At first, the camp called The Baobab Experience received Rome’s new asylum seekers — in the beginning mainly Eritreans, and later those coming from across North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. A loosely organized volunteer endeavor, the tent city took shape in 2015 as a place where migrants could rest, find nourishment and advice, and then travel on. Donations from Roman volunteers created space for about 250 people. But that first summer, around 30,000 people moved through, with 500 to 800 people accommodated at a time. Individuals would stay five or six days before departing, typically to Germany, Sweden, and other northern European locales that offered jobs and opportunities not available in Italy.
The tent city called Baobab was in a parking lot in an almost rural setting, down a road, behind a field. In its first summer, about 30,000 people moved through.
Baobab’s founders came together organically, seeking to compensate for an utter lack of support in central Rome. 1 Their project was originally located in an abandoned factory that had until recently housed a nonprofit cultural center for impoverished people in the neighborhood (the “Ex-Centro Baobab” on Via Cupa). There, the group quickly evolved into an amazingly active unit numbering in the hundreds of volunteers, providing meals, clothing, and information to migrants on the move. 2 After Via Cupa, the site changed repeatedly, although it was always somewhere on the outskirts; the group was evicted more than 20 times over the tent city’s three-year life, but resettled again and again. By 2018, when we began to document the camp, Baobab was situated in Piazzale Maslax, a parking lot about half a mile from the Termini train station in southeastern Rome, in an almost rural setting, down a road, behind a field, out of the way.
In 2016 and 2017, as the “migrant crisis” attracted increased political and popular attention, European Union officials felt pressured to curtail immigration. Attitudes grew harsher, and countries began to enforce the Dublin Regulations. This set of rules, originally established in 1990 and amended numerous times, stipulates that immigrants must be fingerprinted upon entry to the E.U., and their asylum requests adjudicated in the country of arrival. When detained elsewhere, migrants can be returned to the country of arrival while waiting for their asylum claims to be heard. 3 This law was being enforced more stringently in 2018, and more and more people were “Dublinated” — returned to Italy from points north. Once back in Italy, however, they had little hope of having their cases heard. There were no reception centers to house migrants or offer other support, and waits for asylum hearings had grown so long that there was no predictable timetable. Asylum seekers found their lives held in abeyance. Many found their way to Baobab.
What was once an array of tents and tarps gave way to a settlement, with shelters built from tents, plywood, and sheet metal, on ‘lots’ bounded by improvised fences.
As the needs of the population shifted, so did management of the camp. The organization became a bit more structured, with designated (albeit still volunteer) staff, officers selected by the volunteer assembly, and regular programming; these formalized arrangements allowed the group to qualify for limited city funding. And the spaces that the volunteers created for the migrants, and the migrants created for themselves, became more fixed. What was once just an array of tents and tarps gave way to a settlement of tents mixed with shelters built from plywood and sheet metal, with individual “lots” bounded by improvised fences. When people were merely passing through, volunteers had provided food. But as inhabitants began to stay for longer periods, many took to cooking their own meals over open fires, or on makeshift wood-burning stoves.
Asylum seekers also needed more legal assistance; it was difficult to understand the documentation required to substantiate their claims, or the administrative delays they were enduring. Baobab staff focused on procuring services from immigration lawyers and cultural mediators who offered services pro bono, with small reimbursements from the city funds when possible. 4 The site at Piazzale Maslax was stable for about a year and a half, and in that time, assistance was provided to more than 2,000 people.
Then, in October 2018, following several aggressive encounters between Baobab residents and Rome’s municipal police, city workers began to erect a fence around the tent city. Volunteer staff members were told that city officials had identified 250 public housing placements to be made available for those who would be displaced when the camp was cleared. At first, this seemed like a positive development; a parking lot, after all, is an unsuitable place to live. In fact, the municipality relocated only about 100 people. Approximately 150 people remained in the tent city. Finally, on the morning of November 13, 2018, police arrived without warning and bussed everyone remaining at the camp to immigration offices at the Questura di Roma, police headquarters.
In the following days, the now-fenced Baobab was bulldozed, and people’s possessions carted away in dumpsters. It was not just clothes and furniture that were trashed. Irreplaceable possessions disappeared, and IDs, other documents, and money were lost, jeopardizing the legal status of Baobab’s remaining residents. Italy’s Minster of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, tweeted photos and videos of the camp being bulldozed.
On November 13, 2018, police arrived without warning. Baobab was bulldozed, and people’s possessions carted away in dumpsters.
With few other options, many migrants returned to a familiar place: Stazione di Roma Tiburtina, the city’s second-largest rail station. Baobab staff regrouped there, and as of this writing, they are still providing semi-regular meals, medical care, and legal advice to those who make the station their landing place. In the days, weeks, months, and now years since the eviction, little has changed. The group outside Tiburtina has been harassed, hassled, and arrested, and their possessions confiscated over and over. There are no tents at the rail station, and no other shelters; it’s no use to set them up, since police will immediately remove them. People who stay outside Tiburtina now keep their belongings in garbage bags during the day, and in the evening unpack their things to sleep in the cold or the heat, on the pavement.
Visiting Baobab at Piazzale Maslax over several months in 2018, we recorded the spaces residents called home, working with the permission of each individual or family to record their domestic interiors through photography and archaeological mapping. Our interest was to document the ways in which people survive in temporary spaces that have become more permanent than originally imagined or intended. We wanted to preserve a record of these lived-in spaces in all their particularity.
Seidenberg frames the spaces without inhabitants, in this series as in the rest of his work. Part of this choice is compositional — the human face can make all other elements in a photograph secondary. But, perhaps more importantly, in showing the spaces that house people rather than the people themselves, these images eschew the objectification of the body — especially important in situations where vulnerable individuals are the subject. By removing the human form, the work becomes, paradoxically, more human, focused on the makings and tracings of each dwelling-place in its complexity.
Our interest was to document the ways in which people create a temporary domesticity: a record of these lived-in spaces in all their particularity.
The images speak, at the same time, to the disorder and lack of predictability that comes with a future on hold. Some tents designed for two sleep three, or four. Other spaces exemplify a more expansive approach to homemaking at Baobab. Here we see spaces designed for socializing and sharing meals; there are musical instruments; and a pot of something on the fire; and a child’s bicycle (complete with training wheels); and the cheery face of a ceramic pig, a souvenir from the southern Italian province of Calabria that once likely held a bottle of spicy pepper sauce in its outstretched arm.
None of these makeshift homes exist anymore. Each of these tents was bulldozed into a huge pile in the center of the parking lot, and carted away under the eyes of police. The photographs and archaeological mapping of the domestic spaces are the only systematic recording of Baobab from this period nearly five years ago — the tent city’s most populous time, and in some ways its most stable, since (though neither the organizers, nor the inhabitants, nor we ourselves knew it then) it was approaching the end of that phase of its existence. In recording the spaces both systematically (via the archaeological mapping) and aesthetically (in the photographs), we bear witness to the resilience and fragility of the tent city that was Baobab, and to the lives sheltered there temporarily, and then disrupted so radically again.
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