Travelling Light, Sleeping Rough

Diptych of a Tunisian man (left) and piles of his clothes and posessions on the floor (right)

The ordeals faced by the many Tunisian migrants who came to Europe after the recent revolution to start new lives in France are not over. Having travelled to Lampedusa, Italy, by boat, many eventually wound up in the border town of Ventimiglia, on their quest to reach France. A month ago, Europe watched closely as this Italian town so close to the South of France became centre stage for a border control spat between respective national governments.

Stuck in limbo

Yet although many migrants have moved on, and the journalists have long gone, this little Italian provincial town is still full of men sleeping rough. They have all been into France, whether to Nice, Cannes, Marseilles or even further afield. Each one has at some stage been spotted by police and sent back to the border, with or without nights in a cell. Most have had this experience several times. Some even have stories of police aggression to add to their brief experience of France, with scars to show. Now, with money for train tickets and food spent, they sit at the station and in parks, fed daily by the Red Cross, waiting.

I think Europe has seen enough photos of these immigrants sleeping on cardboard boxes, huddled around tiny camp stoves and sneaking onto trains. I’ve been to Ventimiglia several times in the last two weeks to meet the individual men who have undertaken this daunting journey (BTW I’m not generalising: there are no women).

Ready to take the risk

  • They are not asylum seekers
  • The vast majority don’t have wives and children to support back home
  • They know that they don’t have an automatic right to come and live in France without a visa
  • They come for the jobs and higher wages on offer, and the ease of communication in France (the majority of Tunisians speak French, thanks to a colonised past)
  • They know that they will have to live outside the system and work ‘black’ (cash only), at least in the beginning

Are they pawns in a political game of chess who deserve support, or chancers who deserve to be sent straight back?

Bare essentials

Politics aside, each migrant in Ventimiglia is in the middle of a formidable journey. Young men full of optimism and older men whose faces display more caution and hardship: all risk high stakes in pursuit of a new life. It must take significant courage to leave home, possessions, friends, familiar places and a culture behind. Virtually empty-handed, these migrants have undertaken a journey of unknown duration and uncertain destination. They carry little other than a conviction of their entitlement as human beings to work and have the same opportunities as others.

So what does a migrant bring with him on his journey? In addition to taking a series of portraits, I wanted to photograph each man with the belongings that he is travelling with. Most had very few possessions indeed. Some carried bags with a few changes of clothes; others had only what they could take in their pockets. Keen to avoid suspicion and be spotted by French police as ‘clandestins‘, they explained that travelling light has its advantages. Plus they had of course envisaged a much quicker journey to reach friends and relatives in France.

Reluctance – and help

Finding willing subjects for photography was difficult at first. As well as wishing to remain anonymous, the men I first spoke with were initially very reluctant to have their personal belongings on public display. Some were openly antagonistic. They were tired of their journey, angry at being rejected by France, and many felt they had been exploited by photographers and journalists as objects of pity or scorn in recent weeks.

However, as time went on, some of the men were willing to listen and appreciate that I wasn’t a photographer who intended to patronise or vilify them.

I shot the portraits in various places in the streets of Ventimiglia, keeping in the shade as the sun changed position, and choosing warm-coloured background walls. Each time a new pavement location was used to photograph the contents of a bag, I marked out the same sized space with chalk around a towel.

Driss and Mahdi helped me enormously on different days, assisting with lighting and interpreting for subjects who couldn’t speak French. I thank you both enormously, and wish you luck on your continued journeys.

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