Ville De Calais

Henk Wildschut


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  • Henk Wildschut
  • 320 pages, ills colour
  • Paperback, English
  • 28 × 21 cm

Nearby the harbour city of Calais in France, a parallel world has existed for more than ten years. Here, refugees from Africa and the Middle East await their chance to cross the Strait of Dover and reach the United Kingdom. Since 2005 photographer Henk Wildschut has followed the increasing stream of migrants whose journeys end in limbo outside Calais. Gradually, their forest camps have grown to resemble a city, with houses, restaurants, churches, mosques, and libraries. The paths have become a road network, and toilets and electricity have been provided. Rather than capture personal stories and portraits, Wildschut documents the physical traces of these “invisible” people.

My visits to Calais started in January 2006, shortly after I read that hundreds of refugees and illegal immigrants from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, the Sudan and Pakistan were bivouacking in the woods around the French port city of Calais. To them, Calais was the departure point for the final and most sought-after crossing of what had often been a long journey of escape. The crossing to England: the destination of their dreams.

In the woods around the city, I discovered numerous colourful shacks made out of sheets, clothing and various waste materials, carefully tied together with bits of string and tape. It quickly became clear to me that this motley collection of shelters had become my personal symbol for illegality. I was fascinated by the way in which the inhabitants retained their self respect, despite the deplorable situation.

That dignity was expressed in all manner of ways; the neatly folded clothes, the sleeping bags and blanket hung out, the way the surroundings were kept clean and waste disposed of. In the layout of their huts and the creation of small gardens, the inhabitants expressed their personality and individuality. I was moved by this need for security and homeliness. I wanted to use my photography to show how people retain their humanity in an inhuman situation. They symbolise the resilience of the individual.

The photos led to the book Shelter, which I published in 2010. In this photographic documentary about the temporary shelters of migrants in Europe, all the tracks already led in the direction of the woods of Calais. This book was also designed by Robin Uleman. The book was awarded the Kees Scheeren Prize for the best book of photography, and was nominated for the best-edited book of 2010. In addition, Shelter won the prestigious Dutch Doc Award 2011.

The book

To a certain degree, Ville de Calais is a continuation of Shelter (2010). Whereas Shelter still centred on the hut as a portrait of the otherwise invisible individual, Ville de Calais is about the shanty town as a portrait of the visible mass, a mass able to create an informal city in the dunes of Calais. That makes the content of the book many times more complex. It calls for a multi-faceted approach to the editing of text and images. (for more information about the project book and its designer Robin Uleman look in to Background)

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