A collaboration with refugees in the UK that explores the impact of the asylum-seeking process on individuals.
While photographing refugees in France, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden in 2018, Alan 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. Similarly, he 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 a young Afghan man in his final year at school who was seeking asylum in Sweden: “You can see me, but I don’t exist.” The young man 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 process had suspended him for years in a no man’s land of enforced separation from Swedish society. Borrowing its title from the Afghan man’s words, this UK-based project aims to explore the dehumanisation experienced by people seeking refuge.
Often, refugees and asylum seekers in the UK endure extended periods of uncertainty while awaiting a response to their applications. Unable to work, they may endure poverty or destitution, poor physical and mental health, and even danger. If their application is rejected, they must come to terms with not only the wasted years but also the frightening prospect of being forced to return to a country that they risked all to leave. Those who remain in the UK after their asylum application has been rejected face an uncertain and insecure future, entirely dependent on the support of family, friends, and charitable organisations. In addition, the UK is becoming increasingly hostile to refugees. Since the introduction of new legislation, refugees who arrive in the UK using routes not sanctioned by the government will no longer be able to apply for asylum but will instead be deported back to their country of origin or to Rwanda.
Working with a camera obscura, Gignoux used a long exposure to blur the identity of the refugees whom he photographed while leaving the background in focus. This intentional blurring has a practical purpose as many people seeking refuge live in fear of the authorities and prefer to remain unidentifiable. However, it is simultaneously intended to be a visual metaphor for the corrosive impact of the asylum-seeking process on people.
Gignoux wanted to include the refugees’ voices in the project and so he invited the people whom he photographed, as well as other refugees who wanted to participate, to write a creative response to the blurred portraits.
Their creative writing was developed in workshops led by experienced poets: Laila Sumpton (London), Malka al Haddad (Birmingham), and Ambrose Musiyiwa (Manchester). Working together as a group, or individually, the people addressed the themes that the portraits explore.
The pilot phase of the project took place in London in summer 2022. Thanks to a National Lottery Project Grant, the project was extended to Manchester and Birmingham in autumn 2022 and spring 2023.
“You can see me, but I don’t exist” has been designed as an exhibition-in-a-book. It is presented in a binder with installation suggestions and can be returned to the binder at the end of the exhibition and experienced as a book. This format will extend the life of the project and it means that the exhibition can be sent to any library in the UK that would like to show the work or have the book in their collection.
Exhibitions in Birmingham, London, and Manchester
Exhibitions of Gignoux’s photographs and the creative writing by refugees will take place in all three participating cities with workshops and activities timed to coincide with Refugee Week.
Manchester Central Library
2 – 30 June 2023
Library of Birmingham
31 May – 7 August 2023
Stratford Library, Newham
19 June – 1 July 2023
The Photographers’ Gallery, London
6.30-8.30pm Free, ticketed event – launch of the exhibition-in-a-book and talk
Partners and Supporters
“You can see me, but I don’t exist” is a collaborative project made possible by the participation and support of many organisations and individuals.
Stephanie Neville, Stories of Hope and Home
Sarah Taal, Baobab Women’s Project
Nicola Gauld, Everything to Everyone, Library of Birmingham
Lauren Jansen-Parkes, Everything to Everyone, Library of Birmingham
Dallya Alhorri, Jesuit Refugee Service
Deborah Peck, Newham Libraries
Farai Nhakaniso, Everything Human Rights
Darren Rawcliffe, Manchester Central Library
Gignoux Photos would like to thank Arts Council England for awarding the grant that made this project possible.