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La migration mise en récits

Icons of Becoming

Documenting Undocumented Migration from West Africa to Europe
Symboles de devenir. Enquêter sur les migrations clandestines d’Afrique de l’Ouest vers l’Europe
Christian Vium
p. 217-240


Les dramatiques et spectaculaires images de migrants africains démunis tentant dans la souffrance d’atteindre les côtes européennes dans des embarcations de fortune sont devenues endémiques dans les médias européens. Ces images font cependant rarement plus que produire le migrant comme un sujet politique, une pauvre vie provenant d’un continent miséreux dépeint à la hauteur de sa souffrance. À partir d’un cas ethnographique d’un projet de recherche en cours consistant à enquêter sur les migrations clandestines de l’Afrique de l’Ouest vers l’Europe, cet article décrit des événements significatifs de vies de migrants avant leur départ du continent africain, fournissant ainsi des données ethnographiques rares sur leur périlleuse traversée du désert saharien. Cet article montre comment la photographie peut être utilisée comme un outil utile pour la recherche ethnographique et comment elle permet une forme particulière de narration collaborative, offrant une nouvelle ethnographie conceptuelle. L’article montre comment la migration illégale est essentiellement une question de devenir social, qui implique paradoxalement un devenir inversé, dans lequel les migrants doivent continuellement se dénoncer, ne devenant personne afin d’éviter de ne devenir personne aux yeux de leurs familles lors de leur retour chez eux.

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1Dramatic images of suffering, huddling masses of African migrants crossing the ocean in overcrowded ramshackle boats, landing on the shores of Europe increasingly inhabit our television screens and newspaper pages.  Stripped of their history, these migrants become visible to us only at the height of their suffering: undifferentiated, shipwrecked souls with glearing white eyes, exhausted by dehydration and days spent at sea.  These “apocalyptic representations” (de Haas 2008: 1305, 1317) effectively construct the migrants as “lost souls” (Mallki 1996: 387-390), invading hordes from a poor and lost continent (Broomberg & Chanarin 2008: 6; Jackson 2006: 79; Lucht 2012: ix; Vium 2007).  That human suffering represents a “master subject in our mediatized times” (Kleinman & Kleinman 1996: 1) is hardly a surprise given our longstanding historical obsession with death, pain and existential trials and tribulations, which figure so prominently in Western myths and collective narrative discourses (Jackson 2006; Sontag 2003: 38).  With the spread of mass media, however, we have become particularly familiar with images of atrocity, and the horror and political paradoxes these images actually portray become numbing when one person’s suffering is instantly cancelled out by the next (Broomberg & Chanarin 2008: 5; Das 2007; Sontag 1971: 20-21).

2In this article I set out to document and analyse some of the largely obscured but significant events, which predate and lead up to the moment of the dramatic crossing.  Using photography as a privileged tool for analysing undocumented migration I demonstrate that it enables a form of conceptual ethnography, which allows the migrants to perform themselves into existence through a form of collaborative storytelling.  The images accompanying this article expose the structural invisibility of the migrants, and arguably index their progressive transition by fixing decisive moments in this process. The article is based on empirical material collected during six years of ongoing anthropological research tracing the multiple trajectories of undocumented migrants from West Africa to Europe via the Sahara desert and the Atlantic Ocean as well as the Mediterranean Sea.  The project explores migration as a paradoxical question of becoming through unbecoming (Vium 2007), and investigates what happens when human beings who must continually deny their identities find themselves stuck in a prolonged liminal position regulated by norms of exception and the absence of rights and dignity (Laacher 2007: 23).  In the following, I present and discuss a selection of cases featuring prospective migrants in a small village in northwestern Mali, excerpts from an overland journey undertaken with undocumented migrants through the Sahara, as well as from a detention centre on the coast of Africa. In the research, which was commenced in 2006, photography and video have figured as integral components in data generation, analysis and dissemination of findings, and for the purpose of this article photography is explored as a form of conceptual ethnography, which affords specific types of collaborative narratives to arise through the interaction between researcher and informants in this particular context.  Paradoxically, the camera functions as a sociopolitical technology, which enables the perception of subjects who have become both literally and figuratively imperceptible (Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008).  Thus, the collaborative process of image-making analytically frames migration as a transformative project of social becoming through which the migrant progressively “comes undone” as he ventures further away from the familiar and into the unknown.  Following Jackson who considers storytelling a fundamental desire, which allows human beings to make sense of even the most constraining, disorienting and unimaginable experiences (Jackson 2006), I demonstrate how using a camera as part of the methodological approach to a topic such as undocumented migration may incite and make possible new forms of performative storytelling processes and discourses.  Epistemologically, then, this article elaborates on how photography can be used as a medium not only to document, but also to analyse and convey undocumented migration from an anthropological point of departure (MacDougall 2006: 271; Pink 2001; Ruby 2000: 398; Stanczak 2007: 4).


  • 1 All personal names and place names have been changed by the author.
  • 2 In West Africa, migration is commonly known as an “adventure”, and those who undertake it are calle (...)

3Sidi1 was absorbed in the darkness of night in a small room of the mud-cleaned house, immersed in prayer (fig. 1).  The following morning he was to embark on a long and perilous journey into the unknown.  His destination was Paris, France.  Before him awaited the vast expanses of the hostile Sahara desert and the treacherous sea.  Like many other prospective migrants he was not ignorant of the journey’s dangers (Collyer 2010: 278; Fall 2007; Jónsson 2008; Lucht 2008: 162): “I know the dangers of the journey.  There is death all along the road”, he told me, as he explained how he was consumed by thoughts about what awaited him.  What concerned him the most was not knowing when, and indeed if, he would ever see his family again.  His parents had invested a significant part of the revenues from their meagre millet harvest to finance his journey, and their future was now, to a large extent, hinged upon the success of his impending “adventure”2 The objective was clear: He was to reach France, where relatives would help him find work (Timéra 2001: 45), and send back money to support the family.

  • 3 I deliberately use the phrase “making” an image (as opposed to the more conventional “taking” an im (...)

4The photograph of Sidi immersed in prayers was made3 in the village of Djoun in the Kayes region in northwestern Mali on May 26, 2006.  In the three months leading up to that day, an estimated 70 young men out of no more than 1,000 inhabitants had left in the attempt to reach Europe. People in Djoun were growing anxious as they had received limited information on the whereabouts of the young men, and news in the radio were saturated with tragic stories of migrants left to die in the Sahara and consumed by the sea.  This collective concern, essentially a form of social or intersubjective suffering (Kleinman 2006: 390), was engraved on the faces of fathers assembling in the mosque to pray for their departed sons (fig. 2).  The mayor was preparing a journey to Paris to look for those who had left, fearing that many had perished along the way, been detained indefinitely or “forgotten” that their peers back home depended on their remittances.  If the men failed to send back money, the village would undoubtedly face a troubled future.  The families had invested their future in them, and where would the revenue come from if not from them?

  • 4 G. Jónsson (2008: 5) quotes F. Kane & A. Lericollais (1975: 17) for stating that in 1975, approxima (...)
  • 5 As M. Collyer (2010: 275) points out with reference to E. Goldschmidt (2004), significant transsaha (...)

5Like many agricultural villages in the Kayes region, Djoun has a century-long history of regional “circular” and seasonal migration (Quiminal 1991; Timéra 1996) and, in the decades following the Second World War, France became a favoured destination as the demand for manual workers was on the rise in postwar Europe (Jónsson 2008).  Colonial ties and the language made France a natural choice, and throughout the second part of the 20th century migration from the Kayes region increased to a point where revenues derived from migrant remittances, in particular from men working in France, constituted a, if not the main source of income for families in many villages (Barou 2002; Daum 1998; Kane & Lericollais 1975; Timéra 2001; Quiminal & Timéra 2002)4.  However, since the 1990s, strict immigration policies in France and Europe in general, and the significant reinforcement of EU’s external borders, saw the advent of a clandestine economy surrounding migration to Europe (Boerwinkel 2011: 53; Joppke 1998; Mann 2003; Sargent & Larchanché-Kim 2006; Soudain 2006; Weil 2005; Withol de Wenden 1998)5.  This did not, however, prevent young men in the village of Djoun, to fantasize about and plan to “try their luck” and reach Europe.  On the contrary, the more constrained their means of mobility, the more the imaginary (Appadurai 1996; Gaonkar 2002; Lado 2005; Strauss 2006) became predominant, producing a frustrated context of “involuntary immobility” (Carling 2002; Lubkeman 2008).

6Across the village, signs of a “culture of migration” (Åkesson 2004; Ali 2007; Jónsson 2008; Kandel & Massey 2002) were evident.  Young men in European football shirts (fig. 3) moving through narrow dirt streets, past houses of families with family members abroad, monuments to the potentials of migration, where cars in particular testified to the flow of remittances. The words: “Live is Money” written on the facade of a house, spelled out the discourse in the collective imagination (fig. 4).  Manifestations of a reality beyond the immediate confines of this impoverished farming village were immanent, both in artefacts, such as the aforementioned cars, and postcards, letters, presents, photographs as well as communal wells, cliniques and schools (Daum 1998; Gauvrit & Le Bahers 2004; Grillo 2007: 211; Quiminal 2002).  The widely circulating rumours, narratives and discourses about and from those who had gone abroad contributed to the preponderant fantasies about Europe (Appadurai 1996: 31-35, 53-54; Vium 2007).  At night, the youth would often assemble in front of the few television sets in the village (fig. 5), consuming American action movies and other deterritorialized media products, which radically fuelled their “irresistible desire” to experience that which lay beyond the immediate horizon and escape a desolate and futureless present (Appadurai 1996: 54; Gaonkar 2002; Lado 2005: 17, 19; Pandolfo 2007: 348; Salazar 2010; Timéra 2001: 37; Vium 2007).  In this context, migration must be understood as not merely movement but a form of socio-cultural construct involving significant imaginary and discursive dimensions which inform processes of meaning-making (Frello 2008; Salazar 2010).  Indeed, the imaginaries of the youth in Djoun constitute both models “of” and models “for” reality (Geertz 1973: 87-125).

  • 6 The destination is first and foremost dictated by the availability of family and friendship network (...)

7“Here, we only work for the stomach, it is impossible to save money… All is work, everyday.  Just work and no money.” Sidi told me one afternoon when he explained how he grew up doing hard manual labour in the fields.  Since he was a young boy, he had been dreaming about going to Europe, and in particular France, where he had relatives and friends6.  “To me, Europe is a promised land.  […] Some people say there are people who suffer in Europe, but the majority say that Europe is wonderful.  In any case, we have to go there.”  He relayed to me how, when he was a boy, he used to wonder why some of the other children were wearing trousers and t-shirts, when he did not.  He later realised that they had family members working in Europe, sending back money and presents.  His father, Boubacar, a 51-year old millet farmer who, as is often the case in West Africa, financed the majority of his son’s immanent journey (Barou 2002: 8), phrased the situation as follows: “When you are starving and have a lot of problems, you don’t have a choice.  You have to go.  Try cultivating this land, and you will understand.”  He nodded towards the primitive hoe leaning against the wall, and continued his pragmatic explanation about how he had decided to send Sidi towards Europe to earn money: “I tell my son: this journey is for your family—remember that when you are away—we are still here.”

8In Djoun, migration has become an imperative, not only because of the potential of economic gain (Bloch et al. 2011: 1289; Castles 2000: 7), but also as an emancipatory project enabling social becoming for youth like Sidi, who are stuck between adolescence and adulthood, finding themselves incapable of cultivating social capital (Bourdieu 1986), because they lack the means to contribute to the family economy in a constraining context of poverty, environmental degradation and unemployment (Carling 2002: 18; Lado 2005: 17-18; Lo Sardo 2008: 5; Lucht 2008: 83; Timéra 2001: 37; Vigh 2009: 98-100; Vium 2007).  Under such circumstances, many young men desire to be “socially present through the remittances and possibilities that their physical absence make possible” (Vigh 2009: 98).  According to Papadopolous and Tsianos, becoming articulates “a political practice in which social actors escape their normalized representations and reconstitute themselves in the course of participating in, and changing, the conditions of their material existence.  Becoming is not only a force against something […] it is also a force which enables desire” (Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008: 223).  In the same vein, Timéra (2001: 38), who worked among prospective migrants in West Africa, argues that the project of migrating inscribes itself in a voluntary initiatory rupture with the aspiration of accumulating wealth and experience and the promise of a future glorious return, which fosters social recognition, thus enabling the migrant to procure social capital and a new elevated status.  The fundamental existential problem for the young men in the village is their incapacity to honor the reciprocal logic of taking care of their families at a point in their lives when it is expected.  By departing, literally absencing themselves from this confined situation, young men hope to one day become present, economically, in the lives of their families, who are paramount to this project of social becoming (ibid.: 44). In Djoun, migration, then, can be understood as a radical rite of passage (Turner 1992; Van Gennep 1960) in the sense that it is considered a vehicle, which may transport young men through a series of transitions which enact them as respected individuals within a widely accepted logic of social mobility.  Being is belonging, but perhaps more importantly, becoming (Jackson 2006: 13).

An Icon of Becoming

9The image of Sidi immersed in prayer serves as an iconic encapsulation of the migratory endeavour at large.  A young man caught in an existential conflict, which compels him to undertake a long and dangerous journey into the unknown in order to provide for his family and, by so doing, becoming a man.  If there ever was a universal mythical narrative, this is the one. Taken in profile with long exposure due to the dim light in the room, his “soul” seems to be already departing, while he is gazing to the ground, contemplating the possibility that he might loose his life along the way, and never see his family again.  Arguably, the image captures the moment when he realises that he must depart, and condenses the multiplicity of thoughts surrounding this decision.  The actual story however, is not there in the photograph, it must be “imagined into existence” (Strauss 2006: 9), and to become legible to others, this imagining must be socially and culturally encoded, a process which David Levi Strauss calls astheticization (ibid.). To represent is to aesthetisize (ibid.), and in the case of photography this is particularly pertinent, given the indexical quality inherent in the medium. Photographs, as it were, are always just instants, fragments, and what they must do is to register the relation of photographer to subject (ibid.: 10).

10In this particular case, I had approached Sidi in the afternoon, asking him if I could spend a moment with him portraying his prayer.  I felt it was an intimate and significant moment, which I hoped would enable a nuanced understanding of the migration endeavour.  The ideal was to produce an image, which could afford identification.  I imagined that praying was something most people would be able to relate to as an existential act. Sidi agreed, and that evening I accompanied him as he prayed, taking several photographs, most of them in profile as the one displayed here.  Upon editing the images when I returned from fieldwork, several images from this situation were identified as potentially interesting, but only much later, when the overall story of the project began to take form, did I single out this particular image due to its symbolic and evocative qualities.  Subsequently, I further stressed these qualities by retouching the image in photoshop, making several versions, significantly enhancing the darkness, contrasts and grain to achieve a more dramatic image.  In line with the understanding of aesthetics forwarded by Strauss above, Italian photographer Paolo Pellegrin considers photography, which is essentially aesthetic representation, “as a bridge between the subject and the viewer—like the hand that comes out, or the beginnings of a conversation” (Pellegrin cited in Usborne 2008). Throughout my project, I consciously applied a consistently blurry and dark aesthetic so as to cultivate an “open”, “unfinished” quality, which also reflects my subjective reading of the uncertain, clandestine and disorienting aspects of undocumented migration.  Initially, I had imagined to render the photographs in colour, but I soon chose black and white, as I felt it afforded the pictures a more symbolic meaning which transcends the situation depicted. I was particularly interested in enhancing a sense of disorientation or schizophrenia so as to highlight the radical implications of the journey.  By discarding the colours I was left with a more sculptural and graphic vocabulary of light and shadows, which exposed an almost abstract element of mutability: A theme I wanted to analytically engage.  Because the world appears to us in colour, photographs in colour may seem more “realistic”, and I wanted to avoid this.  I wanted to move beyond representation and endow the images with a significant metaphorical layer, which I felt the lack of colour permitted.  Black absorbs colour and light and hence it “hides” or conceals.  Throughout history, darkness has symbolised the unknown, the secretive, mystery, fear and even death, and hence enhancing this element in the images would, in a banal but effective way, highlight the overarching leitmotif of “the journey into the unknown”.

11Thus, through a series of deliberate choices, i.e. analytical moves applied to further my overall argument, the portrait of Sidi, I argue, becomes a portrait of an existential moment in which an individual comes to terms with a fundamental condition which he must subsequently act upon.  In other words, the image comes to stand for something more than just what it depicts (Barthes 2000; Goldstein 2007: 70-71; Sontag 1971; Usborne 2008).  In fact, I would go as far as arguing that it is a “universal” image of becoming.

12In the following part of the article, I demonstrate how this aspiration of becoming somebody often entails becoming nobody, in the sense that the migrants must continually renounce themselves if they are to maintain any hope of succeeding in their arduous endeavour.

Lost in the Desert

  • 7 “Ghetto” is term used across West Africa to designate the houses along the way where migrants wait (...)

13Emry was sitting in the sand (fig. 6).  His shirt half pulled of, and leaning against a porous wall in a “migrant ghetto” in the desolate town of Inhalid, some 15 kilometers South of the border between Mali and Algeria7 and with an empty look of defeat in his eyes, he exclaimed: “This is it.  I am turning back”.  A resigned adventurer who, in this very moment, realised that his dream of reaching Europe would not materialise anytime soon.  Over the previous weeks, he had travelled up from his native Gabon, traversed the Malian part of the Sahara desert on the back of a battered pick-up jeep along with 11 other West African migrants (fig. 7), and been robbed of the better part of the money with which he had planned to pay the entire overland journey to the shores of the Mediterranean, where he intended to cross into Italy.  On no less than three separate incidents corrupt policemen and military personnel stopped the car which was transporting him through the desert (fig. 8), demanding money to let the migrants continue their journey (fig. 9) (Gatti 2008; Jobard & Saugues 2006: 65). In addition, one night, the Touareg chauffeurs refused to circumnavigate yet another police post unless they were paid more money than agreed upon before departure (fig. 10).  As we arrived in Inhalid and located the ghetto, Emry found refuge in a secluded room while the other migrants immediately began negotiating with the coxer, i.e. middleman (Ba 1995; Schmitz 2006: 106), Abdallah, for the next stretch of driving, involving the clandestine crossing into Algeria and several hundreds of kilometers through the desert before the city of Tamanghrasset.  Emry was not going to continue the journey.  It was a definitive decision, and he complained about the shameful prospects of having to return empty-handed to his family—but it was better than never returning, he argued.  While Emry had been aware of the dangers of the journey, he had come quite unprepared for the extent and the nature of them (Lucht 2008: 162).  He was literally at a point of no return: with too little money to complete the journey and a desert to cross he could either continue into the unknown on a journey which could last years and be fragmented into indefinite stages of involuntary immobility (Carling 2002; Collyer 2006: 134), knowing that turning around would be complicated as he would not have the money for the return fare either, or, he could stop at this point avoiding the potentially fatal desert crossing.

  • 8 Collyer (2006: 14) identifies the same reluctancy to speak about the crossing in the multiple inter (...)
  • 9 I am perfectly confident that he would not have made this gesture, had it not been for the fact tha (...)

14Until now, Emry had been reluctant to discuss his journey, let alone have his photograph “taken”.  I had asked him on several occasions, and tried to explain to him why his story was important, but he explained that he felt it was too disgraceful—below his dignity8.  He did not want his family to see him like this.  But, in this particular moment of destitution, as it dawned upon him that he would not accomplish what he had set out to achieve, he changed his mind and signalled me to “take” his portrait. He, so to speak, urged me to represent him (Strauss 2006: 8), demonstrating that being vulnerable is not the same as being a victim without agency (Das 2007: 63)9.

Collaborative Storytelling

“Now, go and tell them how it is.  Tell them what we must endure.  How they treat us.  What it does to a human being.  Tell them that and show them the photographs.”

  • 10 Hence the argument that photographing is akin to a form of killing, hence the expression “to shoot” (...)

15So, on the above initiative of Emry, I documented his resignation then and there, by fixing his despair in a photographic image.  Paradoxically, as his journey ended, his image started an ongoing journey.  His story was migrating, but he was stuck.  In this situation, the camera served as a mediating technology, which not only associated Emry and I in an intimate relation, but also enabled our collaborative production of a narrative, an argument as it were.  As Jackson argues, storytelling can be, and indeed often is, a particularly empowering human strategy in the face of disempowering circumstances (Jackson 2006: 14, 93), and it does not necessarily involve elaborate explanations as much as silences, gestures and glances (Gardner 2002: 41-42).  As was the case with many other migrants who undertook or had undertaken the long and perilous journey, it seemed language could not entirely do justice to Emry’s experience (Jackson 2006: 95).  At a point in his life where Emry was in the process of becoming imperceptible (Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008), effectively reduced to a bare life (Agamben 1998: 105), and the perfect image of Baumans figure of the “outcast of modernity” (Bauman 2004), the camera paradoxically exposed and fixed his state.  I brought Emry into being by creating a “memento mori”: participating in and testifying to his vulnerability (Sontag 1971: 15)10. Furthermore, not only was Emry enacted through the photograph, he also actively participated in producing himself as a symbol, an icon, representative of others who, like him, aspire to transform themselves and their lives through the territorial passage inherent in the migratory endeavour (Van Gennep 1960: 192; Turner 1992).

16How is it that the camera, with the primary function to document so as to make something visible and identifiable, may work out to be a constructive instrument when working with people who, like undocumented migrants, aspire to remain exactly the opposite: Invisible?  One might, of course, argue that it is the act of producing the image, the actual release of the shutter, which, so to speak, “makes the migrant”, irrespective of whether the image is actually conveyed to anybody.  Perhaps the camera is just that: A machine for testifying and thus becoming.  While I believe strongly in the empowering qualities inherent in the shared moment of vulnerability enacted in the collaborative production of an image such as that of Emry, I acknowledge the discursive potentiality, which lies in the subsequent dissemination of the image, although it will never convey the pictured situation adequately.  A photograph is never a rendition of reality, it is a testimony, an argument, and in this case, a shared one.  Before returning to a further elaboration on the performative dimensions that form part of photographic representations such as those accompanying this article, I turn to a contextualisation of the journey, followed by another illustrative case to underline my argument.

Becoming Imperceptible

  • 11 De Haas (2008: 1312) estimates that 368 people died while crossing to Spain in 2005 and cites human (...)

17As indicated above and elsewhere (Vium 2007, 2009), the overland journey through the Sahara, followed by the ocean crossing is, by all means, ripe with dangers.  In addition to the natural obstacles constituted by the vast expanses of hostile desert and rough seas (fig. 11, 12 & 13), the migrants risk robbery, violence, rape, unlawful detention and so forth by a bewildering plethora of actors.  Corrupt police, military, scrupulous traffickers, coxers (guides), drivers and middle-men as well as bandits, armed insurgents, rebels, radicalist movements and immigration authorities (Gatti 2008; Hamood 2006: 47; Human Rights Watch 2006: 30, 38; Jobard & Saugues 2006: 49) including the EU border agency Frontex (Collyer 2006: 18, 134, 2007, 2010: 276; Gammeltoft-Hansen & Alberts 2010; Icmpd 2006; Lucht 2008: 153; Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008: 230) form a complex of obstacles, which makes the clandestine passage a veritable matter of life and death11. Successful navigation of these multiple obstacles demands not only extreme vigilance and determination, but also a set of cunning tactics, which the clandestine migrants make use of so as to become imperceptible (de Certeau 1984; Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008).

18While severely understudied from an academic point of view (Collyer 2006), the actual clandestine crossing represents a particularly important formative and transformatory period, in which the subject literally wavers between worlds in an existentially liminal space (Bloch et al. 2011: 1290; Mai 2007; Rattansi & Phoenix 2005; Turner 1967, 1992).  Turner states the following regarding the liminal state and process: “Those undergoing it—call them ‘liminaries’—are betwixt and between established politico-jural structure.  They evade ordinary cognitive classification, too, for they are not this or that, here or there, one thing or the other” (Turner 1992: 49, my emphasis).  As such, the journey constitutes, I argue, an optimal vantage point from which to explore, engage with, and analyse the quintessential question of becoming.  As was explained in the previous part on life in the village, migration can be understood as a rite of passage in the transition to adulthood (Margolis 1994; Turner 1967, 1992; Van Gennep 1960; Vium 2007).  Not only are the trajectories of the clandestine migration multiple and fragmented, unstable and disorienting (Collyer 2006: 2; Grillo 2007; Vium 2007), indeed the aspired becoming is fundamentally predicated upon a processual self-denouncement, a becoming undone, imperceptible and de-identifiable (Vium 2007), which intensifies with each successive departure, as the journey into the unknown unfolds, transforming the migrant into a radical political subject, or perhaps, rather a non-subject (Agamben 1998; Dal Lado 2009).  Becoming is the inherent impetus of migration, in which the migrants “realize their desires by changing their bodies, voices, accents, patois, hair, color, height, age, biographies” (Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008: 228).  Quite literally, the migrants must become invisible, severing themselves from any indications of where they come from, so as to avoid apprehension and deportation once they cross into countries to which they have no formal legal right to be.

19These tactics of becoming imperceptible through denouncement, manifest in the appropriation of new and multiple fake identities (Jobard & Saugues 2006: 66; Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008: 228)—perhaps most clearly examplified in the deliberate incineration, known as l-harg, “the burning” (from the Arabic verb haraqa, “to burn”)—of one’s identity papers before the maritime crossing so as to avoid expulsion upon arrival (Beneduce 2008: 513; Pandolfo 2007: 333; Teriah 2002) come at a high price.  The progressive reduction to what Agamben (1998) calls homo sacer, i.e. bare life, invariably implies a loss of dignity (Diken & Laustsen 2005: 52-53). According to my interlocutors, one of the most difficult aspects of becoming imperceptible was accommodating the permanent presence of fear that accompanied them on their journey (Laacher 2007: 71-75).  Having witnessed their truly vulnerable state first-hand, I can identify with the notion that “[…] a body without a name is a non-human human being; an animal which runs” (Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008: 227; see also Agamben 1998: 105).

20As Lucht (2008: 148) reminds us, the paradigmatic space of the modern “state of exception” evoked by Agamben is the “camp”, “[…] in which the normal order is de facto suspended and in which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civilty and the ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign” (Agamben 1998: 174).  The following case is based on a visit in June 2006 to a detention centre for migrants in the costal city of Nouadhibou in Mauritania, where large numbers of prospective migrants were detained following their inception at sea while trying to reach the Canary Islands in “floating coffins” (Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008: 229), i.e. ramshackle pirogues (fishermen’s boats).  It provides an ethnographic first-hand glimpse into the truly liminal position of what Collyer (2010: 275) has aptly termed “stranded migrants”.

The Collapse

  • 12 Lucht (2008: 156) quotes a migrant who made the crossing via Libya into Italy for saying the follow (...)

21The 25 or so young men in the room (a classroom temporarily used to house the surging number of migrants intercepted offshore), had figuratively speaking, returned from the dead only a few days earlier (fig. 14)12.  They had been intercepted and detained after 9 days of drifting at sea following the capsizing of the boat, which they were using in the attempt to cross to the Canary Islands some 1,000 kilometres North of Noaudhibou.  Half of the passengers had drowned.  In addition to having lost the money paid for the crossing, which meant somewhere in the vicinity of 1,000 € (Collyer 2006: 17, 143), they now faced deportation.

“I will continue!  What else can I do?  I can’t stay here, there is nothing for me to do.  I have my children to think of.  My father and mother.  My sisters and brothers.  I have to do something to save my family.  I can’t sit with my arms crossed like this!  Either I save my family or I die.  It is the only thing I can do. […] I have nothing.  Absolutely nothing!”

22Seydou, a 27 year old Senegalese man was voicing his discontent as I was discussing with a group of detained migrants, one of whom determinedly exclaimed: “Now, it is Europe or death.”  His eyes were still red and his skin dry from the saltwater.  Seydou had barely survived the failed crossing, upset by having faced death.  It was his third unsuccessful attempt, but nevertheless he was determined to try again.  Having confronted death at sea on the Dantesque crossing, the ultimate descend into inferno (Aligheri 2003), exposed to unimaginable ordeals, he had effectively been ground down to a living dead, characterised alone by his pure desire to continue (Turner 1992: 50; Papadopoulos & Tsianos 2008: 227).  Seydou epitomized a bare life subjected to continue structural violence, little more than a disposable object (Laacher 2007: 39).  As an ultimate act of becoming “nobody”, Seydou had incinerated his identity papers, hoping this would deter the authorities from deporting him once he reached Europe.

23In the case of Seydou, our meeting evolved as a spontaneous choreography.  When I approached him with my camera, he immediately sensed my interest and began voicing his complains and making statements.  He was gesticulating in a manner quite unlike what one would imagine in a meeting not involving cameras.  We began talking, and he explained the difficulties of his journey and his reason for risking his life.  Only then did I start photographing, and at this very moment, a spectacularly performative form of storytelling began: Spontaneously he began striking a variety of elaborate poses, consciously refining what I took to be his idea of a “look of suffering” (fig. 15).  Going through the 22 photographs from that particular situation, it is evident how Seydou experiments with different ways of performing himself.  On a few of the images he is smiling confidently looking straight at the camera with his eyes nearly closed, so as to signal fatigue.  On the majority of the images, however, he is gazing determinedly yet troubled into the distance, his mouth half open as he pushes forward his upper body from the rudimentary bunk where he was resting, producing a particularly contorted effect.  His body partly covered by a blanket, adding a graphic effect, which enhances the contrasts once the image is desatured into black and white.  On a handful of the images he covers his eyes with the left hand, thus signalling severe exhaustion by this simple but calculated gesture.  In the final image (following comprehensive retouching), almost half of the surface of the photograph is inhabited by a darkness which seems to progressively encapsulate or consume Seydou. The image projects suffering, and indeed, he was in distress, he was vulnerable, and he was exhausted.  No doubt about it.  He was suffering, if suffering is defined as “[…] involving those critical events in life in which people come up against resistance to their actions and life plans and when resources are limited, often desperately so, when vicious cycles of depravation and oppression make misery the routine local condition” (Kleinman 1992: 174). After all he spent nine days drifting at sea, witnessing half his fellow passengers perish at sea, fighting for his own survival.  And he was willing to do it again, even if it meant risking his life and never seeing his family again.  What I want to reiterate here is the fact that despite his vulnerable condition, he had a very clear understanding of what the camera could do, and how he could condense his state of being, his frustrations and discontent, into an argument, so to speak.  And not just an argument, but Seydou’s personal political statement about the injustice of what he was going through.  Just as Emry, whom I described previously, Seydou was, I argue, deliberately elevating himself into an icon by way of me and my camera.  Performing the suffering in a most convincing manner.  In addition to engaging in a dialogue with him, creating a stage or frame with the camera for him to perform his argument, my work consisted in selecting one among the multiple frames, which I subsequently cropped, retouched and re-contextualised by placing it into a new narrative order with other images from the journey, all of which were furnished with supplementary captions.  Analytically speaking, Seydou thus appeared as a composite “Icon of Despair” as a consequence of our dialogue and my subsequent analysis, i.e. editing.  I had the power to select any of the other images from the same situation, but the one I chose, I chose because it mirrored and condensed not only my experience of that specific situation, but also my intention with the overall narrative I was developing in the project at large.  Seydou thus offered his image as an argument in a much more complex assemblage involving not just the journey but also both the sending and receiving context.

24In relaying this story, I wanted to once again reiterate the collaborative nature of image-making and stress the inherently performative nature of storytelling.  Contrary to the pervasive argument that the photographer cannot intervene if he is to record, i.e. that intervening hampers the possibility of recording (Sontag 1971: 12), I agitate for an approach to photographing which acknowledges the interventional nature of documentary practice in the first place.  Inspired by Jean Rouch (2003: 38), I consider intervention as a particularly useful technique which allows the image-maker to “penetrate into the reality, rather than leaving it to unroll itself in front of the observer”, thus opening up to a more reciprocal and participatory form of research and data generation which arises in the moment (ibid.: 44).  J. Rouch, working from a point of departure in his ethnographic film-making applied the terms “cine-trance” and “ethno-dialogue” in his promotion of what he called “shared anthropology” (ibid.: 100-101), which he saw as a promising future avenue for anthropology.  I believe we have much to learn from his approach.


26The ocean crossing (fig. 16) represents the final ordeal before arriving on the continent of Europe, and more often than not, the territorial passage represents a monumental event in the lives of the undocumented migrants: It is a moment of truth (Chavez 1996: 4).  As emphasized previously, the crossing epitomizes Turner’s concept of the liminal, where the subject wavers betwixt and between worlds (Turner 1967: 231-232).  In her eminent analysis of Moroccan youth aspiring to traverse the Mediterranean Sea clandestinely, Pandolfo (2007) likens the crossing to the chasm of Hell (sirat) “which will widen like a highway to let across the saved, or instead shrink like a blade to make the damned fall, pushed down into eternal fire (Al-Ghazali, 1953; Smith and Haddad, 2002)” (Pandolfo 2007: 354).  The analogy to Dante’s Inferno is evident: in “floating coffins”, the migrants mythologically—and symbolically—cross the threshold to the realm of the dead and cease to exist: They fundamentally rupture with their past being, renouncing and denouncing themselves both physically and psychologically suspended in a moment where the past has lost its grip and the future not yet taken definite shape (Beneduce 2008: 512; Chavez 1996: 64-65; Dal Lado 2009; Turner 1992: 49, 132).

  • 13 Since 2006 I have conducted seven short-term fieldworks among immigrants with particular focus on o (...)

27Findings from the extended case work I have conducted with undocumented West African immigrants in Paris since 2006 (fig. 17 & 18)13, leads me to argue that while significant, the crossing into Europe merely constitutes yet another departure and subsequent exposure to the brutal realities of life as a stigmatised and marginalised “other”, subsiding on the margins (Vium 2007, 2009).  In other words, the threshold that is the territorial crossing does not necessarily imply the succesfull transcendence of the liminal stage manifest in a positive realisation of becoming (Chavez 1996: 83; Collyer 2010: 278-279).  Rather, a great many undocumented migrants in Europe spend large parts of their lives away from their families in a society where they are considered as nobodies and stigmatised outsiders. The reason why they sustain such a life on the margins despite great challenges and existential suffering is exactly their desire for becoming, which implies providing for their families through the remittances they send back. Were they to return empty-handed, they would truly be nothing and nobody. In other words, they stay “nobodies” so as to avoid becoming nobodies in their minds and in that of their significant other, the family back home in the village.  Such is the truly paradoxical nature of their liminal existence (fig. 19).

28In this article, I have presented a number of ethnographic cases, discussing them through the optic of my photographic and anthropological endeavours.  I have shown how photography affords a promising tool for enacting and analysing, i.e. documenting the particularly paradoxical existential space which undocumented migrants find themselves inhabiting.  By engaging undocumented migrants with a camera, their structural invisibility is fundamentally exposed, while they, at the same time are granted a means of telling their story, thus performing themselves into existence.  On a final note, I propose that photography is a particularly constructive tool to the anthropologist who wants to engage with, document, analyse and, not least, communicate findings which may potentially nuance our understanding of complex and largely undocumented phenomena such as undocumented migration from West Africa to Europe.  However, for this to become successfully adopted by anthropologists and other social scientists, we must accept that aesthetics play a crucial role, just as grammar does in writing.

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1 All personal names and place names have been changed by the author.

2 In West Africa, migration is commonly known as an “adventure”, and those who undertake it are called “adventuriers”, alluding to the fact that they venture into the unknown, face numerous challenges, and grow as human beings as a result of the acquired experience, knowledge and recognition the dangerous endeavour entails.

3 I deliberately use the phrase “making” an image (as opposed to the more conventional “taking” an image) so as to underline the collaborative nature of the production of the images in this essay, and my general methodological and ethical approach to photography.

4 G. Jónsson (2008: 5) quotes F. Kane & A. Lericollais (1975: 17) for stating that in 1975, approximately on third of the male population in the Soninke homeland had emigrated to France.  According to J. Barou (2002: 8), a study conducted in the area known as “la vallée du fleuve Sénégal in 2005 migrant remittances covered between 30% and 80% of the needs of the families.  Based on a household study, G. Jónsson (2008: 21) puts the figure at more than 50% on average.

5 As M. Collyer (2010: 275) points out with reference to E. Goldschmidt (2004), significant transsaharan migration with Europe as a designation was only recognized in the late 1990s, a statement which my sources from Djoun confirm.

6 The destination is first and foremost dictated by the availability of family and friendship networks, which may provide help in finding lodging, work and in general council on all matters pertaining to life as an undocumented migrant (Collyer 2006: 143)

7 “Ghetto” is term used across West Africa to designate the houses along the way where migrants wait between the actual journeys.  Most often these are segmented with respect to nationalities, but in the case of Inhalid, which was a very small town, the clientel was mixed.  See also Jobard & Saugues (2006: 58, 66) and Laacher (2007: 76-77).

8 Collyer (2006: 14) identifies the same reluctancy to speak about the crossing in the multiple interviews he conducted with migrants following their arrival at the coast following the overland journey.

9 I am perfectly confident that he would not have made this gesture, had it not been for the fact that I, too, had been sitting on the back of the pick-up driving to dust and incessant heat, eating dry bread, canned tuna and drinking water tasting like petrol—from the same bowls and containers as he had.  Without this participatory or embedded presence, I would never had won his trust.

10 Hence the argument that photographing is akin to a form of killing, hence the expression “to shoot” somebody/something (Sontag 1971, 2003).

11 De Haas (2008: 1312) estimates that 368 people died while crossing to Spain in 2005 and cites human rights organisations who estimate that 3.285 bodies were found on the shores of the Straits of Gibraltar between 1997 and 2001.  However, as he himself underlines, the death toll is undoubtedly much higher as many corpses are never found.  Gammeltoft-Hansen and Alberts (2010) describe the increased patrolling of FRONTEX boats in the maritime waters and also discuss the number of deceased as a result of the crossing attempts on the Mediterranean Sea.

12 Lucht (2008: 156) quotes a migrant who made the crossing via Libya into Italy for saying the following concerning the overland journey through the Sahara: “[…] We said we had died, but that we came back to life.”

13 Since 2006 I have conducted seven short-term fieldworks among immigrants with particular focus on one specific foyer des travailleurs migrants (a housing complex for migrant workers) in northeastern Paris.

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Christian Vium

Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen.

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