You can see me, but I don’t exist

Collaboration between award-winning photographer Alan Gignoux and Shakesperian project.

‘You can see me, but I don’t exist’ is an exhibition of photography by Alan Gignoux and creative writing by people seeking refuge living in Birmingham, London, and Manchester.

The exhibition will be open to the public in the Shakespeare Memorial Room at the Library of Birmingham from 31st May–7th August, and is presented in collaboration with the Everything to Everybody Project. The project and exhibition are sponsored by a National Lottery Project Grant awarded by Arts Council England.

While photographing refugees in France, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden in 2018, Alan Gignoux noticed that a recurring theme among them was the gradual erosion of self, resulting from prolonged periods of living at the fringes of society. Similarly, he heard many of them talk of being invisible both to the immigration bureaucracies and to the wider societies in the countries in which they were seeking asylum.

He was particularly struck by the words of a young Afghan man in his final year at school who was seeking asylum in Sweden: “You can see me, but I don’t exist.” The young man was awaiting a response to his third and final appeal for permission to remain in the country and was expressing frustration at the way in which the asylum process had suspended him for years in a no man’s land of enforced separation from Swedish society. Borrowing its title from the Afghan man’s words, this UK- based project aims to explore the dehumanisation experienced by people seeking refuge.
Often, refugees and asylum seekers in the UK endure extended periods of uncertainty while awaiting a response to their applications. Unable to work, they may endure poverty or destitution, poor physical and mental health, and even danger. If their application is rejected, they must come to terms with not only the wasted years but also the frightening prospect of being forced to return to a country that they risked all to leave. Those who remain in the UK after their asylum application has been rejected face an uncertain and insecure future, entirely dependent on the support of family, friends, and charitable organisations. In addition, the UK is becoming increasingly hostile to refugees. Since the introduction of new legislation, refugees who arrive in the UK using routes not sanctioned by the government will no longer be able to apply for asylum but will instead be deported back to their country of origin or to Rwanda.

Working with a camera obscura, Gignoux used a long exposure to blur the identity of the refugees whom he photographed while leaving the background in focus. This intentional blurring has a practical purpose as many people seeking refuge live in fear of the authorities and prefer to remain unidentifiable. However, it is simultaneously intended to be a visual metaphor for the corrosive impact of the asylum-seeking process on people.

Gignoux wanted to include the refugees’ voices in the project and so he invited the people whom he photographed, as well as other refugees who wanted to participate, to write a creative response to the blurred portraits.

Their creative writing was developed in workshops led by experienced poets: Malka al Haddad (Birmingham), Laila Sumpton (London), and Ambrose Musiyiwa (Manchester). Working together as a group, or individually, the people addressed the themes that the portraits explore, including the shared experience of limbo described in this extract:

“I am still waiting for a decision together with my family. A feeling of belonging nowhere is always present.
We cannot go back without putting our lives at risk, But we do not belong here yet, either.

However, they also write of the positive welcome they have received in Birmingham “a big city with its love of diverse cultures,” which has supported them generously:
“Birmingham Community is our handrail. It keeps our heads held high and puts a smile on our tired faces. It is the first touch of love we have reached.”

The pilot phase of the project took place in London in summer 2022. Thanks to a National Lottery Project Grant, the project was extended to Manchester and Birmingham in autumn 2022 and spring 2023.

Exhibitions of Gignoux’s photographs and the refugees’ creative writing will take place in all three participating cities timed to coincide with Refugee Week, 19th-25th June.

In Birmingham, Gignoux worked with two refugee organisations, Stories of Hope and Home and Baobab Women’s Project, an advocacy organisation with refugee and migrant women. The writing workshop facilitator was Iraqi poet Malka al-Haddad.

The exhibition of Gignoux’s photos and the refugee creative writing on display in the Shakespeare Memorial Room is a collaboration between the photographer and the ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project, whose mission is to unlock the first, oldest and largest Shakespeare collection in any public library in the world. The exhibition incorporates a selection of items that engage with stories of exile, highlighting texts from, amongst others, The Tempest and The Comedy of Errors that address these themes.

Tom Epps, Library of Birmingham and the Everything to Everybody Project said: “We are delighted to be collaborating with Alan Gignoux, Stories of Hope and Home and the Baobab Women’s Project to explore the connections between our vast Shakespeare Collection and people seeking refuge here in Birmingham.

“Birmingham is more ethnically diverse than most British cities and our collection speaks to all our local communities featuring Shakespeare’s works, artefacts and plays, in nearly 100 languages.

“Through highlighting themes of exile and refuge in Shakespeare’s work we see they are as relevant today as they were 400 years ago. We want to ensure everyone who visits feels welcome and sees their voice represented in our collections. We look forward to welcoming visitors to the exhibition.”

Shakespeare-themed writing workshops related to the exhibition will be offered to the public on 12 June and 29 July. The workshops will be led by Laila Sumpton and Arne Pohlmeier of Bards Without Borders, a collective formed of ten poets from around the world that draws on Shakespeare’s works to explore themes related to exile.

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Pics – Alan Gignoux