Migration – Emigration – Fleeing
When the present becomes historic in itself

Correspondence | Photo: © Colourbox.de/Goethe Institut Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi

Dear Aman,
how does one, how can one even talk about the refugees? About fleeing? About that which drives people? About that, which people bring with them? About that, which makes them who they are?
Very early on in our correspondence, you mentioned that the image shouldn’t be one of misery and distress, of dependance and fear, because this image then feeds into the fears of all the people whose resentment is big, grey and violent. However, also, and primarily because this image also degrades the refugee, the traveler, the wanderer. It disenfranchises him, this time symbolically, because it turns him into an object, a political object, an object of pity, an object to help or hate. Because it doesn’t make him into the person that he is, Musafir, free, even if he’s being persecuted.
I still think that’s the best lesson I’ve learned in the last few months. It’s the attempt to really see the other as a person with possibilities to act, because these possibilities to act are what make him into a free person. If you take this freedom away from him, visually, textually or rhetorically, then you’re taking away what drives him, what makes him who he is. How hard it is for so many to be able to see past this initial image of misery and distress. How easy it is to hold on to this image, because it easily draws a line between them and us, even those of us who want to help.
I was sitting a few days ago with some photographers at a podium discussion, talking to them about their images. “Fleeing in Images” was what the event was called. One of the photographers, Kai Löffelbein, was in Lesbos in the summer of 2015, taking dramatically-lit pictures in black and white. A rubber dinghy in front of the cliffs. A father carrying his daughter on his shoulders. Life vests. Young men shaving. A crowd standing in front of a ferry. Those were pictures were defined by an awareness, as the photographer said himself, that something historic was happening here. The photographer mentioned, that he decided on his own to go to Lesbos. The pathos it seemed, was also a kind of protection against letting what he saw slip away from him.
It wasn’t a mistaken or disruptive pathos, it was just an aesthetic form for his own disturbed state, I think. He showed strength in the people who were fleeing, I thought. And the photographer said it himself, how he didn’t photograph some things, how he turned his camera away, because he didn’t want to put the peoples’ suffering on display. However, when confronted with the view that that would never understand what these people had felt, seen, experienced, he reacted in a different way than another member of the panel did. Her images were analytic, bureaucratic, almost criminological. She took pictures of files, of rows of shelves. She was interested in the apparatus of fleeing, the mechanics of registration and intake, the way that functions in Germany. This photographer, Sibylle Fendy, is taking the opposite standpoint in a sense. She was contrasting the drama of fleeing with the non-drama of the administration.  She explicitly didn’t depict people.
What really touched me in such a strange way about both of their pictures, was – aside from the human force and conceptual clarity – the insight as to how historic this situation a year ago would become in the present. These were photos that were taken from a different awareness than that of political deal-making, surrounding quotas and the absurd deal with Turkey. They were photos that opened everyone’s eyes to what was going on very far from here, and yet so close. They were photos that weren’t commissioned, that, in the best way, didn’t aim to do anything besides depicting what happened with the aesthetic, intellectual and ultimately moral resources at the photographers’ disposal.
What does that mean though, when the present becomes historic in itself? At least in the eyes of people in countries that are sealing themselves off more and more? The time we live in is so short and terse; it’s getting tight, especially for those who are squeezing in. Because time isn’t out there for everyone, it isn’t the same for everyone. Many live longer because they can; many don’t live longer because they can’t. There’s a fundamental disparity that’s shaking the world, not only economically, but also ontologically. What many people in Germany and other Western countries don’t understand, is what people like Bernie Sanders, like the Pope (omg, I’m quoting the Pope!), say: When one person suffers, all people suffer.
The legitimization for this order, which many call democracy, fractures and crumbles when the victims, which are necessary to protect this order, keep increasing. Justice cannot exist unscathed. Human rights can only be thought of as universally possible or they can’t be thought of at all. But what’s happening right now is a departure from universality. Relativism is dominating, from the right. The frailty is on the side of the left. A vacuum is created between them, which could be the present. But, as I said, the present itself has become historic, it seems like a bad footnote to the post-modern. Did all of this really happen? Is it really all happening?
I’m going to try to read some Arthur Koestler in the upcoming weeks, because he was someone who always lived against the lies. I’ll read Achille Mbembe’s new book about the politics of enmity. I’ll soon watch the film that Marcel Mettelsiefen made about a family from Aleppo and their escape. I will accompany you, I hope, in Lesbos, to the place where the present day meets itself. Strangely, I want some proof. For what, I don’t exactly know.
We will find out. As always, Aman, my warmest regards,
Berlin, 21st of April 2016