By Luca Fiore
The Dutch photographer Henk Wildschut, 52, has been photographing refugee camps for 15 years. His latest book is the final instalment in what he defines an “unintentional trilogy.” He began in 2005 by depicting the makeshift living conditions of those who had fled their home countries (“Shelter,” 2010). He then focused on the history and social dynamics of the settlement that has emerged on the coast of the English Channel, baptized The Jungle (“Ville de Calais, 2017–awarded the Arles Prix du Livre). “Rooted,” published a few weeks ago and–like the other works–produced by Wildschut himself, depicts plants sown and cared for by refugees next to tents and makeshift homes in France, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon.
In plastic bottles, tin jars, makeshift containers, or flower beds protected by improvised fences, spaces are made for small plants, colourful flowers, bunches of spices, and entire allotments. The book opens with a quote from a young Syrian boy: “When I see green, I remember home.” It continues by alternating between colour photos and something approximating the pages of a diary, kept by the Dutch photographer in order not to forget the circumstances he found, the conversations he overheard, and the changes witnessed in these strange dwellings over the course of time.
The photographs depict only the plants themselves, never the people who planted them. Great attention is paid to this, adding a particular potency to the images; as if to show, if ever it were needed, that the humanist photographer is not necessarily he or she who always includes humans as subjects–a woman in tears, or a child with a dirty face. Here, in its simplicity, the photographic language is more sophisticated. It moves the viewer, but does so in an honest manner, appealing to various stages of thought. Thus, a deeper, more visceral reaction is solicited; but one that is more stable and less prone to manipulation.
This is the power of true documentary photography, shot in large format with a tripod, which requires different shutter speeds–and speeds of thought–to those necessitated by the snapshot. At first glance, as in “Rooted,” one feels faced with mute images. The framing is rather ordinary; the colours and tones are flat; there is no momentarily arrested action. The photographer’s hand is here at work to remove any artifice; yet artifice is nevertheless there. Every effort is made to render, on the film, the scene as it is. What is sought is a naturalism which, far from scientific, suggests that the world, in the way it presents itself, speaks to the viewer already.
In “Rooted,” an ancestral gesture is portrayed; human beings themselves sown into the earth. It is a metaphor not only of the historical plight of these individuals uprooted by the storm of destiny–often families and entire villages–but of mankind as a whole. It foregrounds the need for stability that was already felt at the beginning of modern civilization, by the first nomads who settled as farmers. A shift from nomadic to sedentary which set the preconditions for the development of civilization. It is a metaphor of roots, of the earth itself that is both mother and father; the homeland. Yet the images of roots in these photographs are contrasted with what resides beyond the frame: the refugee, the fugitive. These are themes which even we, despite our modern comfort in peaceful Western democracies, can empathise with. Some years ago, Father Mauro Lepori, General Abbot of the Cistercian order, said: “This miserable humanity arrives with the tide to show us our own situation, as if in a mirror. Refugees, ultimately, reveal to us the very lack of stability that does not allow us to offer them a home.”