Samuel Gratacap:
A hostile setting

A refugee camp, forgotten by the UN and the NGOs, in the middle of a desolate wasteland – but at least here, in the desert, you’re free. Foam curator Kim Knoppers introduces us to Samuel Gratacap’s Empire series. 


Untitled, from the series Empire, 2014 © Samuel Gratacap

Between the sparse trees lie improvised furniture and clothes, which have been carelessly tossed about by the wind. The view of the horizon is obstructed by a beige coloured haze of sand. Not a soul can be seen in the barren landscape. Other images from Samuel Gratacap’s Empire series however document a place that, despite the limitations of its geography, remains very much alive.

THE REJECTED
Since the spring of 2011, at the peak of the Libyan civil war, thousands of people have sought shelter in the Choucha refugee camp, twenty-five kilometres from the Tunisian harbour city of Ben Gardane and seven kilometres from the Libyan border. The UN’s refugee agency – UNHCR –decided to close the camp in the summer of 2013. All the NGOs also left. But 300 people remained in the desolate expanse of sand, lacking water and food supplies. Some had acquired refugee status but could then not find any country that would allow them entrance. Others were the so-called déboutés: the rejected. They chose the harsh living conditions in the desert above returning to their own, unsafe countries. ‘At least Choucha is free, the desert is free’. 


Untitled, from the series Empire, 2014 © Samuel Gratacap

Somewhere between these two benchmarks in the recent history of Choucha, the French photographer Samuel Gratacap chose to get involved. In early 2012 he made his first trip to Choucha, accompanying a news reporter. But due to the time pressure and the complexity of the situation, he wasn’t satisfied with the photos that he took there. So he decided to return. He lived in Choucha and the border city of Ben Gardane for twelve months, spread out over a two-year period. Via a Danish NGO he gave a photography workshop for young people in the camp so that they could depict their own situation. This made easier Gratacap’s access to the camp, as well as to the fragmented reality of life within it.

A HOSTILE SETTING
In the first months, the photographer struggled with taking pictures: it felt either too direct or too evasive. But slowly his work became more about the hostility of this place, of its abandonment and of the loss of identity. This frustration quickly transformed itself into the desire to capture, as closely as possible, the issues of the construction of the place with its rules and organisation. A place ‘overexposed to light and with people underexposed in the media.’ He documented the place in a principled, non-spectacular way, as a hostile setting where the sand permeated everything. 


Untitled, from the series Empire, 2014 © Samuel Gratacap

It’s a place where there is nothing to do and the days consist of endless waiting – waiting for the day of departure, waiting for time to pass. But it’s also a place where people sometimes let their voices be heard during demonstrations, with cardboard protest signs in the middle of the desert.

PERMANENT INVISIBILITY
The stream of migrants on their way to Europe is a subject that can count on constant, breathless attention from mass media. However, this attention is often superficial and translates into emo-journalism and visual clichés. After the Libyan crisis had reached its climax and its dictator Gaddafi was gruesomely killed, the media directed most of its focus towards other spectacular events in the region. Choucha was the junk left over from the Libyan War, stagnating in a permanent state of invisibility. Moreover, the camp’s closure was neatly used to prompt the media to look the other way, and with it the world. 


Untitled, from the series Empire, 2014 © Samuel Gratacap

When something is closed, it’s like it no longer exists. Both the UHNCR and the media erased the presence of the people left behind and the space they occupied. But Gratacap remained and Empire gave the rejected visibility as well as a voice. He resists the easy beauty of aesthetic poverty and leaps handily over the pitfall of exoticism. The long period of time he spent in the camp helped. But at the same time his photos maintain a certain distance. This gives them integrity and shows that although Gratacap felt involved, he always remained an outsider – someone who could choose to come or go.

Empire is a logical sequel to Gratacap’s earlier work. He has been following the lives of refugees and migrants since 2007, documenting the transitory spaces they came to occupy after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. ‘I felt that I was moving away from reality by reading the newspapers.’ The desire to understand how the French judicial system dealt with illegal immigrants and what it meant to be locked up was the motivation for Gratacap to observe a detention centre in Marseille, the city where he lives (La Chance, 2007-2012). Many of the people he met there had entered Europe through the Italian island of Lampedusa, a transit area that plays an important part in his Castaway series.

This article was first published in Foam Magazine Talent #45.


Untitled, from the series Empire, 2014 © Samuel Gratacap

About Samuel Gratacap

Samuel Gratacap (1982) has studied art at the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Marseille. His work mostly reflects on the depiction of geopolitical difficulties and the subsequent areas of transition – migrant routes. He has photographed and filmed the detention center in Marseille, then at Lampedusa and Zardis, and lived between France, Tunisia and Libya for four years. He has won the SFR/Le BAL young photographers award in 2013 which culminated in a solo exhibition of Empire at LE BAL, Paris, in 2015. His work has been featured in the Athens Photo Festival at the Benaki Museum. Gratacap was chosen as a Foam Talent in 2016. 

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