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ShelterHenk Wildschut

from the press The Photobook Review

From 2006 to 2010, the Dutch photographer Henk Wildschut documented illegal immigration and migration to and through Europe, an issue challenging a European Union defined by a commitment to stability, safety, openness, and human rights. Migrants, mostly men and boys, embark on a long, arduous journey, working their way into Turkey and Greece, crossing into Italy by boat, then over the Alps and into France, where they hope for an eventual ride underneath or on top of a truck making its way through the Eurotunnel to the land of their dreams, Britain. Beyond the fear, exhaustion, and just plain misery, this form of travel also encompasses a need for efficiency and flexibility, and of course, a place to sleep that has to be crafted on the go, often pieced together with the waste found on the edges of cities.
Wildschut first discovered immigrants' homemade, colorful shelters while in Calais, France. To call this makeshift community on the outskirts of the city, dubbed 'the jungle', a resting point would be callous, as the nights spent in these paper-and-plastic huts must be anything but relaxing.
An experienced teller of stories of human struggle and perseverance, including the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, Wildschut realizes the failures and limitations of standard journalistic conventions. Sensationalistic photographs related to immigration issues often only serve politicians and local municipality leaders, who need to drum up popular support by rounding up 'illegals' as a trophy gesture to make the rest of the population feel safe. In fact, Wildschut's first exposure to the plight of migrants predates this project; years earlier he visited an official Red Cross shelter in Sangatte, France, facing scrutiny. The scene there must have been a heyday for a photographer simply looking for easy headline images; it was even rumored that television camera crews were passing out wire-cutters to help catch the fence-breeching on film. Wildschut's return visit, in 2006, revealed the new homemade shelters that sprang up out of necessity after the Red Cross was kicked out. And it is these shelters in Calais that form the heart of Shelter, though Wildschut also documented other locations throughout Europe, in Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain. He has chosen to tell his story by focusing on these homespun, sometimes whimsical constructions made of waste materials. Because of this decision, viewers may feel the need to fill in the blanks between what we see and what we may know, since Wildschut omits 'the story' itself. Instead of the actual conflict, we are presented with details of the dwellings. In another context they could be land art, children's hideouts, or hunters' blinds. But the context here is crystal clear and there is poignancy in the details that reveal the subtle gestures of what it means to be human and on a quest for a better life.
Some might find Shelter to be over-designed; the page sizes vary from spread to spread, forcing images to overlap. This is not a new design technique, but in this case it smartly references the sheets of plastic and cardboard that are pieced together to build the shelters, thus forming a well-crafted package for a body of work that addresses the realities of immigration and moves me more than any headline or statistic.

The Photobook Review | Andrew Phelps | November 2011

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