The cover of Florine Thiebaud’s first book, Breaking Point, announces an idyllic Mediterranean village – the deep blue sea surrounds the colourful little houses on the coast; above them, on top of the hill, lies a fortress with the Greek flag fluttering in the wind. But this image, a mural on a wall, is a trap. On the back cover, we can see that the paint has cracked and curled, revealing the blank wall behind it. In front of it, dry plants and cactuses stand in contradiction to the lush vegetation in the painting.
This isn’t just a photography book; neither is it a social report or a case study. Here, multiple threads come together in a fabric that feels difficult to unravel: photography as a humanistic documentary approach; the entangled recent history of North Africa, the Middle East and Europe; the bureaucracy of the European Union; and the everyday lives of migrants from the global South. Once they have escaped death in the waves of the Aegean Sea, many migrants that follow the Turkish-Greek corridor to enter Europe are stopped in one of the refugee camps on the Greek islands of Lesbos, Chios, Samos, Leros or Kos. Here, it takes up to two years to receive the necessary documents to be able to enter and build a new life in Europe.
Initially interested in the internal exile of Greek communists to some of the same islands where camps are located today, Thiebaud started to shoot in Pikpa camp in Lesbos, where, through conversations with the migrants, she soon decided that their stories took precedence over history. A first series entitled Exiles was created here before Breaking Point. For the latter, Thiebaud later travelled to Chios, where she befriended Edmond, Mustafa, Nazar, Feras and others who were waiting for their papers. If for Exiles she was heavily influenced by her reading on exile and history, for Breaking Point she let the conversations and the newly formed friendships inform the photographs and their subsequent edit into book form.
The camps themselves are absent from Thiebaud’s pictures. Having visited camps Oinofyta and Moria, which were in poor condition, she noticed that the migrants preferred to spend time outside them. The focus of the book falls on tightly cropped portraits and observations of gestures or details of particular places. The compact framing and the presence of wired fence in two of the photographs is enough to suggest the cramped atmosphere of an enclosure. But by employing repetition, Thiebaud also creates the impression of a temporal trap. For example, in the beginning of the book we see Edmond with his face bathed by the light of sunset, then by a street light at night, while towards the end of the book a softer light hits the back of his head. His hair has visibly grown and, gazing down, at his phone or perhaps at nothing in particular, he looks less hopeful. Another reiterated scene is a view of the Lofos Strefi hill in Athens, photographed from the same angle as the vegetation follows its cycle from scorched to overgrown. How much time has passed in between these images? And what events have been contained within this span?
Here, multiple threads come together in a fabric that feels difficult to unravel: photography as a humanistic documentary approach; the entangled recent history of North Africa, the Middle East and Europe; the bureaucracy of the European Union; and the everyday lives of migrants from the global South.
If we look at the photographs as clues, the pace is sluggish – phone calls, rolling cigarettes, carving names into tree bark, walking, playing football, arm-wrestling, keeping warm, and simply being with each other. Most of them have a delicate glow, due to the constant presence of the Mediterranean sun, the shallow focus and the silky texture of the page. They are quiet images, that don’t shout in an activist voice or try to educate or to bring about change. In a way, they, too, simply sit with each other, waiting for the viewer to come to them.
In fact, perhaps that is the way of all photographs, and especially of portraiture. What can a portrait show you other than that a person stood before the camera at one point in time? That for the short time span that the shutter was open the person looked in a particular way? How does one tell a genuine smile from pretence, kind from resigned eyes, a moment of collecting thoughts from deep sadness? We might be inclined to trust the artist when she says she captured the ‘feeling’ or the ‘essence’ of the person, but if the history of documentary photography has taught us anything, is that we should instead doubt, ask questions and think twice about the image in front of us. As a viewer, I can only trust myself to look; there, I meet the image half-way. In the case of Breaking Point, what I can trust is the fact that Thiebaud and her camera were close, and therefore, I infer, welcome into the migrants’ lives. I get the sense that she was trusted, and also entrusted to compose a story out of photographs and conversations.
…it is the everyday that takes centre stage here, the images quietly teasing the boundary between temporariness and permanence.
The subject of this story is lived time, a temporal category that rarely makes it into history books, while the narrative is the rhythm of the momentarily halted lives. The thoughts of Edmond, one of the migrants, act as the proem of this anti-epic: ‘For them it’s seconds. For me it’s like days’. This anomalous perception of time is echoed for the viewer in the way the book is structured – the flow of images and, presumably, of life is constantly interrupted by blank pages. There is serenity, then worry; closeness, then obstruction; warmth, then darkness.
The pairing that opens the sequence speaks of the recent trauma of traversing the sea; the fragile skin behind rips in the fabric of a black top corresponds to light shimmering on the crests of dark waves. As I am writing, news of yet another boat sinking pops up on my phone. According to the Missing Migrants Project, more than 26,000 missing migrants have been recorded in the Mediterranean since 2014. To disembark the boat safely must feel like a blessing, but to reach the shores of Europe and ask for asylum is to enter the dragging temporality of the bureaucrat. The book subtly points to this disparity with a photograph of two clocks on a building showing different times.
However, it is the everyday that takes centre stage here, the images quietly teasing the boundary between temporariness and permanence. Some conjure up a feeling of transience by capturing the subject while moving (like little Razan jumping on the bed) or in-between states (like the cracked window). Blurry photographs can often be dismissed as technical blunders, but in this case, they suggest that what we see is as fleeting as a butterfly traversing our visual field. Along them, there are pictures whose subjects endure, like the statue or the hearts drawn on the wall. This association encourages the viewer to consider the questions – when does the temporary become permanent? What effects does it have on the human mind to live in a state of perpetual waiting?
Thiebaud has also included a little zine inside the book, which she thinks of in terms of a mini-collection of archives. This booklet includes mind-maps that she made while researching, a selection of quotes from her reading, images of objects that she was given during the making of the project, and photographs that she felt were important, but that didn’t fit into the book. Some of the textual fragments are in French, and although I don’t know the language, I can grasp the meaning because of its affiliation to my mother-tongue, Romanian. Much has been said about the similarity between photography and language, and in all truth my initial reading of the foreign language text was, in a way, much like the first look over the photographs – there was a sense of familiarity, I had a hunch about the direction the story was heading in, but there was no solid ground for meaning. I appreciated the fact that I had to do the work of translating and looking again and again, until one after the other some of the connections have been revealed to me.
For subtle books like Breaking Point, it is perhaps more difficult to stand out, because the stage is often given to shocking, loud projects that seek to change the world. That, too, is an admirable goal, which photography has partaken in during its short history. But for Thiebaud, photography has what seems like a minor purpose, that of trying – to establish a connection, to show, to challenge.