Review of Communities of Solidarity: The Story of Pikpa Refugee Camp
In 2015, the image of Alan Kurdi lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey reverberated around the world. It was published on the front page of British newspapers, many of which had previously been vitriolic in their anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric. On the day of Alan Kurdi’s death these papers changed their tune, speaking of a ‘human catastrophe’ rather than a ‘migrant crisis.’ A few days prior to this, British Prime Minister David Cameron had spoken of ‘swarms of migrants’ but on seeing the image of Alan Kurdi, he also changed tact, suddenly committing the UK to take in 20,000 Syrian refugees. Despite the fact that such a figure is paltry, and that parts of the British press have returned to their all too familiar xenophobic reporting of migration and refugees, the image of Alan Kurdi draws attention to the importance of visual media in contemporary global politics. It reminds us that how the world is made visible through the media shapes how people come to know, think, and feel about our planet and the people in it.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the context of refugees, where research has found that refuges are more often than not visually represented as security threats to the populations of host countries such as the UK, Australia, and others across Europe. Refugees are dehumanised by media representations of them in large groups and are depicted as existential threats to the national identity and security of host states. In the wake of such widespread negative and dehumanising representations, Communities of Solidarity: The Story of Pikpa Refugee Camp offers an important intervention. Comprised of photographs taken by Knut Bry, Yulie Tzirou and young people living in the Pikpa camp, Communities of Solidarity provides an insight into the everyday lives of those who live in Pikpa on Lesvos.
Those featured in Communities of Solidarity are not refugees, migrants, or foreigners. They are people. They could be your family, your friends, your children. They are photographed doing things with which we can all relate; sharing a meal, joking around, and smiling for the camera. As the prologue sets out, this is not a book about suffering or pain, but a book about many journeys, and how a community of people has come together in solidarity to imagine and enact a better world. The photographs in Communities of Solidarity are loosely structured into several sections; living, waiting, creating, upcycling, Pikpa poets and pics, Pikpa to the world, creating mosaic, and cooperating with Nan café. The first three sections ‘living,’ ‘waiting,’ and ‘creating’ make up the majority of the book, providing a wonderful portrayal of those who live in Pikpa. The photographs are not limited by a single style of documentation, and the combination of photojournalistic images, artistic shots of shadows, close ups, and landscapes, alongside portraits and more candid images invoke a sense of the quotidian; a tapestry of everyday life that reminds us of the humanity of those who have fled from far off places. These images stand as a stark contrast to the portrayal of refugees as threats or victims that dominate the media.
Further sections of Communities of Solidarity touch upon the more exceptional sides of live at Pikpa. For example, the photographs of the upcycling that happens at Pikpa (where mountains of life jackets are taken and turned into accessories which are then sold to raise money for the camp) remind us of the sheer scale of the work being done, not by states and international organisations, but by volunteers and refugees themselves. Here, whilst Communities of Solidarity is driven by, and invokes, a sense of ‘what can be done when collective endeavour is driven by love and hope’ (Communities of Solidarity, epilogue), one cannot help but feel a sense of anger towards states and their lacklustre response to helping those in need. Perhaps this is not the intention of those who created these photographs, yet when one sees the images of everyday life at Pikpa, and when one considers what has been achieved by Lesvos Solidarity – such as the opening of the Nan café – one cannot help but feel disappointed that the creation of such a welcoming, beautiful space for living, learning, and creating is the exception rather than the rule in global responses to what has been called the refugee crisis.
Communities of Solidarity is made all the more powerful by the inclusion of photographs and poems by the residents of Pikpa themselves. Whilst such images of children at play, and of selfies and everyday scenes, contribute to a sense of normalcy that permeates Communities of Solidarity, the start and end of the book draw attention to the exceptional. Here, images of the sea – grey, expansive, uninviting – remind the reader of the extraordinary journeys the people in these pages have been on, as well as those whose journeys have ended in tragedy in the Mediterranean. Whilst Communities of Solidarity rightly highlights the joy and hope of solidarity, one cannot help but read it thinking that we must do better, and that we must do more. This is especially so, given recent attempts to close the Pikpa camp and recent research that has revealed Europe’s role in the ‘human rights crisis’ still taking place on Lesvos
Over 11,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean since 2014. If, as research suggests, negative representations of refugees are responsible for views that lead to such limited political responses, then Communities of Solidarity is a much-needed resource for challenging and perhaps overcoming them. The photographs in Communities of Solidarity help us to ‘see how the power of the imagination creates new ways of seeing, living, and working together’ (Communities of Solidarity, epilogue), and in viewing these photographs the reader is presented with a vision of refugees as human and part of a community. Whilst media representations often seek to draw boundaries between communities, and politicians seek to build walls between them; Communities of Solidarity makes visible those shared experiences that make us human. Surely then, this book is essential reading, worth buying and sharing with as many people as possible.
Communities of Solidarity: The Story of Pikpa Refugee Camp is available to buy from Lesvos Solidarity.