Of the many media-specific issues that are debated time and again within the field of photography, the documentary concept is the most challenging and interesting. Not in terms of defining it as a genre, but rather in regard to the performative aspects of what documenting actually does. This is certainly still relevant in our current globalised surveillance society, where transparency and visuality are key elements in securing safety and mobility for privileged citizens at the expense of less attractive subjects or “unwanted humanity.”
Even though efficient surveillance and social sorting increasingly rely upon digital and biometric data, the photographic medium continues to play an important role in documenting and registering, as it has done historically in the construction of modern bureaucracy. At the same time, the camera is also still a valuable tool in the critical “sous-veillance” or counter-documentation of authority and power constructions. Sometimes, however, photography has to be used in spite of itself, especially in projects including people who, for various reasons, are vulnerable to exposure and thus demands a sensible negotiation between visibility and invisibility.
«rarely does anyone insist on viewing them with an empathic gaze – let alone show interest in what they might see or want to document.»
Tina Enghoff’s Migrant Documents is such a project. In correspondence with her earlier works on and with marginalised, forgotten or ignored subjects, the Danish photographer here deals with undocumented migrants in Copenhagen. The multi-medial piece (photography, video and sound) consists of seven different parts, which together form a manifold documentation of a group of people that have to remain unidentified and invisible. Enghoff employs different means of documentation, which mimics and references the kinds of surveillance and registration that migrants might experience. Furthermore she uses imagery and representations related to tourism, since the tourist represents the opposite, privileged side of the mobility scale and of border crossing.
The migrants participating in this project came from countries outside of Europe looking for work. Some of them arrived unregistered on boats from North Africa, others travelled to Spain or Italy on a tourist visa and then applied for a provisional work permit. They usually got seasonal, manual jobs – either with a work permit, but most often without –and when the work ran out they travelled north, where there’s a higher rate of employment. Here they have stayed longer than the three months of their tourist visa and thus they are now deemed “illegal,” forced to live in a state of anonymity. In this limbo they and their fates are less visible than those of rejected refugees and other asylum seekers. Rarely does anyone insist on viewing them with an empathic gaze, let alone show interest in what they might see or want to document. Anonymity or invisibility becomes a double-edged sword for undocumented or paperless migrants.
Not being seen is a necessity, yet it adds to their already stressed vulnerability. Without a personal identification number or any other entries in the data files of the authorities, they are not entitled to shelter or healthcare. If they are not registered, their needs remain ignored and basic human rights are often out of reach. Deliberate non-surveillance thus functions as a means of exclusion from protective documentation.
In the series Disorder, Enghoff has photographed blood test tubes from the one place in Copenhagen where doctors, nurses and midwives take care of people without residency permits on a voluntary basis: The Health Clinic for Undocumented Migrants run by the Danish Red Cross in collaboration with the Danish Refugee Council and the Danish Medical Association.
This is also the only place the migrants are registered, namely by the blood that is taken as part of their treatment. This could potentially be entered into the kind of biometric register used by the police and other authorities, similar to records of DNA, fingerprints and photographic portraits. Enghoff’s photos can be seen as portraits that literally get under the skin. The camera is extremely close to the blood, with its air bubbles, differing shades of red and various stages of coagulation. The individual test tubes of blood are metonymic traces of bodies, bodies with their own, individual experiences of travelling and trying to survive in a foreign country.
Compared to biometric data the CCTV camera is a more obvious visual technology, forming a constitutive part of daily life in more and more public and semi-public spaces. Enghoff set up a surveillance camera in one of the small parks in Copenhagen, where homeless migrants have to resort to sleeping. The camera registered everything that happened over three nights and three mornings in January, and the footage was edited into her video entitled Positions. At first glance the grainy aesthetics and static gaze of the camera underlines the connotations of surveillance technology.
We could be looking at a potential site of danger and crime. What we actually see are fragments of a sketched, wordless narrative about the people using or passing through the park. In one scene children play in the snow, while in another someone walks a dog. The camera observes a person laying down to sleep on a bench, and the registration of the vulnerable gesture of crawling into a sleeping bag on a winter night reminds us that surveillance has the potential for solicitude and care. If there is any crime to be recorded here, it is that people are forced to live in a park without a roof over their heads or access to safety. That needs to be observed and registered.
Positions can be seen in dialogue with a series of black and white photographs entitled A Tree Cannot Block the Water. At first glance, they also have a crime scene aesthetic, hinting at clues or evidence. The bundles in the trees are actually the personal possessions of people using the park, although to the indifferent gaze they could arouse the same kind of suspicion as a bag abandoned in an airport or on a train. In the eyes of the local city council and the police, the mere presence of the homeless represents a different kind of threat so the park is regularly cleared of the belongings of homeless people. By focusing the camera on the bundles in the treetops, A Tree Cannot Block the Water almost taunts the authorities whose job it is to register, and possibly deport, the unknown migrants.
The personal possessions, blankets and clothes represent – like the blood tests – possible biometric traces of the people they want to identify. But the migrants remain beyond the searchlight of the authorities, like the figures in Positions who emerge as ghostly shadows or like the birds in the video that take off and fly away. Most of the people in this project have now gone. Fortress Europe fortifies its inner and outer borders, surveilling and sorting today’s travellers and migrants. But some of the experiences and views of the migrants in Copenhagen during the winter of 2012 have been captured.
In a postdocumentary gesture, Enghoff invited a group of them to photograph the city, and the result is a living archive of images in the form of postcards. As the title The Unknown is Not a Memory seems to suggest, Enghoff insists on the inclusive power of documentation as registering another’s presence. The views of the postcards look back at Danish society with much more interest than society sees the migrants, if they are even seen at all. There are no signs in the images that the photographer has been seen or acknowledged by anyone else. The postcards bear testimony to moving in the cracks between visibility and invisibility and to the economic, political and ethical boundaries of globalisation – but most of all to the photographer who was there.
Migrant Documents: www.tinaenghoff.com/case.php?case_id=29
A tree cannot Block the Water: www.tinaenghoff.com/case.php?case_id=29
The unknown is not a memory: www.tinaenghoff.com/case.php?case_id=29&sort=1