Photograph © Gideon Mendel, reproduced with kind permission
I meant to write this before, but here we are.
On 31 December, The Guardian ran a piece in its magazine about Gideon Mendel’s photographic project based on the things left behind after the clearance of the Calais refugee camp. Gideon Mendel went to the Calais camp as a photographer and was faced with real hostility. As one refugee said to him, “You come here and you take our photographs and you tell us that it’s going to help us, but nothing changes. The only person it helps is you.” Mendel, himself the son of refugees, felt uneasy about photographing the refugees, but he did photograph what was left behind – shoes, clothes, toys, toothbrushes, empty tear gas canisters remade into hanging plant pots… and children’s books. Or burnt scraps of children’s picture books, at least.
There’s a photograph with images of scraps from We’re going on a Bear Hunt, from The Tiger that Came to Tea (something laden with obvious irony, given Judith Kerr’s own refugee history)… and from Nosy Crow’s Pip and Posy: The Scary Monster, illustrated by Axel Scheffler.
Of the burning, Mendel explains, “Fire was a recurring thing in the camp, first because there was no electricity, just candles, so a lot of things were burnt accidentally, and later people were torching things before the demolition .”
I felt two very conflicting things looking at the image with the two Pip and Posy scraps in it (left middle row and right bottom row). On the one hand, I thought, children in the camp had presumably had books – and good books – shared with them, and that’s a positive thing. But of course, on the other hand, these books were burned and abandoned so no child was enjoying them now. I was also struck, too, by a worry about how meaningful our stories would be to children in the camp. In Pip and Posy: The Scary Monster, the worst thing that happens is that Posy is frightened, for a minute or two, when Pip appears in a monster costume. And at the end of the book they eat the cakes that Posy makes at the beginning of the book. The scrap (bottom right) with the ingredients for the cake was, for me, the most poignant of all: doing something as simple as baking a cake wasn’t something that those children would be able to do.
We are a commercial organisation, and we publish books that sell to an audience that can pay for them. We can’t publish books that reflect the experiences of those children. I know that. And, besides, we do what we can. We published Refuge in 2015, donating £5 for every hardback sold and then £1 for every paperback sold to WarChild for their work with refugees.
But this was a sobering image to come across on 31 December.
The pictures are disturbing and remarkable. An exhibition of them, Gideon Mendel: Dzhangal, runs at Autograph ABP Gallery, EC2 from today to 28 January, and they appear in a book, Dzhangal, published by Gost on 27 January.