What can a photograph tell us about the experience of migration and border crossings?
When we watch the news or read the newspaper, media coverage documents the refugee crisis worldwide through photographs of overcrowded refugee camps, people desperately waiting to cross the border, or, even more tragically, bodies washed ashore. What these images often fail to capture is the other side of the story: the lives of individuals, and their longing, anticipation, and hopeful dreams of economic and political security.
The photograph, Ceuta Border, Illegally Crossing the Border into the Spanish Enclave of Ceuta, Tangier, 1999 by contemporary artist Yto Barrada captures the final drag on a cigarette—the moment before the young man in the foreground will join his comrades who have already begun the journey up the hill and presumably across the border without any belongings to hinder them. A photographic clarity and stillness defines the protagonist. His face carries traces of dusty sand, suggesting the physically arduous endeavor at hand. As a viewer, we are compressed against the space of the foreground, aware of the natural barrier of the hill and the physical barrier of the wall against which the smoking boy momentarily rests. There is no space for us as viewers to enter the photograph. Barrada’s careful compositional framing functions as a visual and metaphorical boundary. All we can do is glance up at the rocky terrain towards those individuals whose bodies are blurred by the camera’s inability to capture the speed of their motion. Two figures run whereas another turns back at what is left behind: perhaps a relative or friend who calls out one last message of strength? Still other figures—two males and a solitary female—have reached the horizon line. What lies beyond is unknown to those of us left behind the border crossing.
The border between Morocco and Spain
Ceuta is an autonomous city administered by Spain, that sits on the northern coast of Morocco, on the Strait of Gibraltar (the narrow waterway between Morocco and Spain that separates the Atlantic and Mediterranean). Ceuta is separated from Moroccan territory by a barbed wire fence. Determined Moroccans and North Africans of all generations find innovative—and often life threatening—ways to bring people and goods into Europe despite the military and security forces that patrol alongside the physical fence to stop them.
Before 1991, North Africans could travel freely across the border into Spain. That changed when Spain and Portugal signed the Schengen Agreement, creating a unified European zone that enables the circulation of goods and individuals holding a passport from European nations who are part of the Schengen Agreement. As a result, entry to Spain for Moroccans now requires a visa.
Ceuta Border, Illegally Crossing the Border into the Spanish Enclave of Ceuta, Tangier, 1999 belongs to a series of fifty photographs titled, A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project taken around the Gibraltar Straits, including the Moroccan port city of Tangier, the last stop of any North African migrant’s attempt to cross the border into Spain and where contemporary artist Yto Barrada spent her childhood.
Between Paris, New York, and Tangier
Mobility is integral to Barrada’s biography. Born in 1971 in Paris to Moroccan parents, Barrada spent her childhood in Tangier, some 100 kilometers from Ceuta. She later returned to Paris to study history and political science at Sorbonne Université before continuing her studies in New York City at the International Center of Photography.
A Life Full of Holes: The Straits of Gibraltar is Barrada’s first photographic series, which she worked on between 1998 and 2004. Its title comes from a story by Moroccan storyteller Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi, and recorded in 1964 by Paul Bowles (an American writer and translator based in Tangier). The narrative traces the life of two individuals living in Tangier struggling to maintain dignity and hope amidst a chain of dire economic setbacks and social shame. Barrada’s adoption of the novel’s title, A Life Full of Holes, for a photographic series dating three decades later, suggests the long histories of inequalities plaguing life in border cities such as Tangier. As Barrada openly acknowledges, it is precisely her dual citizenship that enables her to move freely between North Africa and Europe and to paradoxically undertake a project that visualizes the ways in which issues of mobility and immobility casts a shadow over life around the Strait of Gibraltar.
Documenting migration, a photographic history
Barrada shares in a long photographic tradition of the medium’s engagement with issues of migration. At the turn of the twentieth century, Danish-American social reformer Jacob August Riis mobilized photography to document the squalid living conditions of immigrants in the tenements in the Lower East Side of New York, eventually publishing in 1889, How the Other Half Lives, a title that in many ways reverberates with A Life Full of Holes. Riis’s work would be important for early twentieth-century photographers such as Arthur Rothstein, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans who worked for the United States government’s Farm Security Administration documenting the internal migration of displaced farming families during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains.
Similar to Barrada, the work of Lange, Walker, and others straddles the field of documentary photography and art. Because of photography’s reproducibility, one photograph can circulate in different contexts and convey different meanings. The inherent mobility of the medium of photography parallels Barrada’s subject of life in border cities. Pointedly, Barrada’s photographs often have more mobility than her subjects.
(Im)mobility of commodities and bodies
Also from the Life Full of Holes series, Factory I pictures the inside of the shrimp factory in Morocco’s Free Trade Zone, established to encourage economic investment in the country. Wearing surgical masks and green hair caps, factory workers peel prawns shipped to Morocco from the Netherlands. The visual uniformity of the rows of workers echoes their repetitious labor. Once peeled by Moroccan laborers, these shrimp will then be shipped back to the Netherlands for consumption. The ability of commodities to circulate within the global economy stands in stark juxtaposition to the restricted movement of Moroccans at work in the so-called free trade zone.
The monotonous repetition of Factory I contrasts with other photographs in Barrada’s series that speak to individual desires animated by the possibility of crossing. In Advertisement Light Box, the silhouette of two children press up against a lit advertisement for the ferry. Hands raised, the children seem to call out to the ship for rescue, revealing the restricted promises of the words “transport,” and “passengers,” below. The hopeful gestures of two children echo those of the individuals who risk the crossing of the Ceuta Border.
Rarely picturing the border itself, Barrada instead captures its tragic impact on the city of Tangier. The paradox is that many who view these photographs, Europeans and Americans, are free to wander through the streets of Tangier, through factories in the Free Trade Zone, and around the city’s gardens and beaches—just as the photographs themselves travel around to different cultural and artistic venues—while those depicted in these photographs, those with Moroccan passports, are circumscribed from crossing the Strait to roam freely throughout the European Union.
Rasha Salti, “Sleepers, Magicians, Smugglers: Yto Barrada and the Other Archive of the Strait,” Afterall: A Journal of Art, Context and Enquiry, no. 16 (2007): pp. 98–106.
Emma Chubb, “Differential Treatment: Migration in the Work of Yto Barrada and Bouchra Khalili,” Journal of Arabic Literature 46, no. 2/3 (2015): pp. 268–95.
T. J. Demos, “Life Full of Holes,” Grey Room, no. 24 (2006): pp. 72–87.