Making Towards a Promised Land

Wendy Ewald in conversation with Michael Morris

Michael Morris: How were the parameters of such an ambitious project first mapped out?

Wendy Ewald: I visited Margate about a year before the project actually began. At that point we had no idea who we were going to work with. We walked around and visited schools and groups and institutions; we went to the mosque; we met kids who were caring for adults. It was very interesting, overwhelming actually, as there were about ten different groups I could have worked with.

When I visited Northdown Primary School, the principal told me that there was a 50% turnover in the student population every year. That was amazing to me, that a town could change so much in one year. With that statistic, I began trying to focus on the experiences of people starting their lives over in Margate and what those experiences were for children, in particular.

Although the coast of Kent has been the gateway to the U.K. for asylum seekers over many years, I didn't want to limit my attention to foreign immigrants, because it was obvious that the 'flood' of asylum seekers was something of a cliché. The Nayland Rock Hotel, formerly one of the town's grandest hotels, now houses asylum seekers, who some Margate locals see as having a free ride while everyone else struggles. So I decided to develop a project with the broad idea of what it is for kids to start their lives over, whether fleeing war-torn places or being moved by parents from one part of the country to another. I asked the principal at Northdown Primary School and the assistant principal at Hartsdown Secondary School to identify British kids who had moved to Margate. The Nayland Rock Hotel was the obvious place to work with asylum-seeking kids, as well as the Orchard Centre (the real name of the centre has been withheld to protect its inhabitants) where unaccompanied immigrant minors are housed. These four groups formed the matrix of this project.

MM: What kind of community did the children represent for you? Did you discover common threads in their diverse experiences of departure and arrival?

WE: Some of the kids from Northdown and Hartsdown schools had come to Margate just months earlier, some more than two years earlier. They were acquainted with each other but weren't necessarily friends. They came to Margate because their families needed to make a change: Gareth's father wanted to get away from sectarian violence in Northern Ireland; Lanny's mother left Wales quickly to get away from an increasingly abusive relationship, and so on. The kids at the Nayland Rock Hotel had arrived with their families within the past few weeks. I was privileged to be able to stay there for some weeks, to get to know people and see how their lives were unfolding in this new situation. The unaccompanied kids at the Orchard Centre were in a more extreme situation. Most of them didn't even know that they would end up in England.

For the most part, the kids in each of the four groups didn't know each other before we made this project. They came together by working and sharing and comparing experiences. By the end, I certainly felt that I was working with a community.

MM: How aware were the British kids of what it means to be a refugee or asylum seeker?

WE: A couple of the younger ones had heard the term but weren't sure what it meant. Reece talked about how it disturbed him not being able to communicate with a Chinese man in a restaurant; and Max talked about how the refugees had to leave their countries and it wasn't their fault.

MM: But they didn't identify these experiences with their own sense of displacement?

WE: It was only when we began to look at the pictures and read the testimonies of the asylum-seeking kids that the British kids really recognized that they shared experiences. They said, "Oh yeah, I brought this with me, just like Christian". They realized that Christian was the same age as them, and that although he had fled something much more difficult [the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo], they all had similar reactions in terms of what to take with them and what to leave behind.

MM: What happened when the different groups of children met each other for the first time at the launch of the first set of banners?

WE: The Northdown kids kept saying about the refugee kids, "We want to hear more of the sad stories". They recognised themselves to be more fortunate.

MM: And how did the refugees react to the notion that the British children had also experienced upheaval through relocation?

WE: I think it was more difficult for them to understand. It wasn't until they met at the exhibition at the Outfitters Gallery, and saw the suitcases that the British kids had used in their installations, that they understood the connection.

MM: Were the asylum seekers more articulate?

WE: As we were working through translators, this was not always evident. It took longer to teach everything to the asylum-seeking kids, but once they were on their way, they displayed more confidence than the British kids, possibly because they had survived incredible and difficult journeys. The British kids seemed to be complicit with their family's need to make a change. Many of them described themselves as annoying or naughty. They hoped their behaviour would change once they came to Margate. Tarnya worried that new starts were impossible for her family. The asylum-seeking kids were, by and large, bright, sophisticated and more worldly, like Elisio who had escaped from Angola with his mother and younger brother, leaving behind his sister and his brother.

MM: Did they perceive Margate as a place where different generations of migrants had settled?

WE: Vaguely, but I don't think they had any sense of British history. They were in shock, so I think they were living in the present and thinking about what was going to happen next.

MM: Do you think this tendency to live in the moment is typical of children of this age anyway?

WE: In my experience, kids who are settled have a much easier time fantasizing about realities other than their own. For example, the kids I worked with in South Africa in 1992 refused to photograph their dreams. For them, to imagine something was to imagine something dire. I was surprised that certain of the kids we worked with in Margate were able to talk about their journeys and to make photographs of their dreams or fantasies. The asylum seekers spoke about feeling safer than where they had been. At that point they were all very hopeful and their scars weren't necessarily visible.

When we invited the kids to return for the launch of the banners, Elisio and his family were the first to get their tickets from Nottingham to Margate via London. Unfortunately, three days before they were to leave, the 7/7 bombings occurred. The news triggered memories and fears in Elisio of his ordeals in Angola. His mother and little brother tried to reassure him. Finally he agreed to come only when an Artangel intern who spoke Portuguese said that she would accompany the family.

MM: How do you feel that this project relates to your earlier collaborations with groups of children?

WE: I had worked on a project in Richmond, Virginia in 2003/4 with kids who were living in an historical African-American neighborhood on the edge of a large, predominantly white university. Richmond had been the capital of the Confederacy during the American Civil War. The main avenue is lined with statues of civil war heroes, so I was interested in playing off that, making my African-American students visible to the white community around them and to the adults in their own community. I made huge portraits of them, measuring three by four metres, and installed them on local buildings. The photographs marked the boundary between the two communities.

MM: And what was the response from the Richmond community to this project?

WE: It was overwhelmingly positive. We had to get the permission of local businesses and house owners to hang the banners on their buildings. No one turned us down; some even competed for particular images to be hung on their buildings. The Carver Community Association organized a celebration with dancing, music and a barbecue, to launch the installation. Although Carver buildings were frequently tagged with graffiti, the banners stayed up without incident for over a year. Money was raised locally to produce a catalogue and the commissioning arts organisation and I received an award from the city. 

I thought that this same strategy could be interesting for Margate, where people coming to a new place were invisible to the residents of that place. To make them visible in a monumental way around the town would be interesting and provocative.

MM: Are there any similarities between Richmond and Margate as contexts for your work?

WE: Not really. Richmond has a coherent African-American community that could support my project, whereas Margate is very fragmented socially. None of the kids I worked with had a clear constituency in Margate, so it was important that the people of Margate embraced the project. I wasn't sure if this would happen.

MM: At the outset, you involved each of the children in the same way. Can you explain the process of working with them?

WE: First, I made portraits of them with my large-format camera. I also made Polaroid tests so that they could suggest changes before I shot the final photograph. At the same time, I taught them to use a Polaroid camera and positive/negative film, which is quite complicated. They had to measure the distance between themselves and their subjects, and carry buckets of sodium sulfite in which to dip the negatives. This slowed down the process and gave them time to think about what they were going to photograph.

In the second phase, I asked them to identify objects they'd brought with them when they moved, so that I could photograph them for the banners. It was fairly easy for the British kids, because the things they had were precious objects, like Lanny's Mr. Bean collection or Gareth's inflatable Red Hand of Ulster, or whimsical childhood things, like Gemma's stuffed pig. For the most part, the asylum-seeking kids only had more practical things, like a suitcase or clothes. Some felt they didn't have anything that could be used.

During this time, they were also photographing their surroundings as well as their dreams and stories, if they wanted to. Towards the end of our time together, Lucy Pardee, the initial researcher for the project, interviewed them, helped by various translators. Some of the kids also made maps of where they came from and of Margate. At the Orchard Centre, the kids drew different things. Reza drew an ornate bird perched on a pen. He wrote on the back, ''The pen says, 'I'm the king of the world. Whoever is the penholder, will be given power by me'''. They talked about their journeys but they didn't make maps of them.

MM: Was it because the particularly distressing nature of their journeys made the emotional memory too difficult to chart? Perhaps not mapping the journey was a way of leaving it behind.

WE: Yes, it could be. The only kid who did do something like that was Long, a North Vietnamese boy, who lost his father during the journey. He made a drawing of his father at work, a second one of him going to school, and a third one of them together in front of what appears to be their house. For most of the kids there was no map to make of where they actually were, because they didn't really know.

MM: In general, what was your impression of how newly arrived refugees were treated in Kent?

WE: It was such a difficult situation, both for the asylum seekers and the people who were working there with them. Although the asylum seekers were given quite a lot, we all felt that they needed so much more. They were living in rooms with TVs and that was their reality. The kids at the Orchard Centre were dying to go to school and learn English. I'm sure they would have felt much better had they been able to be more productive. There was an art room in the Nayland Rock Hotel, and at the Centre they were actually given packages containing cameras, but no one really worked with them on creative or educational projects over a period of time. The general feeling was that it was a waiting game.

There was a siege mentality at the Nayland Rock Hotel. People didn't want to go out, because if they missed an official appointment they risked losing their meals or shelter. They were also nervous about their reception outside and were told to be careful. We took walks with them to make photographs. They loved these walks, the beach and the shops. Margate was their first glimpse of England.

MM: The children at the Nayland Rock Hotel came with parents and family members, but the children at the Orchard Centre arrived alone. Were they different?

WE: The kids who had come alone were tense and deeply uncertain. They were being told what to do. They didn't understand the system and they couldn't speak the language. So the translators became very important to them, but they weren't always around. With these kids, I felt a sense that something was always about to happen; everyone was on edge all the time. The other kids were worried too, but at least they had adults and families with whom they could discuss their worries. One important aspect of their identity, their relationship to their family, was still intact.

MM: Did this create a difference in how they related to you and the project, and how they talked about their experiences?

WE: At the Nayland Rock Hotel, the kids' stories were largely told by their parents. The unaccompanied kids were more open, although they could also be quite suspicious. For example, Reza stormed out of the room in the middle of his conversation with Lucy because the questions she was asking reminded him of his interrogation at the Home Office. By stopping the interview, he was taking control in a way he couldn't with the Home Office. Eventually he relaxed and told his story. Obviously, he was happy to take photographs or draw, because he could be in control of the language.

Once these kids got their confidence with taking pictures, they could be both very playful and deadly serious. Long made a series of pictures of a mock execution; Omar played the victim; and so on. They had a wonderful time setting up the pictures, crafting props out of kitchen implements and whatever was at hand. I recognized this kind of image from my experience with other kids I'd worked with whose lives were safe and comfortable, so I wasn't worried that these images signaled deeper problems. Omar said that it was the best week of his life.

MM: When you met these children, did you have any sense of how long you would be able to work with them?

WE: No. We had to work very fast and flexibly to do as much as we could, because the kids could be relocated at any time. A list was posted in the hotel once or twice a week with families' names and their resettlement destinations in England. The families never knew when it would be their turn or where they would end up. Four days after we began working with Mariam, her mother found out they would be moving to Leeds the following day. We hadn't interviewed her, nor had she had a chance to take many photographs or 
tell her story. We worked with her as quickly as we could on her last day. Rabbie and Celeste were the next to leave, suddenly.

MM: How did you edit the texts of each child? What were you looking for in each case?

WE: To describe where they came from, why they left (if they'd talk about it), the nature of the journey, and their reactions to it (some of the British kids said that they didn't remember the journey, just the arrival), their impressions of Margate, what they thought their future would be there, and so on. Many of the kids talked about what it was like where they came from, the things that they left behind, what they missed. Some of the kids also wrote pieces, which I folded into the interviews, as well as anecdotes that reveal their personalities.

MM: What is striking is that humour plays such an important part in all this; perhaps as an indication of hope.

WE: Yes, like Christian thinking that the Queen would invite him to tea, or wondering whether someone had been bad at the opening of Parliament, as they banged the door. But these anecdotes are also very telling about how they are trying to unlock what is around them. But the situation was very difficult for most of them: they felt the cold; Elislo's mother had diabetes; Christian's mother was ill; and so on. The kids seemed fine, but their parents were often physically troubled and stressed about their future.

MM: Did they feel that this project was a kind of welcome for them? For some of them, it was the first time that anyone had shown interest in them as people, rather than as statistics.

WE: I thought about that a lot when I was photographing them, about working against the process of objectification. Strangely, I was asked if I had chosen the kids on account of their beauty. For me, it was more a case of finding a way to get them to open up for the camera. I think this openness is tantamount to beauty.

MM: How many of the children seeking asylum have succeeded since you initiated the project?

WE: As far as I know, all of them have been denied asylum at least once. That is shocking to me. Many are appealing for reconsideration. Christian's mother finally feels confident because she has a good barrister. But some have disappeared.

MM: Statistics say that half of all applications are accepted, but that doesn't appear to have been borne out here.

WE: It is already more than a year and a half since we began this project and all these kids are still living in limbo.

MM: Is counselling or psychological support offered when they arrive?

WE: Not that I could see. It might have been offered at different stages.

MM: So the psychological and emotional impact of all this on a child who arrives without parents is not being measured?

WE: No, nor of those with parents. They seem to do quite well in school, except that they take on so much. As well as school, they have to help their parents through their problems, help with language and so on. We went to see some of the families that had been resettled, which was very interesting. They were doing so much better on their own and making connections within their communities. The kids were much calmer and in command of themselves, and they were going to school. Going to school is key. In the beginning, the intensity of Uryi's attachment to his mother and to us was worrying. His hugs were so strong I thought my ribs would bruise. When we went to see him and his mother in their new apartment in North Shields, I braced myself for another bear hug. But instead, he opened the door and waved to us politely and warmly from the stairs.

At the Nayland Rock Hotel, Christian wouldn't eat. We also thought he might have a learning disability, as he could never figure out how to focus the camera. When we visited his family's new high-rise flat overlooking the Clyde River in Glasgow, he was watching George of the Jungle. He was noticeably calmer and more focused. He told us he'd moved from year five to year seven at school and his English comprehension was good. He had made a close friend at school, a Pakistani boy with whom he spoke English. His mother told us that when she got discouraged, she relied on Christian's optimism and reassurance.

MM: Would that be true of the British kids too?

WE: Yes, in certain cases. Tarnya had to be very supportive of her mother, who found it very difficult to adapt to Margate. Tarnya's school situation was separate from her mother, but it was hard on her all the same.

The asylum-seeking kids don't have the same opportunities to talk about hardship because, paradoxically, it is their survival. There is a great deal of pride attached to this and their accomplishments are incredible, really. In Kurdistan, Omar never had the opportunity to learn to read or write Kurdish because he worked as a labourer to support himself and his sister, rather than going to school. In Margate, he learned to speak English fluently in just a few months.

MM: Did any of them express a desire to return to their countries of origin one day?

WE: A couple of them talked about going back sometime. But none of them seemed to want to go back permanently, except for Zughdie and Zaakiyah. In Margate, things had not been as smooth as they had imagined. They talked about a level of tension and chaos and aggression that they hadn't expected, so they thought that South Africa would be just as good.

MM: When it was time to say goodbye, did you notice differences in leave-taking between the groups?

WE: With the Hartsdown kids, who were teenagers, it was a low-key affair. We were taking a walk and the kids went one way and we went the other. With some of the other kids, there was definite ceremony. The Orchard Centre kids all wanted photos of the others. They made speeches and so on. We didn't initiate any of this. The kids at Northdown were very sad, hugged us all, came out and waved goodbye. With the Nayland Rock Hotel kids, there were goodbyes all the way through, because some of them left during the process. We made albums for each of them as a record of their arrival in England. Sometimes this meant frantically trying to get them ready the night before they left. At the end, Uryi and Christian were the only ones left. They came to the station. Uryi was crying. It was very emotional. Now Uryi is gone too.

MM: Was there a sense that saying goodbye had come to characterise their limited experience of life?

WE: Yes, and that's why it was great to go and see them again. Except that then we lost track of Uryi. When we were planning the first hanging of the banners, we called Uryi and his mother Elena on their cell phone. Elena's English was still not good, so Uryi explained that they had been removed from their home in North Shields and put in a detention centre, because they were late filling one of the required forms. They were no longer in the detention centre, but in a hotel near Heathrow. He thought the Home Office would find them a new house soon. We made an appointment to meet them the next day, but they didn't show up and we were never able to contact them again. We fear they've been deported.

MM: Have you had this experience in other projects, of losing touch with the children with whom you have worked?

WE: Not in such a sudden and dramatic way. In this case, it was not their choice to lose touch. They wanted to keep in touch because there was another part of the project, the launch of the public banners, which would bring us all together again. Happily, we were able to meet many of the kids at intervals during their first two years in the U.K. Each time we saw them they were more at ease and more assimilated. Elisio joined a football team; Reza moved into his own flat; Christian was able to see his sister again who was studying to be a lawyer. Their stories keep evolving.

MM: How did you transform all of the research material, both transcribed interviews and photographic images, into the final project?

WE: I edited each interview transcript to make a more or less coherent story. Then I looked at each kid's interview with him or her and we picked out some lines that best described his or her journey. We decided how to position the texts over their portraits, then they wrote the texts on Mylar sheets placed over the photographs. By now, the asylum-seeking kids could speak English, but for Omar, who had never learned to read and write Kurdish, it was a challenge. He had rarely even picked up a pencil, so when asked to make a drawing, he traced his hand and filled it with cut-outs from a magazines. We read him the sentences and he chose, "When I was younger, I had no worries, but when I grew up, I started to think of life and I am a human as any human, no more." To write his sentences he held the pen tightly almost at the bottom. He pressed the pen down so hard that it squeaked as he copied the sentences, letter by letter, from the paper on which I had written them.

MM: And how did you choose the eventual sites for the banners?

WE: From the beginning, I wanted to hang the banners on the cliffs so they would face out to the sea, from where many of the kids had come. Or, if the photograph was of the back of the head, it would be positioned looking back into Margate, where the kid had arrived. I also liked the idea that the portraits would start out at the sea's edge and gradually make their way into Margate over time. The kids were also interested in hanging the photographs in Dreamland, adjacent to the sea wall. This made sense, since part of The Margate Exodus would be set there. Finally, I wanted the banners to move even deeper into the community, so we installed them on the public library and a house on Thanet Street.

MM: It is now more than one year since the first public images of the children and their belongings went up along the sea wall. How do you feel the local response has been in Margate?

WE: One of the reasons we decided to put the pictures up in phases is because we didn't know what would happen. We were aware of the tension that the presence of the asylum seekers caused. On one of my first nights in Margate, when Lucy and I were walking home to the Nayland Rock Hotel, we were egged from a passing car. But for the most part, the comments have been positive. When the exhibition was at the Outfitters Gallery, people could read the kids' stories and look at more of their pictures. Some people stayed for hours looking at everything and discussing the project, the banners and the issues of asylum. They were especially impressed by how well the kids presented themselves, how brave they were to present themselves in such an honest and sensitive way. Invariably, they sympathized with their life changes, although there have been incidents.

MM: Such as?

WE: Two of Zaakiyah's pictures were burned after the 7/7 bombings in London. Zaakiyah is a Muslim student at Northdown school who came from South Africa. Her installation comprised three images: a picture of her face; one of the back of her head covered by a scarf; and a third image of two copies of the book, The Principles of Islam and a pair of flip-flops, important possessions she had brought with her from South Africa. The vandals burned the front and back of her head but left intact the third image. It was tough for Zaakiyah and her family, but they handled it in a remarkable way. They didn't take it personally and wanted the banners reinstalled when things quieted down.

Kent has a history with the National Front. There is still an annual march in Margate, but in 2000 local residents, supported by the Anti-Nazi League, actually prevented the National Front, protected by police in riot gear and dogs, from reaching their rally point.

MM: How have the children responded to seeing themselves portrayed like this?

WE: They have been quite proud. Christian and his mother shouted gleefully when they were driven past his banners after the long trip they made from Glasgow to the launch. I was scared that they might have reacted adversely to the scale of the representation. I remember when I was about ten, my father who owned a Chevrolet dealership at the time, commissioned a billboard to be painted of my mother with the slogan "Ted Ewald is her favorite car dealer". This giant likeness of my mother on the highway was so disturbing to my mother's friends that my father eventually had to take it down! But this hasn't happened in Margate. Gareth clapped his hands over his face when he first saw his pictures and was quite shaken for a few minutes. Then he started to beam and his mother asked for pictures of the installation.

For the older kids it has been a bit trickier. We started the project over a year and half earlier. In that time, they have grown and changed. The London bombings happened. Regretfully, one of the boys withdrew from the project very late in the proceedings. He had become uncomfortable with the project and perhaps no longer wished to be identified as a foreigner. Gemma also asked that only the back of her head be shown. Of course, I agreed, although I missed the portrait on which she had written, "I just talk, talk for England". Unfortunately a local newspaper printed a copy of the picture. I was very upset and worried how it might affect Gemma. I went to talk with her at school. It turned out that many students had brought in the newspaper. She was the centre of attention and her mother had framed the article. She sweetly asked if we might hang it after all. Then weeks later her portrait was pelted with eggs and red paint. Again, I worried about the affect on Gemma, who had been bullied in the past, but the incident seemed to strengthen her. She was determined that 'these people' would not succeed in spoiling a project for which we had all worked so hard.

MM: Perhaps because there has been so much positive feedback...

WE: Now that the banners are in the centre of town and on the sea wall, they have become a feature of the town. One local shopkeeper explained that the project was important because Margate is made up of so many different people. She thought that people grumbled about change, but once they understood something new, they welcomed it. The local librarian said the banners helped people to think about Margate in a different way. She was pleased that the arts were being used to change peoples' perceptions. Tulie, owner of The Joke Shop, and a self-styled community leader said it was wonderful the banners were so public, so everyone could enjoy them. "The children are our future", she said, "and, even though the banners are black and white, they brighten up the place."

But others have questioned the use of black and white images and the fact that the kids aren't smiling. They asked, "Is this another grim image of Margate?"

Extracted from the publicationTowards a Promised Land (Artangel/Steidl, 2006).