By Ahmad Rafat
Gideon Mendel chose Dzhangal and not jungle, its English translation, as the name for his recent exhibition in London on the state of refugees, who for years, lived on the outskirts of the port of Calais, France, with the hope of crossing to Britain.
In an interview with Kayhan London, photographer Gideon Mendel said: “Most of the refugees who lived in this ramshackle camp for years with the hope of crossing to Britain were Afghans and Iranians. They had called this camp Dzhangal in their own language and I didn’t want to change the name they had chosen for this location.”
The camp or makeshift village referred to by Gideon Mendel was evacuated and demolished at the request of the British government on October 26, 2016 by the special forces of the French police. Some of the refugees who had lived in this jungle for a long time and had attempted each night to sneak into trucks bound for Britain from the port of Calais, accepted to formally apply for asylum in France following the camp’s evacuation and demolition, giving up their hopes for a better life in England. However, many still wander around the outskirts of this city, looking for a way to illegally reach Britain.
The objects exposed at the Dzhangal exhibition were those left behind by the refugees upon evacuating the jungle; what was not exposed was a photo of this jungle by this renowned photographer. Singed clothes, torn books, a sleeping bag, chair, shoes, toothbrushes, playing cards, and what was left of a bicycle were among the abandoned objects on display, some on the floor, to touch visitors with the emotional distress of the refugees and their daily struggle for survival. Mendel told Kayhan London: “I could not have taken any photos of this camp and its residents that could have depicted their misery to this extent. These objects possess a powerful energy of their own and convey the distress of their owners to the visitor.”
Gideon Mendel is the son of refugees. “Both my mother and father were refugees from Germany and spent part of their childhood in a Nazi camp,” says this South African photographer. “My paternal grandmother lost her life in one of these camps. I grew up with the story of fleeing and searching for a safe place to live, and was familiar, though indirectly, with the pains of the people living in this jungle.”
Known for his socially engaged projects, this photographer who received global acclaim for his published collection of photos, like “Framing Aids” or “The Struggle” initially went to Calais as part of a collaborative project with the University of East London. “We wanted to teach photography to a group of refugees and loan them cameras, so that they could document life in the jungle from their own perspectives; a project which never saw the light of day, as these refugees had more pressing problems such as survival on a daily basis and concerns for their future, and could not focus on anything else.”
Mendel then tried to document daily life in the jungle with his camera. “The first time I entered a church built by a few Eritrean refugees holding a camera, one of those present shouted: You come here with the promise to help us and after photographing us like animals in a cage, return to your homes and forget everything. After that, I never lifted up a camera in this camp.”
Mendel who spent many days and nights from the month of May until the camp’s evacuation in October added: “I didn’t and couldn’t return to London from Calais empty handed, and keep everything I had witnessed to myself. I began to gather some of the discarded objects on the ground, just like people collecting trash off the streets. The first time I returned to London with a car full of random rubbish, my wife thought I had gone mad; however, my teenage son said something that made me think. He said everyone takes food and clothes to the refugee camps and you are the only person who went there empty handed and came back with full hands! This is when I came up with the idea of using these abandoned objects to portray the refugees’ struggle in the jungle. I wanted to tell the story of these objects and somehow elevate them out of the chaos where I had found them, and create order from the disorder.”
Many of the objects used by Gideon Mendel in this exhibition came from the shacks that had burnt down. “As there was no electricity in the jungle, the refugees used candles at night and there was practically no night when these shacks would not catch on fire.” Also on display are the tear gas canisters used by the French police during their assaults on this makeshift village and its residents. According to Mendel: “One of the children’s recreations in the jungle was to paint these canisters which they used as toys.”