This post is also part of a series on migration and the refugee crisis moderated and edited by Prem Kumar Rajaram (Central European University).
I visited Lampedusa from 24 September to 5 October 2015 to commence fieldwork research for my new project, Human Dignity and Biophysical Violence: Migrant Deaths across the Mediterranean Sea. This photo essay documents some of the key encounters that I experienced during my visit.
I want to stress here that I originally had no intention of collecting images for a photo essay as part of this trip. I spontaneously took the photos on my mobile phone, and there is much room for improvement in terms of technical and compositional quality. Moreover, my compilation of these images into an essay is far from how I might have chosen if I had planned to produce a photo essay from the start. Despite its various limitations, I nevertheless hope that the essay is of value.
My engagement with the ideas and practices of fieldwork stems from my interest in anthropology and the classification of human “types” through the “science” of anthropometry in the mid-nineteenth century, which began when I was a photography undergraduate student. “Field Work” (2010) was my attempt to address visual ethnographic practice from the position of a contemporary photographic practitioner. As a photographer I have always been concerned with issues around race, identity, and representation, and the award of the AOA1 commission provided the opportunity to question specific perceptions of boundaries and region in the United Kingdom, and how these relate to identification with a particular community. The commissioners wanted “an image-maker who can have agency as a British citizen, meditate and reflect on being a ‘stranger,’ but also move to a place that can be seen as his home domain and look out towards ‘his’ England.”
To appreciate the role of aesthetics in politics, we might look to the recent resurgence of popular anti-corruption movements in India. In 2011 and 2012, mass protests by supporters of the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement focused around spectacular fasts by the social activist Anna Hazare. Hazare’s projection of moral authority draws upon a well-established Indian idiom of non-party “saintly politics” (Morris-Jones 1963). The ascetic aesthetic of this approach, in Hazare’s case, is projected through the adoption of simple, hand-woven khadi cotton clothes and practices of abstinence (Pinney 2014; Webb 2014). More recently, a new political formation, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or the Common Man Party, headed by Hazare’s erstwhile IAC colleague Arvind Kejriwal has been promoting an ethical and anti-corruption alternative in electoral politics.
My fieldwork began with an image, a quite common image of violence broadcast by Italian television: Terni steel plant (known as AST) workers were protesting by the station, pushing the police block in order to occupy the railways. Terni is a small town in the center of Italy, and every time a strike occurs, the workers always outnumber the local police force, and a SWAT squad is called from nearby Rome to control and sedate the rallies. This is how a Roman police officer managed to club the mayor of Terni, who had rushed to the station to mediate and ease the situation, confusing him with a worker/rioter. The image of the bleeding mayor jumped from local televisions to national channels in a matter of minutes, and this episode became the symbol of a struggle, and considerably helped the re-election of Leopoldo di Girolamo. It was May 2012, and ThyssenKrupp (TK), the German owner of AST, had sold the plant to Outokumpu, another steel multinational from Finland. Almost seven months after the buyout, Outokumpu didn’t present any strategic business plan, only the promise of investment in situ, which never happened. The exasperated workers, tired of promises and feeling fooled once again by a multinational, invaded the streets and shouted slogans that sometimes belonged more on the football pitch than in a political rally, testifying how the stadium behavior spilled into working-class protest, as Portelli (2010: 8) noticed during the 2004 general strike. Violence erupted at the first contact with the police officers, who certainly weren’t there to talk.