Calais, Dunkirk, Malta, Patras, Rome, southern Spain — these are gathering points across Europe, ports of arrival and departure, where undocumented immigrants form transient camps in fields and forests before continuing their journeys. In 2005, Dutch photographer Henk Wildschut returned from documenting the aftermath of an earthquake in Pakistan with new ideas about how humanitarian crises are portrayed, and how photographs could show not only the suffering but also the dignity and resilience of people in crisis. Back home, he learned of camps that had popped up in the woods near Calais, in Northern France, after the closure of the Sangatte refugee camp, where immigrants prepared to cross the Channel Tunnel to the United Kingdom; hundreds made the crossing every night.

Wildschut decided to tackle the crisis hidden in plain sight, photographing conditions in the Calais camps and others throughout Europe. Most immigrants he met came from Afghanistan, others from Pakistan, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria. His photographs don’t tell the stories of their lives or even of the social, political and economic circumstances that brought them to these places. Instead, Wildschut trains his camera on the improvised living spaces they created — huts made from blankets and cardboard and squats in abandoned industrial buildings.

The shelters shown here represent architecture at its most fundamental — provisional structures that keep out the elements and provide some small degree of the comfort of having a place, of home. From the outside, they are a messy conglomeration of whatever materials were at hand and would stand upright. The insides, however, are tidy and carefully arranged, jackets hung and blankets folded. The evident need to create a sense of home even in such precarious conditions gives viewers in more comfortable circumstances an opening to feel a sense of shared humanity. The shelter photos are interspersed with shots that remind us of the context — a group of men running across a field, feet emerging from under a pile of blankets, a boy looking out over the sea at the distant horizon — and keep us from getting so taken in by the structures’ ramshackle beauty and makeshift ingenuity that we forget the hardship they represent.

In the years since Wildschut began his project, most of the camps he photographed have dwindled or disappeared. Worsening economic conditions have slowed both legal and illegal migration, and stricter enforcement of immigration laws has diminished the already tenuous promise of a better life in a new land. Wildschut’s photographs capture places that were born in a unique historical moment, the product of specific political and economic forces, and now their meaning shifts to accommodate a broader view. Shelter situates the experiences of these particular groups of immigrants, in these particular places, as part of a timeless human struggle to establish — even briefly — a place for oneself.

Editors' Note

Henk Wildschut’s Shelter was published by Post Editions in 2011.

Aaron Rothman, “Shelter,” Places Journal, June 2012. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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