‘Swarm’? ‘Jungle’ ? The Ethics of Photography in Calais

‘Saifullah’s tent’ © Rob Pinney

‘Saifullah’s tent’ © Rob Pinney






Rob Pinney, writing on Photovoice blog in ‘The Ethics of Photography in Calais’ underlines the ethical conundrum that Mary Turner confronted during her recent visit to Piraeus (link).

When the photographic community itself becomes a ‘swarm’ of sorts perhaps its time to step back and consider an alternative approach. This could be a valuable project, and provide a more nuanced view of migrant experiences.



Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (3 Comments)

  1. Juno Doran says:

    a few days ago I went to a talk by Tom Hunter and he said he was a volunteer with the refugees and hadn’t been able to take any pictures (although looking at his Instagram account I realised it wasn’t quite so, but perhaps those were just quick snaps). As a photographer with training in photojournalism and documentary I have to say that pointing a camera at those unfortunate people is cruel and I could never do it. To me it reeks of lazy photojournalism, a little toy war close to home to go exercise one’s adrenaline and come back on the return ferry. Well maybe not but nearly like that. The identity of the refugees isn’t what they look like, the misfortune they find themselves in. It is the few things they were able to bring, the objects, the memories, the stories. How can this situation be portrayed whilst respecting them? Perhaps to explore that side of them. To ask them about their story, to find their humanity, to focus on what little they have left of their identity but in a way which doesn’t feel intrusive. I was thinking about Chloe Dewe Mathews’ work “Shot at dawn” and I think the absence of people makes her project all the more powerful, directly connecting us to what may have happened. Maybe that’s the only way, somehow, to approach this.

    • John MacPherson says:

      Thanks for commenting Juno. I have to agree with you regarding the “lazy photojournalism” aspect. Too many of the images coming from such circumstances are all ‘surface’ and lack real depth. Mary Turner’s blog I linked to has impressed me immensely by her approach of making a real human (and lasting) connection with her subjects and trying, where possible, to allow their voices to be heard too.

      I still think the cameras are pointing in the wrong direction though – we know the situation – now we need to explore the causes and the solutions. And the former is not necessarily in the Middle East but on our own shores, in the corridors of power, and the latter probably in our own towns and cities.

      This is a humanitarian crisis that is complex and nuanced, and needs a far wider approach than simply a photo of impoverished desperate people sitting in mud. They are not the cause of a problem, but a consequence of other forces, mostly political (although economic & religious too). And we need to look towards those aspects more critically in my humble opinion.

    • robpinney says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Juno, and thanks John for sharing the blog.

      I agree with you both on ‘lazy photojournalism’ (although I think it is often accidental), and I think the proximity of this particular crisis, as you mention, plays a big part in this. You can get to Calais from London in less than an hour on the Eurostar, and so it’s not surprising that many early-career photojournalists and documentary photographers have visited – myself included. When I first went (as a volunteer, albeit one with a camera packed too), I had thought it might be the beginning of a broader project on the refugee crisis across Europe. It didn’t take long to realise just how immensely complex the situation in Calais was, let alone elsewhere, and that if I stood any chance of producing a body of work with any substance and depth, I’d need to spend a lot of time there rather than dashing across the continent.

      In terms of the project that came out of that, which continues and some of which accompanies the PhotoVoice blog: it has been a real learning curve, and it’s the product as much of faults in my own work as it is a reaction to the way that the photographic community have, by and large, chosen to work there in general. I think it’s extremely important to be deeply introspective about what we’re doing, and why. I’ve found it valuable to seek out conversations with people about how they feel towards photography and photographers – in one case going through my own work from previous trips and inviting honest criticism. It’s all very well producing an image that has aesthetic appeal and perhaps a degree of symbolic resonance, but what if it’s anomalous to the experiences of those actually living through it? For me that became an important question.

      On ‘identity’: from some of the conversations I’ve had, this strikes at the heart of the issues that many people in Calais have with the way that photography has been practiced and used. They want to be seen as individuals rather than simply as ‘a refugee’ – a malleable symbol that can be used to fit the story of the day (with the caveat that most do not want their faces photographed – the use of long lenses to take portraits from afar came up several times in relation to this).

      So we have to think of more creative and respectful ways to do this. To use the chair image, which John included above, as an example: it’s bleak and arguably a bit of a cliche. But to me that’s actually a portrait of Saifullah because of the many hours spent with either he or I sat in that chair talking about a whole range of things – from his life in Afghanistan, to Calais, and everything in between. The same goes for the picture of Musa’s hands, which is included with the blog post. But those associations are obviously the product of my having been there – they’re memories that exist in my mind rather than in the surface contents of the image – and so probably don’t carry over for a more general audience. One could conceivably work on a longer series around a particular person, but then who better to tell that particular story than the person themselves (i.e. as part of the participatory project)?

      I don’t find it surprising, or indeed alarming, that so many people have visited the ‘Jungle’ to take photographs, and I’d be something of a hypocrite if I did. But there are many issues that go along with working there, and we ought to be having a full and frank conversation about them.

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