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29 January 2020

Here Waiting: Or How to Become a Member of Fortress Europe

29 January 2020 - Written by Colin Pantall

Who are migrants? What challenges did they face to come to Europe? How do they settle in a country which on the one hand accepts their presence, but on the other makes them engage in a process which is inherently hostile and geared towards failure? These are some of the questions asked in Here, Waiting by Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez.

© Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez, spread from the book Here, Waiting

2015 was the height of Europe’s so-called ‘migrant crisis’; a crisis created in substantial part by European involvement in overseas wars (so it is really a Military Industrial Complex Crisis or a Crisis of Morality). Migrants travelled through open borders across Europe and settled in the parks and squares in cities across Europe - including Brussels. Here they gained a warm welcome from many residents in the temporary accommodation that sprang up in places like Maximilian Park.

Here, Waiting is a book that looks at what happened after the initial euphoria of the citizen ‘welcome’ had transformed into the endless bureaucracy of proving one’s right to remain and the opportunity to start a new life, with the default set to a return to the country of origin.

It’s a book where Prignot and Alvarez are part of the welcome, their process more to do with providing a distraction and some pleasure for the people represented, rather than trying to make some grand (and manifestly self-serving) statement.

© Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez, from the book Here, Waiting

The book begins with a series of modified portraits made with young people at Jodoigne Asylum Seekers Centre (which is set about 50km from Brussels). These portraits were made in workshops where the children drew, painted and wrote on their portraits. Writing and painting on photographs is a familiar ‘collaborative’ technique popularised by people like Wendy Ewald but it also has a long tradition dating from the era of colourisation all the way through to Rauschenberg, Mikhailov, and Richter. These images are charming with a variety of approaches; come convert the photographic to a silhouette, some colour block, some add flowers and hearts, some become pirates or other fantasy selves.

Mixed in with these modified images are more matter-of-fact pictures of the Centre with its bars, fences, open spaces and prefabricated structures showing a hostile architecture that can still become a climbing frame, a cricket pitch or a gym for the bored youth who attend the centre. So you see them again and again, playing, running, training, fighting, all a distraction to the eternal boredom and deep-seated stress of constantly waiting.

© Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez, spread from the book Here, Waiting

A different view is provided by the photocopies of faces that the children in the centre made with Prignot and Alvarez. Here arms, chests, and faces are squished up against the glass of the copier. It’s a process where, as the final essay states, the harsh black and whites mirror the brutal yes or no of the asylum-seeking process.

That brutality is mirrored in the oddness of the squished cheeks and blank-eyed stares of the children produced by the copier, but at the same time, there is the age-old pleasure of using a copier to produce a portrait (watch the episode of Madmen where they get a Xerox machine for the first time and what do they do?).

All of this adds up to a kind of handbook for photography workshops for young people and some of the different strategies you can adopt in the making of work. At the same time, however, with its inclusion of official forms and questions (‘What do you fear upon return to your country of origin? What do you think could happen to you if you return?’) and the infrastructure of the camp, Here, Waiting begins to look at the process of migration and the real difficulties of what happens, not on the journey or in the ‘country of origin’, but in the sapping never-never-land of waiting for a claim to go through. And knowing what might happen if it does not.

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Maroussia Prignot and Valerio Alvarez are Belgian photographers who have been doing collective photographic work since 2015. Their collaboration began on the issue of migration, and more specifically the way in which migrants are received within the Belgian state. Their approach is integrative as they set up workshops and joint creation actions to try to collaborate with those who make their photographs.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

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