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Antwerp photographer Nick Hannes dives into the Med
The crisis in Greece, refugees in Lampedusa, revolutions in the Arab world, bombs in Gaza: The countries surrounding the Mediterranean haven’t exactly been quiet in recent years. Antwerp photographer Nick Hannes has been a curious eyewitness
“The Pacific may have the most changeless, ageless aspect of any ocean, but the Mediterranean Sea celebrates the continuity of Man.” The observation of the British historian and sailor Ernle Bradford accompanies a new exhibition and book by Flemish photographer Nick Hannes.
“He spent half his life sailing the Mediterranean and wrote a fist-thick reference work about its history and cross-pollination of cultures,” the 40-year old photographer says after observing the region through his own lens for the Antwerp exhibition Mediterranean: The Continuity of Man.
It took Hannes 20 trips over four years. “It remains unique on the map of the world: a sea at the intersection of three continents, a relatively short distance from each other,” he says. “There’s a reason why this region is considered the cradle of our civilisation.”
As in his previous long-term project on the former Soviet Union, The Red Journey, Hannes tries to keep his distance in order to transcend the news of the day. But this proved a major issue since the region has constantly been in turmoil since his first trip in 2010.
And though the term “continuity” in the title often has positive connotations, you can ask yourself if this is still true for the countries surrounding the Mediterranean. Hannes shows that the sea has become more of a barrier than an intersection.
“Economically, it is still a very important corridor, but we see more countries sealing off their borders with fences.” His lens only wanted to register, but behind the images you can see the irony and indignation.
Hannes’ approach is less anecdotal than in his photos of the former Soviet Union, basically because his images deal with themes far closer to home. In between the crises, wars and revolutions, his eyes glance towards the deprivation of landscapes, the costs of mass tourism and urban development and the way we (mis)manage scarce open space.
“My photos have always been more about how we shape our environment than about individuals,” he explains. “I’m not telling the personal story of a refugee, I’m looking at the systems separating groups of people by fences. A cemetery of boats in Lampedusa is a better and more symbolic metaphor to me than a pile of body bags.”
His trip to the Italian island was one of his last but most moving journeys. Hannes arrived only a few days after a ramshackle boat coming from Libya sank; 360 African migrants drowned. “It was a bizarre experience,” he says. “There’s a summer vibe among tourists flying to Lampedusa from the Italian mainland, but they are drinking their coffee at the same beach terraces where you see black Africans who survived the traumatic trip from the other side.”
These contrasts are all over the exhibition in Antwerp’s FotoMuseum. You notice a huge Nigerian man staring into the horizon at the Moroccan coastline, dreaming of the other side. Hannes leaves the question unanswered, but the visitor can wonder if he really wants this “illegal”, often homeless life, trying to sell imitation watches to sunbathers and surviving in the periphery of an unknown city.
Most of the Flemish photographer’s images don’t need explanation. On one side of the room you see a large crowd of members of the Muslim Brotherhood on Tahrir Square in Cairo, on the other young people partying in Ibiza. On both sides, they have their hands in the air.
Or take his symbolic series of empty petrol stations in Greece. The contrast with the exuberance on board a cruise liner – it could be visiting Greek heritage – is obvious.
Hannes is not interested in the jewels of civilisation. “It explains,” he says, “why there are no photos of Venice here.” It was only if he detected a common ground between mass tourism, migration and city development, and found a place where cultures met, that he became intrigued.
The harshest meetings – those involving roadblocks, bombs and fences, some natural (Lampedusa) but mostly man-made (Cyprus, Gaza and other war zones) – were the ones that left the most traces; on a personal level, as well.
“A book about the Mediterranean, yeah sure,” he was told at a military checkpoint in Libya, when he asked if he could take pictures of the ghost town of Tawergha, a former pro-Gaddafi bastion. “We can see only pictures of demolished buildings. Why aren’t there any fishing ports or beaches on your memory card?”
Accused of espionage, Hannes spent two nights in jail waiting for the Belgian consulate to have him freed.
He could never have predicted any of this when he started his project in 2010. “I was in Morocco, working on a series about the Spanish enclaves, when I heard the news about the revolution in nearby Tunisia. While my project evolved, the domino effect kept going.”
And he kept travelling. The most intense and exhausting part is the searching itself, he explains. Most of the time he knew what he was looking for, but he also needed a bit of luck. “I did underestimate the whole project a bit,” he admits.
For parts of the trips, he took along his partner and twin daughters, all in a camper van. For destinations further afield, he took planes and travelled alone using public transport. To get into Gaza and Libya, he worked with a fixer. “Every time, you see different things,” he says.
At the moment there are no plans for another such major project. “First I want to show these photos, hopefully in the Mediterranean region, too.” He’s already part of next summer’s Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art “but I would love to go to the French photo festivals, too.”
The next project, he thinks, will be something closer to home. “Perhaps a bit more personal.”
(Flanders Today, january 2015)