To be seen this year at the PhMuseum Days 2022, the four-hand collaboration Asphodel Songs tries to bring a new perspective to a strongly represented place and topic – migration on the island of Lesvos.
What should a refugee look like? As a human, caught in a rotten paradox between oppression and freedom, deprived of his possessions and his pride? Tired, hectic, soaked, finally arriving on a boat that’s too small, ache in your bones? On the other hand, could they stand in front of a camera with dignity and composure, flowers around their heads? How do you portray a refugee? Who is a refugee? What does it mean be a refugee? Asphodel Songsa choral work by photographer and photo editor Mathias Benguigui and photo consultant and artistic producer Agathe Kalfas, addresses some of these themes.
Committed to telling a different story – or better yet, telling the same story in a different way – the project began as a creative collaboration between the two and quickly evolved into a lyrical work revealing the many traits of immigration – like this as different as the faces of people who have made the perilous journey, their stories, their struggles – and everything in between.
“We felt a big hole in the island’s iconography,” say Kalfas and Benguigui, while images of Lesvos, Greece’s third-largest island in the northern Aegean, just off the coast of Turkiye, all told the same story. When Benguigui was photo editor, most photos from wired on-site photographers reflected the same message — a flat vision of the island depicting the same face of the immigration crisis: refugees arriving on crowded boats, migrants deep in the water trying to reach shore , tired people on the beach and people queuing in a refugee camp to collect their food. That’s when Benguigui decided to try something new and teamed up with Kalfas, who is half French and half Greek, and felt compelled to write a story that was consistent with her background.
They delved deeper into the historical method, examining the mythology, the first layer of local culture, and the ancient waves of immigration that history produced. They began by documenting the landscape that is usually overlooked in mainstream photography: Lesvos is Greece’s third largest island, but images in the media only cover about 10 percent of its entire territory. They discovered traces of the past in the landscape. The Ottoman Empire controlled the island for four centuries; It is not uncommon to see antique minarets or etched Arabic letters in a typical Orthodox community. They identified multiple levels – iconography, history, sociology – as well as the remarkable position that symbolizes Lesvos as a bridge between East and West, as well as for the civilizations that traversed the island.
A sense of ‘collective memory’ pervades the island, both from those who arrived long ago and those who do so today. “There is a huge collective memory of migration that can be felt in every stone, in every person, in every tradition; it is [as if] the past lives all the time. It’s all the different layers of history that all live together,” explain Benguigui and Kalfas.
In addition to landscape photography, portraits were made “in collaboration” with the island’s residents, with no background to make it unclear whether the subject was a newly arrived refugee or a Greek descendant of immigrants. They put everyone on the same level, without prejudice or difference, and avoid clichéd representation through acquired stereotypes. They were successful in their goal. During a photo exhibition, people asked why they hadn’t photographed refugees given the subject and the location: “‘You’re talking about an island with refugees, you’re talking about a migration crisis, [yet] there is no refugee in your pictures’,” several noted. There were many migrants in the photos; they just didn’t match our internalized predictions.
Through striking imagery, they inspire the viewer to project something beyond the obvious. One photo shows three young males partially submerged in the sea. It’s unclear whether they bathe or drown, victims of a sad fate as they worked hard to build a better future for themselves. Intuitively we know that what has been revealed is not exactly what it is. “All the pictures show tragic things, but you don’t see that it’s tragic,” says Benguigui.
In this approach, the audience takes on the role of the engaged actor who reappropriates and reinterprets the images. In this scenario, the photo becomes a metaphor for something bigger, and the cloudy destiny of migrants comes to the fore: “You don’t know if you [get] within Europe, whether it would be worse or not,” argues Benguigui. The picture itself contains this question, the uncertainty between playing and drowning. Asphodel Songs also uses subtle symbolism, revealing the truths and challenges behind the photographs only after the fact and through captions.
Kalfas and Benguigui are aware of the subjectivity of their work and open to a range of viewpoints. “It’s the coexistence of all those points of view that can touch audiences differently.” They aim to appeal to people who are tired of seeing the same photos, who “don’t want to look at it again and don’t want to wonder what it means to be a refugee”. It is a contemporary malaise resulting from the current information overload in terms of format, medium and content. “Democracy also has to do with diversity of opinion. So this work touches on intimacy, but also on politics,” says Kalfas.
Finally, the initiative wants to respect and honor the Greek people. The migration problem is a tragedy for refugees, but it also affects the local community, their self-image as portrayed in the media – a “prison” for foreigners living in deplorable conditions. Many Greeks feel separated from their territory. The massive economic crisis, exacerbated by the epidemic and the decline in tourism, one of the main financial resources, aggravates the plight and disconnection.
Benguigui and Kalfas want the Greek people to be seen beyond the images of immigration shown in the mainstream media. One of the most famous refugee camps, Moria camp takes its name from a nearby village, not the other way around. But while everyone knows the camp, few know the village and its residents. “It’s important to bring this complexity together to work on human dignity.” They also want to bring the project to the Greeks and migrants on the island to encourage real debate, not only conceptual but also in real life Live and takes place with the protagonists. “We are all people and we are all people who move,” says Kalfas. “We are all descendants of refugees. So why do we have to show these people in such situations to be sure they are refugees?”
All photos © Mathias Benguigui and Agathe Kalfas, from the Asphodel Songs series
Mathias Benguigui is a French photographer focused on long-term personal documentary projects, questioning memory, identity and uprooting.
Agatha Kalfas is a French photography consultant and artistic producer. Find her project, Asphodel Songs, here.
Lucy de Stefani is a writer and editor focused on photography, illustration and all things teen. She lives between New York and Italy. Keep finding her Twitter.
This article is part of the New Generation series, a monthly column by Lucia De Stefani that focuses on the most exciting emerging talent in our community.