In August 2014, police raided Jardin Villemin, a home-away-from-home for men who had escaped the turmoil of their native Afghanistan. The men were handcuffed, led from the tiny park sandwiched between Gare de l’Est and the Canal Saint-Martin, and thrown in the back of squad cars. This had happened before.
For years, migrants had found refuge in the neighborhood, a place where volunteers ran soup kitchens all winter long and the cops ignored the encampments sprouting up outside métro stations and along the edges of parks. Things changed in the winter of 2009 and 2010. Afghans were entering France illegally, and immigration officers finally came around to lay down the law. A few caught in the dragnet were deported, some were accused of human trafficking and thrown to the courts. The luckiest were already in the system after applying for asylum and released. Slowly they returned to their old stomping grounds, numbers swelling as new faces emerged from the thousands of miles journey, but now the threat of arrest was added to the checklist of headaches dogging those living in Paris without papers.
In the months leading up to last summer’s clampdown, tension was growing among the refugees. Photographer Raphaël Lucas could feel it in the parks and outside the train stations where Afghans were killing hours every day.
Lucas was trying to find a couple men he’d met while he was photographing at the Welcome Centre and World Medical Care clinic. They tried to live normal lives, but told Lucas about the arduous process of getting legal and not knowing whether they’d be granted permission to stay. Until that decision came down they couldn’t get jobs, and spent their days waiting in line at the charity organizations which doled out food and clothing.
The two men who had fled war, smuggled themselves to France, walked a foreign land with no prospects, slept outside and survived on handouts, somehow still had enough fortitude to try to start all over again.
“What inspired me the most was their incredible resilience,” says Lucas. “Recreating oneself in a culture as remote as French culture can be from Afghan culture, starting from absolutely nothing after a 5,000 kilometer journey which is anything but secure, is extremely impressive.”
Lucas had to find them.
In his search for the two strangers, Lucas found many others like them. His eyes were opened.
The camps were in very public spaces; out in plain sight, but Lucas didn’t know much about this community of exiles. Mainstream society tended to lump the Afghans in with other undesirable migrant groups, and looked down on them as vagrants, beggars and thieves who should be expelled. But Lucas knew these were the attitudes borne of disregard, fear and prejudice. He knew that if these people were to sustain and survive they’d need helping hands and sympathetic eyes. Lucas wanted not to show the Afghan men as victims, but as survivors and people who were growing once-more into their best selves
“That moment when pain is fading and leaving space for something new to grow,” describes Lucas, “that’s what I’ve tried to bring to light in my photographs.”
Not everyone arrested at Jardin Villemin was homeless or hustling for cash. And not everyone wanted to talk to the stranger walking around with a camera.
“Most of them are living in a constant state of fear and persecution,” he says. “Some tried to protect their identity or whatever hustle they had going on that they didn’t want uncovered. Protecting one’s identity or personal story might be essential for surviving within the group, considering the extreme tensions that lie between communities and ethnicities in Afghanistan. It might also be essential to preserve chances to get refugee status, as consistency of a story might be a key factor in being granted that status.”
Lucas came to photography late. Documenting Paris’ Afghan migrants was his first long term photo project. As a teenager, he played percussion professionally in a Montpellier orchestra but switched gears in early adulthood to teach himself photography.
While he earned his degrees in New York, Lucas watched as his undocumented Mexican neighbors struggled to lead normal lives in the margins of the law. He wondered about the people in his home nation who lived without papers. It was the genesis for his interest in the Afghans in Paris.
Most of the Afghan men were young. But all had endured hardships beyond most face in a lifetime. Not only had all been threatened by rumbling conflict, some had partnered with American and coalition forces. As a consequence, they were no longer safe back home.
“I found it fascinating that the indirect consequences of US foreign policy wound up on the streets of Paris,” says Lucas. “The experiences of these young men fleeing chaos for a better life is similar to that of many Latin Americans migrating to the U.S. In a general way, I’m very sensitive to how global politics affect people at the individual and personal level.”
While he always presented himself as an artist, not a journalist, many people were guarded or hostile. Vulnerable to deportation, or to prison, or to a judge who didn’t like what an asylum applicant said in some magazine, the majority of Afghan migrants were unequivocal in their rejection of Lucas. And yes, some Afghan migrants resort to crime to make ends meet and are even more suspicious of a camera.
“I found it fascinating that the indirect consequences of U.S. foreign policy wound up on the streets of Paris.”
Still, Lucas managed to win over a few people who were happy to have someone care about their hardships. From small beginnings. By word-of-mouth and just sticking around, Lucas gained trust, got recommendations and eventually knew most of the exile community.
Afghanistan isn’t a homogenous nation. They are Pashtuns, but they are also Tajiks, Uzbeks and other ethnicities. In Paris, fault lines grew around these groups, for better or for worse. He met educated, middle-class urbanites and poor farmers, he saw people helping one another and taking advantage of one another. Some were heading to London or beyond, others hoped to be able to live in Paris permanently. Ultimately the common denominator was that everyone had fled a ravaged country to have a shot at a safe and secure life.
Anyone wanting to remain in France could get help from a number of groups working with immigrants: legal assistance, medical care, food, clothing, shelter. Every stop was a different appointment, a different line, another hour waiting, another day biding time.
“There is a strong network of organizations that help the undocumented, but they require that people commit to their system and which requires that you follow a certain process in how to access those services,” explains Lucas.
Not everyone, though, could deal with the system or the bureaucracy and went underground. They couldn’t handle living off handouts, of feeling humiliated or disrespected by the nameless cast of clerks pushing them from desk to desk.
“It seemed to me that some people felt uneasy complying with the humanitarian care system and then chose not to use it. As a consequence they might either ignore their own needs, or even hook up with people who are willing to help them independently of any organized system.”
The greatest boost to an asylum seeker’s spirits would be the chance to find work. Everyone is bored. Everyone feels ashamed and dehumanized. Lucas thinks that a job would give these men a sense of self-worth as well as a way to fill the hours, but until the state decides they deserve that right there’s no legal way to work.
“That moment when pain is fading and leaving space for something new to grow — that’s what I’ve tried to bring to light in my photographs.”
In spite of all the uncertainty and despair, the internecine squabbling and pressure from the cops, there is hope. A few of the Afghans Lucas met have since been granted residency, and those who haven’t had their day in court continue to do whatever it takes in order to stay in France.
Lucas is still in touch with some of the men he’d befriended, but he hasn’t been working on the project since winter 2014, unsure of what direction it could take at this point. He’s still working as a musician to pay the bills, and in between gigs continues to hone his chops behind the camera.
Working with the Afghan migrants was an invaluable crash course. Looking back Lucas thinks that if he’d dropped any pretense of neutrality, of keeping a distance, he could have broken through more barriers and gotten even deeper into the lives he was trying to portray.
“This experience taught me that in order to touch on something as a photographer, I must also give something of myself, “ says Lucas. “I must accept that I’ll be transformed somehow by the experience I’m going through.”
He admits that suspicion and prejudice played a bit-part for both he and his subjects. Humbly, and into the future, Lucas is learning to open up and put himself out. It’s the only way to make good photographs.