Beyond compassion - How to escape the victim frame in social documentary photography today
(on the series ‘I like Belgium so much’)
by Inge Henneman
(...) Nick Hannes gave priority to the refugee’s context - the ‘where’ and ‘when’ - at the expense of the ‘what’ and the romanticizing question of identity. How does the registration, the investigation and the interrogation proceed at Foreign Affairs? In what way do the refugees inhabit the ‘open centers’ (Jodoigne, Kapellen and Sint-Pieters-Woluwe)? And what is taking place in the ‘centers for illegals’ (Merksplas, Transitcentrum 127 at Melsbroek and the building of the Maritime police in Zeebrugge)? The photographs demonstrate the fact that ‘the’ refugee does not exist. What does exist is a certain condition in which refugees without any distinction find themselves, a condition without reservations out of sheer necessity a passive situation of uncertainty and an awaiting of the ‘yea’ or the ‘nay’ by the Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury. Hannes does not get round the typical victim-framing; often he focuses on children and families with children. He shows the playground in Melsbroek from behind the fence, men wrapped up in blankets appearing inconsolable, passive figures waiting, bored stiff, helpless, and resigned. Even the macho, chunky, and tattooed Eastern European who has to take a T.B.-scan is defenceless, being left at the mercy of Belgian asylum procedures and regulations. But Hannes manages to enlarge the alienating distance between refugee and refugee center and throws it right back into our faces as a question: how do human beings move, behave, live, exist in the space we mark out for them? This spatial infrastructure is extremely impersonal and fluctuates between a check-in counter, a police station, medical practice or courthouse where the ‘trial’ must proceed. The refugee centers’ architecture seems to hesitate between a camping site, a mental hospital and a prison. Hannes demonstrates how the other’s body is reduced to a ‘requesting party’ and a mere (file) number. He draws our attention to the political meaning of these non-sites: the determined chill, the inevitable neon light, the fake materials, and the uniform furniture. The asylum place is arranged as a provisional waiting room, a transit zone that at the same time seems to be located within and beyond the frontiers, where newcomers are tolerated but also guarded. Hannes manages to employ enough distance to enlarge the anachronism and the maladjustment of the refugee to his circumstances, without losing the involvement with the portrayed. He does not expose the other as a victim, but represents in this photo essay the individual’s vulnerability and malaise, being confronted with a (relief) system.
(Critical realism in contemporary art. Around Allan Sekula’s Photography; Jan Baetens and Hilde Van Gelder (EDS); Lieven Gevaert Series Volume 4; Leuven University Press, 2010)