In conversation with Tom Hatton

Hi Tom. The subject matter around Now Here is a particularly challenging one. What drew you to photographing the Calais “Jungle”? 

Hi Leighann, initially it came out of a growing disbelief with how the refugee crisis was being portrayed, but the moment that convinced me to start working on this seriously was on a coach travelling back to the UK. We had been in Paris at the same time as the Bataclan attacks. As we approached the Calais Ferry Terminal we were held in a traffic jam, to the right of the coach was the 3m high razor wire fence, right behind this the camp stretched far into the distance. It was horrific to see, almost unbelievable that a place of that scale could exist on the borders between France and the UK in the 21st Century.

With careful and proper management the majority of refugees could have been accommodated across Europe, at the very least temporarily, without any change to the makeup of local populations. After a few years of instability, there are now far less problems in Germany as the initial group of refugees have learnt German, found jobs and begun to integrate with the wider society. Almost every other European country completely failed in its most basic ethical obligations. The general level of sympathy was and still is appalling.

While effecting change on the highest political levels is close to impossible, it seemed that there was also a serious issue with the general perception of the camp and of what it meant to be a refugee. I felt that something could be done with image making to attempt to re-address this.

How did the Bataclan attacks change your perception of this moment?

It made made me realise how events, or ideas of events, are culturally interpreted. Its hard to describe succinctly in writing but a lot of us in Paris felt uncomfortable with the aftermath of the attack. The sensationalisation in the news, from both what was said and what was implicated, made it appear as if the whole of France, or even Europe, was under a civil war against Islam and that places like the ‘Jungle’ were incubators of Islamic Terrorism. In fact over the same weekend there was a memorial service in the camp for the victims. Having crossed half the world to seek shelter and safety, most of the camp’s occupants were absolutely terrified by what happened at the Bataclan.

These photographs are particularly haunting because they feature no one. They are shells of places; scenes that suggest human occupation but don’t feature it. Why?

This decision was made for several reasons, so apologies for the longer answer! Firstly with western societies anaesthetised to images of suffering and now terrified by terrorism, imagery of refugees in this state of desperation have not been effective in collapsing the gap of otherness, in most cases they are actually increasing it.

I wanted to make photographs that would challenge people’s expectations. If there was a crisis in Scotland, France or Sweden I think there would be a totally different reaction towards the figure of a refugee. I doubt the term migrant would ever be considered appropriate. By concealing the identity of the other but showing the traces of their actions I hoped to reveal their lives within the camp. By forcing the viewer to make sense of the photographs they have to spend longer to understand the situation. Hopefully there is a moment of re-orientation. Also I felt that the focus on the various fragments within the images had the potential to contain more information than a straight portrait.

Lastly, and this makes every other reason absolutely insignificant, any photograph of a refugee has the potential to void their asylum claim in any other country than the one in which the image was taken. Legally it is effectively a fingerprint. Similarly like a fingerprint it carries the risk that an asylum seeker could be deported back to the first country within the EU that they have been documented in. This is because of the now disregarded (but still current) EU laws on the asylum process, developed in the post WW2 era, which states that a refugee must claim asylum in the first EU country they arrive at.

So, these photographs aim to challenge us in a very different way?

Yes, in a way that would attempt to circumvent expected narratives. This was part of the decision to use a large format camera and place the viewer in front of large 1.6×1.2m prints. Many of the published ‘decisive moment’ images were of refugees retaliating to heavy handed and provocative French CRS riot police. When taken out of context and over simplified they were not particularly helpful.

Now Here, therefore, is about absence rather than presence. Is this something you’re interested in capturing in your other work?

I’ve often deliberately tried to avoid reducing the image down to a singular point or thing but to an arrangement of things which constantly switch importance within the image. I think I’ve used it as a strategy to draw the viewer in, so immediately there is an absence of an expected prominent focal point.

‘Now Here’ is a departure from previous projects as it engages with more urgent social issues in a space between documentary and fiction. It is a way of working I’m interested to develop further. The absence of the refugees immediately highlights their presence, while not shown they are the focal point. My previous series ’The Weight of Ashen Soil’ had a very different intention. It was focused on historically significant places within North Africa and the Middle East. The absence here allowed the work to flip between the specifics of place, an historical overview and also opened up a space for a poetic form of storytelling.

What do your photographs try to relay about the refugee crisis?

Ideally a sense of humanity. –  A space of encounter, where hopefully the viewer can begin to address falsely constructed narratives.

Tom Hatton was selected to exhibit in Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2017, opening at BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art 19 September  – 26 November 2017, and London’s Block 336 27 January 03 March 2017.

New Contemporaries recently joined Own Art’s network of member galleries, and will be available as an affordable payment option to purchase work by a talented and diverse range of recent graduates at BNC 2017. Find out more about Own Art and New Contemporaries here, and check out Tom Hatton’s work here