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.