Valid for Travel - Alex Beldea
In 2011, within the context of the Arab Spring, the Syrian people commenced protests against the government, leading to a bloody civil war that has escalated to create a humanitarian crisis. Amplified by the expansion of ISIS, the situation has become dramatic, leaving individuals and families with no other option than a nomadic life that they didn’t choose. Hoping to find a better and safer life, many Syrians seek to find refuge in the United Kingdom. The trip from Syria to the United Kingdom however, is strewn with official obstacles, leaving those fleeing the fighting little choice but to use illegal and potentially deadly methods of travel.
'Valid for Travel' is a project that has been built up as an extended documentary series focusing on the condition of Syrian refugees in the United Kingdom. According to UN Refugee Agency (2015) it is estimated that around 4 million Syrians have left their country and that approximately 4000 have chosen the United Kingdom as shelter (after approved asylum applications). During this current year there were 1.539 asylum application logged in the United Kingdom (all Syrian refugees), between January and August 2015 (UNHCR, 2015). This goes down to around 0.7% of the total number of asylum application in the whole Europe over that period of time (222.714 between January-August 2015). Although statistics are vital, this project is focusing more on humans and their stories than on a quantitative analysis of the refugees’ crisis.
‘Valid for travel’ brings together a range of photographic images and personal testimonies as a means to engage with this issue beyond the simplified stereotypes created around immigration. The project aims to raise awareness of the situation in which these people have been put, fleeing the conflict in their homeland. The lack of a proper debate on the Syrian situation has been an important reason to start this series, challenging the way this subject is presented from an empathic point of view. The aim was to focus more on the social impact and less on the political side of the conflict.
Throughout the process I have conducted a series of interviews and portraits in negotiation with a number of Syrian people who have recently arrived in the UK. Photographs have played an important role in how these men have told their own stories that include family photographs and keepsakes they have brought with them from home. Smart phone technology has also allowed them to record their journeys across the Mediterranean and Europe. As a means to document the conditions they have endured as refugees, but also as a way of keeping visually connected to families back in Syria, phone photographs are in this case both a manifestation of affection and an evidence of oppression.
The main question behind the project was an ethical one, inspired by David Levi Strauss (2005), who reflected on what right do photographers have to represent other people and their condition through in documentary photography. How can a photographer claim to ‘speak for’ anyone else, without affording them an opportunity to speak for themselves? It was very important therefore, to collaborate with the individuals who agreed to take part in this project. It was important also to allow them to be the main narrators of the story, through their testimonies, and to act like documentary photographers of their own issue. In this way there is an attempt to strike a balance between the power of the photographer and of the subject when the series is elaborated. By sharing this power the Syrian people have an equitable representation of their plight.
‘Valid for travel’ therefore stands as a collaborative document that depicts the experience of migration, covering aspects of the Syrians’ pre-departure life, their journey and their current liminal status. This negotiated series is a response to the view on the Syrian situation in the Western media and an exchange between Syrian refugees and Western spectators. ‘Valid for Travel’ is offering the viewer the chance to imagine the situation in which these people are without their will, but also an opportunity for the Syrian people to tell their story.
All images copyright of Alex Beldea