A moment of professional crisis and self-loathing inspired Gideon Mendel ’s photographs of abandoned objects in the now-demolished Calais refugee camp. He had travelled to the site to participate in a thoughtful-sounding project, where refugees were loaned cameras to allow them to document their own experiences.
But it wasn’t going tremendously well; the refugees had more pressing concerns on their hands than documenting their own lives, such as finding food and somewhere to sleep.
Mendel was disturbed by the level of hostility that cameras provoked. “There were so many cameras coming in; there were no gatekeepers, because it wasn’t an official camp, so any photography student, tourist or sympathiser could wander in. The general feeling was that the camera was an enemy of some sort.”
He was also bewildered by the array of misguided benevolent ventures converging on the camp: “Calais felt at times like a music festival gone wrong.” During one visit in early May, he watched as a Spanish circus came waltzing through the tents and huts with jugglers and musicians, followed by a Christian procession with a healing donkey and, later, a delegation of sympathisers from Essex – all taking pictures.
“They were making a donation, and they had to be photographed handing over the cash,” he says. “There were all kinds of weird and wonderful and terrible things that came into the camp. I thought, ‘What people really need is immigration lawyers.’”
He followed the procession into a church built by Eritrean refugees from sticks and tarpaulin, and had just begun to take some pictures when he was confronted by a refugee who started shouting at him: “You fucking photographers. You come here and you take our photographs and you tell us that it’s going to help us, but nothing changes.
The only person that it helps is you.” It was an acutely worded attack, and Mendel became “quite revolted with the idea of photographing in the camp. I didn’t want to lift a camera anymore.”
Assorted toys and clothing collected between May and October this year. With no electricity in the camp, many possessions were accidentally burned. Photograph: Gideon Mendel
He was already uneasy with the photographic tropes that have emerged from the crisis: the lines of waiting, needy people; the emotional faces of people trying to cross borders; the queues of people stepping off boats; the images of people sitting around campfires; the shacks.
“The most infamous image of queuing migrants is the one Ukip used so brilliantly , playing on the sense that they are queuing to come and take stuff that is ours. Even if the intention of the photographer is compassionate and sympathetic, the usage can be problematic and add to the stigma and the fear.”
But Mendel was reluctant to retreat from the subject. His work has always focused on challenging subjects; his last major project was Drowning World , a series of portraits of people in homes submerged by flood waters, highlighting the effects of climate change. The migrant story had a personal resonance.
His parents were refugees from Nazi Germany; his father’s mother died in the Holocaust. He felt moved by the difficulties faced by the thousands of people stuck in Calais.
So Mendel turned his gaze to the detritus left behind. His photographs of abandoned toothbrushes and soft toys encrusted with mud and sand give a powerful alternative portrait of the human misery of the camp. Eighteen months of the refugee crisis have made many in Britain hardened and desensitised to the issue.
The Guardian’s own online news consumption analysis shows that articles about refugees are often clicked on in small numbers. Readers have been cauterised to the pain of the unfolding human disasters and are often jaundiced in their approach to individual stories. The shock factor of distressing images has waned through repeated exposure – all of which makes Mendel’s sideways view more arresting, harder to skip over.
His pictures of flattened footballs, singed clothes, ripped sleeping bags and recycled teargas canisters force you to think about the experiences of the people who lived in the camp. A picture of muddy children’s gloves reminds you of the utter squalor that infected the whole site.
He has lined up worn-down shoes with the forensic precision of a medical photographer. “The shoes speak of distress. Some shoes are burnt; fire was a recurring thing in the camp, first because there was no electricity, just candles, so a lot of things were burned accidentally, and later people were torching things before the demolition.”
Anxious to avoid the pictures becoming “ruin porn”, another photographic cliche (used particularly in relation to the beautiful images of post-industrial Detroit), Mendel was careful to display the objects in as dignified a way as possible. “There was such chaos in the place, I had this instinct to make things as organised and neat as I could.”
He made several trips to dig around in the sandy wasteland, sifting through layers of rubbish, asking himself, “How would someone in 1,000 years understand what had happened here?” This activity was viewed with bemusement by the camp’s inhabitants, but without the antagonism that photography provoked.
‘There was such chaos, I had an instinct to make things as organised and neat as I could’: a shot of 83 toothbrushes found in the Calais mud. Photograph: Gideon Mendel
His last trip was made as the camp was demolished by French police, and the inhabitants were bussed to nearby hostels, where many remain, applying for formal asylum in France. Others have returned to sleep rough in smaller settlements along the coast, still trying to make their way to join relatives in the UK.
Just before the site was sealed by police, Mendel carted away black bin bags full of rubbish: burnt children’s books (including The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr, herself a refugee), scraps of bedding, used tampons (a reminder, he says, of the particular difficulty of being a woman in a camp of 10,000 people with just a handful of Portaloos).
To the “non-delight” of his family, he still has a collection of bits in the basement. His project has provoked scepticism from his teenage son, who said, “Dad, most people bring things to refugee camps. You go in and take things away.”
While scouring the site, Gideon Mendel found spent shotgun shells, predating its use as a refugee camp. Photograph: Gideon Mendel
Mendel hopes that the pictures will “touch people on a deep emotional level. I want to do work that makes an impact, that touches people’s consciousness.
I wish I could offer a clear response and say, you can do this to help the situation; but I’m afraid that isn’t there for me. The work is my response to this world, where you have places of relative safety and places of danger; places of wealth and places of poverty.”