Agathe Kalfas & Mathias Benguigui offer another face to the refugee crisis

On view this year at PhMuseum Days 2022four-handed collaboration Songs of asphodel tries to give a new perspective on a strongly represented place and issue – that of migration on the island of Lesbos.

What should a refugee look like? Like a person caught in a filthy paradox, between oppression and freedom, stripped of his possession and his pride? Tired, frenetic, wet, finally arrived on a boat that is too small, grief in your bones? Could they, on the other hand, stand in front of a camera with dignity and aplomb, flowers around their heads? How do you portray a refugee? Who is a refugee? What does it mean to be a refugee ? Songs of asphodelA choral work by photographer and photo editor Mathias Benguigui and photography consultant and art producer Agathe Kalfas, addresses some of these themes.

Forced to tell a different story – or, better yet, the same story in a different way – the project began as a creative collaboration between the two, quickly evolving into a lyrical work that reveals the many traits of immigration – as varied as the faces of the people who undertook the perilous journey, their stories, their struggles and everything in between.

“We felt a big hole in the iconography of the island,” say Kalfas and Benguigui, as images from Lesbos, the third-largest Greek island in the northern Aegean just off Turkey, tell all the same story. When Benguigui was photo editor, most photographs from wired photographers in the field echoed the same message – a flat view of the island, depicting the same face of the immigration crisis: refugees arriving on crowded boats, migrants at the bottom of the water trying to reach the coast, weary individuals on a beach and people queuing to collect their food in a refugee camp. It was then that Benguigui decided to try something new, teaming up with Kalfas, who is half French and half Greek and felt compelled to create a tale that resonated with her past.

They deepened the historical method, investigating mythology, the first layer of local culture and the ancient waves of immigration created by history. They started by documenting the landscape, usually overlooked in mainstream photography: Lesbos is the third largest island in Greece, however, images in the media only cover around 10% of its total territory. They discovered signs of the past in the landscape. The Ottoman Empire controlled the island for four centuries; it is not uncommon to see ancient minarets or carved Arabic letters in a typical Orthodox community. They identified multiple layers – iconography, history, sociology – as well as the remarkable position that Lesvos symbolizes as a bridge between east and west, as well as for the civilizations that passed through the island.

A sense of “collective memory” pervades the island, held by both those who arrived long ago and those who do so today. “There is a huge collective memory about migration that you can feel in every stone, in every person, in every tradition; it is [as if] the past is alive all the time. It’s all the different layers of stories that live together,” Benguigui and Kalfas explain.

Along with the landscape photography, they made portraits “in collaboration” with the inhabitants of the island, without a background to make it difficult to know if the subject is a newly arrived refugee or a Greek descendant of immigrants. They place everyone on the same level, without a priori or disparity, avoiding clichéd representations by acquired stereotypes. They succeeded in their objective. At a photo exhibit, people asked why they hadn’t photographed refugees, given the subject and location: “‘You’re talking about an island with refugees, you’re talking about a migration crisis, [yet] there are no refugees in your photos,’” several people observed. There were many migrants in the photos; they just didn’t match our internalized predictions.

Through evocative images, they inspire the viewer to project something beyond the obvious. Three young males are seen partially submerged in the sea in a photograph. It is unclear whether they bathe or drown, victims of a sad fate as they worked hard to build a better future. Intuitively, we know that what has been revealed is not exactly what it is. “All the images show tragic things, but you don’t see that it’s tragic,” says Benguigui.

With this approach, the public assumes the role of an engaged actor, reclaiming and reinterpreting the images. In this scenario, the photograph becomes a metaphor for something larger, and the murky fate of migrants comes to the fore: “You don’t know if you [get] inside Europe, whether it would be worse or not,” argues Benguigui. The image itself contains this question, the uncertainty between play and drowning. Songs of asphodel also employs subtle symbolism, exposing the truths and challenges behind the photographs only after and through captions.

Aware of the subjectivity of their work, Kalfas and Benguigui are open to a range of viewpoints. “It’s the coexistence of all these points of view that could affect the public differently.” They aim to engage individuals who are tired of seeing the same photos, who “don’t want to see them again, and who don’t want to ask themselves what it means to be a refugee? It is a contemporary malaise resulting from today’s information overload, in terms of format, medium and content. “Democracy is also about the diversity of points of view. So this work touches on intimacy, but also on politics,” says Kalfas.

Finally, the initiative wishes to respect and honor the Greek population. The problem of migration is a tragedy for the refugees, but it also affects the local community, the image it has of itself, the way it is portrayed in the media, a “prison” for foreigners living in deplorable conditions. Many Greeks feel disconnected from their territory. The massive economic crisis, exacerbated by the epidemic and the fall in tourism, one of the main financial resources, is intensifying the urgency and the disconnection.

Benguigui and Kalfas want the Greek population to be seen, beyond the imagery of immigration broadcast in the media. Moria camp, one of the best-known refugee camps, takes its name from a nearby village, not the other way around. But if everyone knows the camp, few know the village and its inhabitants. “It’s important to put these complexities together, to work on the dignity of people.” They also aim to make the project known to Greeks and migrants on the island, in order to foster a real debate that takes place not only conceptually, but also in real life and with the protagonists. “We are all human and we are all people on the move,” says Kalfas. “We are all descendants of refugees. So why do we have to show these people in these kinds of situations to be sure that they are refugees? »

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All photos © Mathias Benguigui and Agathe Kalfas, from the Asphodel Songs series

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Mathias Benguigui is a French photographer who focuses on personal long-term documentary projects, questioning memory, identity and uprooting.

Agathe Kalfas is a French photography consultant and artistic producer. Find their project, Asphodel Songs, here.

Lucie De Stefani is a writer and editor specializing in photography, illustration and all things teenage. She lives between New York and Italy. Find it on Twitter.

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This article is part of the New Generation series, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talent in our community.