A collaborative project with refugees in the UK that explores the impact of the asylum-seeking process on individuals. Started in 2018, “You can see me, but I don’t exist” is an ongoing project.

Alan Gignoux has been committed to documenting the refugee experience for almost twenty years.  For his widely exhibited body of work, Homeland Lost (2003-5), he made portraits of displaced Palestinians in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and throughout the Middle East, juxtaposing them with photographs of their former houses or villages in Israel. Since 2005, he has regularly visited the displaced Saharawi people in refugee camps in Tindouf, Algeria to document the ways in which they have preserved their culture and community over decades in exile. 

In 2018 Gignoux turned his attention to the refugee crisis in continental Europe.  Working with refugee organisations he visited camps and refugee communities in France, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden to learn about people’s experiences. Gignoux noticed that a recurring theme among them was the gradual erosion of self, resulting from prolonged periods of living at the fringes of society.  He also heard many of them talk of being invisible both to the immigration bureaucracies and to the wider societies in the countries in which they were seeking asylum.

He was particularly struck by the words of an 18-year-old Afghan boy seeking asylum in Sweden: “Du kan se mig, men jag finns inte,” translated as “You can see me, but I don’t exist.” The boy was awaiting a response to his third and final appeal for permission to remain in the country and was expressing frustration at the way in which the asylum-seeking process had suspended him for years in a no man’s land of enforced separation from Swedish society, which made him feel as if he was essentially a non-person. 

In his project, which draws its title from the Afghan boy’s words, Gignoux seeks to draw attention to the dehumanising experience of being an asylum seeker.  He uses a camera obscura to, literally, blur the identity of the refugees whom he photographs.  This has a practical purpose – many of the asylum seekers live in fear of the authorities and prefer to remain unidentifiable. The blurred effect is also intended to be a visual metaphor for the corrosive impact of the asylum-seeking process on individuals. 

Having finished the broader research phase of the project Gignoux is now focusing on the UK.  He is inviting asylum seekers from different locations in the country to respond to his work in writing.  This might take the form of an ekphrastic piece, or it might be a response to the themes that his portraits explore.  The collaboration is intended to explore complexities surrounding documentary representation, self-portraiture, identity, visibility and invisibility, and the photographic trace and its relationship to documentary practice.   

Beyond this and most importantly, “You can see me, but I don’t exist” aims to deepen understanding of the harmful effects of the asylum-seeking process on individuals. Asylum seekers and refugees often endure extended periods of uncertainty while awaiting a response to their applications. While waiting, they may endure poverty, poor health, humiliation, and even danger.  If their application fails, they must come to terms with not only the wasted years but also the frightening prospect of returning to a country that they risked all to leave.  Those who remain in the UK following a failed asylum application face an uncertain and insecure future.

Gignoux has just completed a pilot phase of the project working in partnership with JRS, the Jesuit Refugee Service, in Wapping.  Thanks to a National Lottery Project Grant, he will extend the project to Manchester and Birmingham in 2022 and 2023.

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