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“You can see me, but I don’t exist”

While photographing refugees in France, Belgium, Austria, and Sweden in 2018, Alan Gignoux noticed that a recurring theme among them was the gradual erosion of self, resulting from prolonged periods of living at the fringes of society. Similarly, he heard many of them talk of being invisible both to the immigration bureaucracies and to the wider societies in the countries in which they were seeking asylum.

He was particularly struck by the words of a young Afghan man in his final year at school who was seeking asylum in Sweden: “You can see me, but I don’t exist.” The young man was awaiting a response to his third and final appeal for permission to remain in the country and was expressing frustration at the way in which the asylum process had suspended him for years in a no man’s land of enforced separation from Swedish society. Borrowing its title from the young man’s words, this UK-based project aims to explore the dehumanisation experienced by people seeking refuge. Working with a camera obscura, Gignoux used a long exposure to blur the identity of the refugees whom he photographed while leaving the background in focus. This intentional blurring has a practical purpose as many people seeking refuge live in fear of the authorities and prefer to remain unidentifiable. However, it is simultaneously intended to be a visual metaphor for the corrosive impact of the asylum-seeking process on people.

Gignoux wanted to include the refugees’ voices in the project and so he invited the people whom he photographed, as well as other refugees who wanted to participate, to write a creative response to the blurred portraits.

Their creative writing was developed in workshops led by experienced poets. Working together as a group, or individually, the people addressed the themes that the portraits explore.

Alan Gignoux worked with Everything Human Rights, a community group offering a variety of services with the aim of promoting the wellbeing and integration of migrant ethnic minorities living in Wigan borough. The writing workshop leader was poet Ambrose Musiyiwa.

The free to enter exhibition is a collaboration between Alan Gignoux and Manchester Central Library. Image Copyright: Alan Gignoux.

To mark the launch of this free exhibition, you are invited to attend the opening event in Central Library’s Reading Room on Friday 2 June at 6:30pm. Reserve a place for this here on eventbrite

Free exhibition – just drop in – please consider making a donation to support our Library Live cultural programme either online or at one of our cash or contactless donation boxes in Central Library. Thank you.

“You can see me, but I don’t exist” was made possible by a National Lottery Grant awarded by Arts Council England