Credit: Jaakko Helleranta

Days Travel Fast, Hope Keeps Us Alive

This was first published on the Mapillary blog, along with the Photo Story: Hope Is The Strongest Force.

On a sunny day in July, I headed to Calais to meet Katja Ulbert, the team lead of MapFugees, a Humanitarian OSM (HOT) team project focused on mapping refugee camps to improve delivery of aid and services. We were going to photo map the Jungle Camp in Calais, France.

The Jungle Camp pre-dates the civil war in Syria; thousands of Afghans, Somalis, Ethiopians, and Sudanese have come to and through the camp over the years. The crisis in the Mid East has brought in a surge of new people. Today over 7,000 people, including 900 minors, stay in this 1.5-square-mile area right next to a scenic and charming town on the coast of France.

Every night, some try to make it to England over the channel. The vast majority fail.

MapFugees had come to Calais to create a basemap of the camp. Recent evictions by the local authorities had obliterated any maps that had previously existed. Satellite imagery, kindly donated by Mapbox, was useful but somewhat outdated. Katja’s team were used to what she called “low-tech” or “no-tech” mapping — this is what she sent me when we first connected.

Looking back, the idea that we at Mapillary could do better than this tried-and-true approach was extremely presumptuous. We did anticipate challenges with taking lots of photos: in New York or Malmö, a missed blurred face may mean a complaint if we don’t fix it fast enough; at the Jungle Camp it could mean retaliation on families back home by oppressive regimes. Katja thoroughly set expectations and we agreed on strategies to get the most out the trip. Three days, I thought, to cover an area that would normally take a few hours to trek — challenging but doable with the perfect volunteer: Jaakko Helleranta, a longtime Mapillary user (jaakkoh), OSMer and ex-chairman of HOT.

The night before I arrived in Calais to help, Jaakko, who preceded me there, sent me a cryptic text. There were “problems”. The most pressing one was a fight that had broken out between tribes over someone cutting a line at dinner. When I showed up the next morning, we heard that the fight had escalated to over 200 people clashing during the night. A man had been hacked to death, the first in a while, in the early hours of this rare sunny day in July. “Don’t enter the camp today!” came the warning text, just as Jaakko and I were heading in.

The local police had arrived, which made for even more challenges for access and camera use. The camp was quiet, though Jaakko explained that this was not so unusual — since a lot of energy gets spent at night trying to find a way to England, most people sleep in. This afforded us a few opportunities to photo-map discreetly, and when someone did show up, to indicate as much as body language would allow that we were taking pictures of places not people.

If ever I had hopes of being a journalist, the short time I spent in the Jungle Camp put this to bed. I meekly trailed Jaakko, slipping my Garmin or iPhone away quickly whenever someone appeared in the frame — not so much out of fear of belligerence, but a feeling of terrible shame over inflicting more disruption and discomfort upon people who had been through enough.

We were stopped a few times, firmly but always politely. One man told us unflinchingly that our actions were inappropriate; but upon Jaakko’s explanation of HOT’s mission, he smiled and nodded. As he shook my hand, he slipped me a candy bar and wished me luck. Generosity of spirit shone through the veil of despondency, from people who offered us coffee and conversation as we passed to a man who let us play with his son at the makeshift playground.

I left later that day, and Jaakko the next. We got nowhere near my naive goal of capturing full coverage of the camp. But Mapfugees was able to complete their basemap nonetheless, and thanks to Jaakko’s thoughtful work, we managed to capture some meaningful imagery. The footage will reflect some of the challenges we had, but I hope what we’ve stitched together provides a glimpse into how people live day-to-day, when the desperate hope is to leave tomorrow.

Photo Story: Hope Is The Strongest Force