“Last winter electricity went away for two weeks. The night was so cold, and to heat up the water we had to boil it. My phone’s battery had run out. But, when I tried to explain the situation to a friend back in Senegal, he wouldn’t believe me:
that is impossible - he said– in Europe there are no places without light”.
It is an ongoing project exploring those physical and existential spaces where the hope for a better life in Europe - driving the migration trajectory of thousands of African migrants – gets stalled. Due to Italian and European migration policies and their border regimes, thousands of migrants are stuck in a limbo, deprived of the very possibility of existing from a legal point of view. Focusing on the experience of West African migrants living in the informal settlement of Borgo Mezzanone (Foggia, Southern Italy), I explore how the European light turns into its opposite, leaving space to darkness and disillusionment.
I have been involved with the settlement for more than ten months a researcher, photographer, activist and friend. Living on-site for almost six months, I experienced the coldness of winter nights, the lack of electricity, the hours spent drinking tea, coffee and sharing meals in the dark, the kindness and generosity, the smoke of burned waste, the shouting of fights, the flames of fires and the fear of death, the greatness of god and the desire to live.
Just as other informal settlements spread around Southern Italy, Borgo Mezzanone is at the same time a place of exclusion and a refuge, a ‘safe’ space created by migrants in order to avoid exposure and control and to try, if not to live, at least to survive. Yet, for being defined as “illegal”, informal settlements and its inhabitants are subject to a constant threat of eviction and excessive mediatic exposure of precarious living conditions often had negative consequences.
Photography became very negatively connotated, considered as an intrusion, an undesired mirror, an unwanted exposure of what is considered as a failure of the migratory project. This ‘embodied knowledge’ on the perception of photography in the settlement was central to inform my visual approach. Visually and conceptually shaped around the idea of (in)visibility, the project also aims to pose questions on the very role of photography in relation to the exposure of liminal situations. How should we represent the margins, the interstices, the struggle of people forcibly deciding to live in the shadow, without further worsening their condition? How can we creatively work with the lack of light, in order to operate a conceptual shift of the metaphorical meaning of darkness? Can darkness acquire a positive connotation, as a protection, a shelf where to rest, from a light which seems to manifest itself only in the form of control, destruction?
In the end, the European light might exist, but, for many, it remains out of the way, and darkness is far more safe.
Borgo Mezzanone informal settlement emerged in the last decade on a former military airport runaway and next to a reception centre for asylum seekers. Government’s plans to evict those ‘irregularly’ occupying the centre’s empty containers have now been postponed due to Covid-19 emergency.