There have been refugee camps in the Calais area of Northern France for about 20 years, but none as large or as visible as the informal settlement which was known as the ‘Jungle’, close to the Eurotunnel & Eurostar terminal that connects the UK to continental Europe. At its peak in 2016 the ‘Jungle’ was home to over 6,000 displaced people from Syria, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea & elsewhere. Another 2,000 refugees - mostly Iraqi & Iranian Kurds - lived in the Grande-Synthe camp, a ‘tent city’ with no electricity about 30 minutes drive up the coast in Dunkirk.
Whist the British media focused on the humanitarian crisis unfolding on our doorstep across the English Channel, we rarely heard the individual stories of men, women & children fleeing war-torn countries, conflict & persecution, living in appalling circumstances in makeshift shelters on this sprawling landfill site in Northern France.
Over a period of 6 months I made several trips to Calais, the first of which was on a bleak, cold & wet weekend just before Christmas in 2015. A group of musicians & sound engineers travelled to the camps with a variety of musical instruments, recording equipment & a generator. A tarpaulin-covered wooden classroom within the ‘Jungle’ became a temporary studio - an open stage for musicians living in the camp to join with other players, where their voices could be heard, their stories told & their songs recorded.
The conditions in the ‘Jungle’ & at the Grande-Synthe camp were as squalid as I had imagined. Thick mud clogged the pathways between the flimsy tents & hastily-built wooden shacks which offered little protection from the European winter. Sanitation was poor, the environment volatile & the situation stressful. We heard heart-rending stories from people who had endured long & dangerous journeys, who had lost their homes & most of their belongings. Yet we also encountered great strength, resilience, friendship & hope. We experienced endlessly warm hospitality, discovered wonderful musical talent, & witnessed the powerful sense of society in the camp. Along the water-logged central track through the ‘Jungle’ a string of bustling cafes & restaurants run by refugees offered the comfort of home-cooked food, sweet tea, & a place to gather with friends, to smoke, play cards, or watch music videos on TV. There were places of worship, convenience stores, a library, a barber, & classrooms.
By my final visit to Calais in Spring 2016, large areas of the ‘Jungle’ had already been bulldozed. All that remained were the Ethiopian Orthodox Church & a couple of classrooms. The ‘Jungle’ camp was completely demolished in October 2016. The French authorities offered accommodation in asylum centres elsewhere in France, but many refugees, including minors, vanished under the radar at this point. Some headed to Paris, where a large number of refugees are living rough. Some made it to the UK & are dealing with the asylum process here. Yet others are still camping out in the woods near Calais and Dunkirk.
The music recorded during The Calais Sessions was released as an album in July 2016. The project not only provided some respite from the harsh reality of daily life in a refugee camp, it was the vessel that contained beautiful & moving stories, generated joyous exchanges & moments of reflection that live on through the music on the album & in these photographs. You can buy the album via The Calais Sessions website here, or from Bandcamp.
After New York, the exhibition "Sounds Unseen" was presented at the Galway International Arts Festival in July 2018.