A Dispatch from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University
“We are in Grande-Synthe, in northern France, during winter. At the edge of a pond, in the woods near the Puythouck leisure center, a man carefully undresses. Layer by layer, he removes the clothing enveloping his body. He is almost naked now. Still wearing his shoes, he enters the water and washes himself. This time, the police leave him at peace. It is 0° Celsius.”
—Nastassia Kantorowicz Torres, from her submission for the 2018 CDS Documentary Essay Prize in Photography
Our Documentary Essay Prize honors the best in documentary photography and writing in alternating years. The focus is on current or recently completed work from a long-term project—fifteen images; fifteen to twenty pages of writing. Those of us who reviewed the photographic essays submitted for the 2018 prize—155 of them—found ourselves gravitating toward “Point d’eau” by Nastassia Kantorowicz Torres. For seven months last year, Kantorowicz Torres, a freelance photographer based in Colombia and France, covered the response of the French government, NGOs, and ordinary citizens around questions of access for migrants in northern France who are trying to reach the UK.
“Point d’eau” gives viewers an unusual vantage on the difficult and improvisational lives of these migrants by focusing closely, respectfully, on one specific issue, water. A court ruling in June 2017 obliged the city of Calais to provide them with public water access, but there are still approximately “1,300 to 1,500 exiles in northern France who are being denied access to safe drinking water and sanitation services—basic human rights,” says Kantorowicz Torres. (The ruling was based on Articles 1 and 3 of the European Union Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.)
“Despite the court ruling, the regional and local government[s] of Calais . . . have been implementing a ‘no fixation point’ policy to impede the creation of another ‘Jungle,’” the migrant encampment demolished in 2016. Earlier this year, French president Emmanuel Macron averred that another refugee camp would never be built in Calais and warned that refugees who had remained in the area in hopes of reaching Britain were at a “dead end.”
In considering Nastassia’s series, we were engaged by questions about documentary image making that her work provoked. How to make photos that speak vividly and pointedly to both presence and absence? Most of her pictures don’t include people, none reveal people’s identities, yet they are deeply intimate. The images portray sites of human habitation and use—from lakes and canals where migrants bathe and wash clothes to NGO-provided makeshift showers to the bathrooms of private homes—in order to examine the “hospitality and solidarity of citizens in response to the government’s restrictions on water access to discourage migrants.”
We have all seen many images of refugees in Europe over the last three-plus years and collectively experienced the political shifts both here and abroad that are a consequence of instability and populations moving across borders. This photo essay speaks to how individual citizens have chosen to act—despite legal and political attempts to deny a fundamental right—by opening up their homes, and their own water access, to people in transition.
Nastassia plans to continue documenting this issue in other regions of France, including Paris and the French-Italian border. Expanding the geographical area, “will provide an in-depth testimony of the implementation of France’s migrant policies through the deprivation of access to water.”
This latest dispatch for The By and By shares the fifteen images, in sequence, that Nastassia Kantorowicz Torres submitted for consideration for the CDS Documentary Essay Prize in Photography.
—Alexa Dilworth, CDS publishing and awards director
This installment of The By and By is curated by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (CDS). CDS is dedicated to documentary expression and its role in creating a more just society. A nonprofit affiliate of Duke University, CDS teaches, produces, and presents the documentary arts across a full range of media—photography, audio, film, writing, experimental and new media—for students and audiences of all ages. CDS is renowned for innovative undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education classes; the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival; curated exhibitions; international prizes; award-winning books; radio programs and a podcast; and groundbreaking projects. For more information, visit the CDS website.