with a very determined look, she looks older that her years, strong, powerful, and courageous in that picture. That’s a beautiful sentiment to capture and to present. And that’s hopefully empowering. I think the climax of this approach is the photograph at the end of the book that we took of Ali in the robe. The whole idea being to take a photo of someone where they look powerful, confident, strong. That essentially, underneath everything, is what we wanted to do and that image came out of one of the longest relationships we developed.
When was this interaction or collaboration most successful?
DCG: Sicily definitely was a more collaborative experience. One example is an image of Madia with red mesh over his head; that was a really collaborative photograph. He is a friend of Ali, they made the same journey through Libya to Italy. When Madia was being held in a house used by people traffickers in Libya he saw a close friend be shot through the head by one of the guards. It was a horrendous experience. Eventually he came to Italy but when he arrived in the port he was wrongfully identified as the captain of the boat and arrested. He spent four months in jail, without being charged. He was an individual who completely stuck out to me; he had studied philosophy in Senegal and presented a different vision of the world. We began to discuss that particular incident of his friend being shot and wanted to play with this idea of witnessing to create an image where he expressed that feeling. The red mesh came from the bunch of flowers that Ali was holding. It was just there by chance, but served as a lucky tool to have around that added a layer, made the image more creative.
This sense of connection, of the subject very much being involved in a dialogue with you and in the creation of the images really comes across in the book, and at times is quite disarming. There is sometimes something confrontational, almost aggressive, about these strong stares at camera. Did you ever feel tension when you were taking photographs?
TS: It is slightly aggressive. The way I feel is that this person is in a shitty situation, degraded, feeling terrible. The portraits are their way to say OK, I’m living in a car park, I’ve got no shoes, I’ve got a bit of cardboard for my bed but I’m still here, I’m still alive, I’m still strong.
DCG: If there is a tension in the image, that’s because there is a tension in the environment, in the situation. Particularly in Calais, there are some images with guys covering their faces. At times people were happy to be photographed, but also they were worried about how that might effect them if they ended up in UK, worried that if they are seen online as having been in Calais they will be deported. Even before we knew we were making the book, photography was the only real solidarity that I could add to this situation. If there are images with determined looks, it is more them giving it to the viewer than to me, I want to try and be as anonymous as possible.
Would you say that in essence the project is about portraiture, as much as it is an exploration of the subject matter?
TS: It is definitely the tool we have used to do everything else. Portraiture in itself represents a lot. I’ve thought very much about the act of taking a portrait, the time and effort that you afford someone to do that, as a mark of respect. For people that haven’t been afforded very much and are being offered as little as possible the whole time, by taking their portrait you are placing value on them. But there is also an element of it that is documenting for history and for posterity.
DCG: Not only is it about portraiture, it’s about an approach to photography; what you decide to photograph and how you decide to photograph it. A massive inspiration of mine is Tim Hetherington, a British photographer who died in Libya. A lot of his spirit marked the way that I also want to work. It’s about taking a step back, really slowing down. The slower you are, the more differently you see things. Quite often my camera wouldn’t be out, you wouldn’t know I was photographing. It was about going with the right aim, the right sentiment towards the situation, to try and capture some sort of truth about it. But absolutely, portraiture is the backbone of what I do.
You mentioned that when you started the project, you didn’t know you would end up creating a photobook. Why was it important for you to publish the images as a book?
TS: At the back of our minds, a book was always there. The book is a great format to absorb images. The Mack First Book Award coming when it did, felt like the right time, right place.
DCG: I think photography books are the best way to consume photography. In such a digital world, the speed at which you consume images doesn’t really do the image justice. Every image has a certain lifespan: on Instagram or Facebook it has a two second lifespan. As soon as it’s committed to paper in a newspaper it’s alive for a day or two. In a magazine it’s alive for a month. I like the idea that the images gain an almost historical value in a book. There’s a particular spread in the book of Abdul Rahman, a Syrian refugee who I met in Vienna and spent a whole day with in his apartment. He eventually got to the stage of talking about wounds and showed me where he was shot through his front and back. That particular diptych is very clear evidence of a government attacking its own people, which is not tolerable.
Collaborating on this project were your roles of photographer and designer clear-cut? Or were the lines blurred?
TS: To start with I took photographs as well. As the year progressed, it worked out that Dani took more trips and it just didn’t quite fit, because we’ve got such different photographic styles. We decided just Dani’s photographs would make the book more coherent.
DCG: There was also a third person involved in the project, Jade Morris, who effectively produced for us. She came on a lot of the trips with me, she would take notes, help organise logistics, and played a big part in the Kickstarter campaign.
TS: The notion of the John Radcliffe Studio – the pseudonym, the imaginary person John Radcliffe – is essentially a bit of Dani and a bit of me. But also for this project Jade played an essential role in production, fundraising, and accompanying Dani on trips. Even going forward, we are meeting people all the time that we’d like to work with, part of what we’d like to do with the studio is help other people realise projects.
What influenced the design of the book?
DCG: At some stage we had this idea about the passport and that straight away this object could provoke an idea of freedom of movement. The maps running through it, and all of the fonts relate to the idea of identity as well.
TS: I’ve got a very specific aesthetic that I like, a very minimal approach, not too much decoration and fussing around. When it comes to inspiration I always talk about Hort, a studio that I did an internship with in Berlin. The way that the studio is organised is very egalitarian, very horizontal and they always take projects on merit rather than on money. I don’t know how much of that has influenced this but it did make me want to do a certain kind of work. My only criterion for the work that we do together is that it somehow relates to these human, social issues.
What are you working on next?
TS: We haven’t really had time to conceive the next thing, but throughout this whole process we’ve been building up a network of people we’d like to work with.
DCG: We’re in talks with various organisations about the possibility of doing a documentary and photography project specifically to do with rescue missions in the Mediterranean. We’d like to make work that isn’t necessarily for an art or photography context, but that can be used as evidence. Or has some sort of qualitative value – looking at how organisations react to rescue missions, where are the stresses and strains, what can be improved.
TS: But also we want to go back to Italy and carry on working with people that we’ve met. We’re exploring the idea of doing theatre workshops with the Senegalese community we met there, for them to act out and transmit their thoughts, opinions, perspectives. We’re still in touch and want to carry on those relationships. There’s no reason to think it will stop now.
all images in Foreigner: Migration into Europe 2015-2016 © Daniel Castro Garcia for John Radcliffe Studio
Purchase your copy here
Interview by Jessie Bond / Published 22 September 2016