Caught in Between Darkness and Light.

The refugee experience of flight to the (un)promised land

Please use headphones to listen to the audiodoc

This photographic audio-documentary tells the story of the brief journey that a small group of refugees took from Milan to Calais.
For some days we shared the same roof, the same blankets and the same food.

I met several people attempting to cross the Channel to reach the ‘promised land’ of ‘security, freedom, education and work’ and I was there to try to listen to their stories and understand their motivations. What part of that lived life is ‘sayable’? If imagination, dreams and hopes may find a language then so must disillusionment, silence and desperation.

Deres, Dev and Kiros, the three men I accompanied on the train journey from Milan to Calais, were Ethiopian refugees. The big journey from Ethiopia to the southern European shores had already taken 5 years of their lives. They had all left Addis Abeba in their early twenties, when Deres was thinking of joining an orthodox religious school, Dev had just started attending a course in accounting  and Kiros was about to become a father…

One of the objectives of this project was to give an alternative representation of refugee experiences to those produced by national and international official media, most of which reflect and enhance the growing xenophobic tendency that accentuates a sense of otherness and alienation by cultivating popular feelings of fear or pity.

In order to achieve this objective, I decided to use a variety of equipment, to give participants a wider choice of means to express themselves more actively.

How could my equipment help me to represent people’s inner being and the contrast and variety of feelings and experiences? What ways could I find to work around the refugees’ resistance to be visualised and my ethical concerns towards their vulnerable conditions?

The metaphor of migration as a journey between darkness and light was expressed by Deres, who saw darkness as representing the hardship he had been through as well as the loss of hope and motivation when everything seems to become meaningless and ineffective. As a religious person, light, for him, represented something mystical, a sort of re-birth into a new life.

Consequently, I worked with sound and photographs in order to provoke and evoke this feeling. The words and the experiences of the people I met drew an interesting link between the light/darkness duality and their felt experiences of determination, hope, loss and disorientation.

The photographs function here as sudden =, brief moments of light and hope, supported and more often challenged by the contrasting sounds of uttered words and unfamiliar soundscapes.

Sound recordings give the possibility to provoke contrast in people’s feelings by placing together sounds that are naturally distant from each other. The sudden cry of a baby as we hear a train approaching is a reference to the “re-birth” through which a refugee has to go in order to start his/her life a-new.

The concluding notes are said and sung by two dear friends, Deres and Kendu, who separated at the time when our journey from Milan began and have not heard from each other since. I recorded Kendu singing after I went back to Milan, and met him to hand him the letter that Deres had written to him while we were travelling. Kendu said he would have sung this song to give his friend courage to keep on going, as Deres wished, towards another light.

“Some people start in darkness and go to light…night goes to a day, I’m alive in light, but I’m awaiting another light, every programme, any programme, from start until arrive, is darkness and light, any person who’s arrived is light…not arrived is difficult…”

  • Alexandra D'Onofrio
  • 2008