“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

ENS Interview: Documenting statelessness with Greg Constantine

21 March 2017
Greg Constantine

ENS caught up with Greg Constantine, an award winning documentary photographer, while in the midst of organising his next trip to Europe to speak at the ENS conference on detention and to do field work for his new project in Hungary. We spoke about his work, power of storytelling, cooperation with ENS members and the challenges ahead for those working on eradicating statelessness.

Many if not all in the statelessness community will know you for your project Nowhere People, which documented the impact statelessness has on communities around the world. Why is it important to you to tell the stories of stateless people and what do you hope to accomplish through your work?

Greg: When I started my project Nowhere People in late 2005, it was clear the issue of global statelessness was not receiving the attention it was due. Though a small number of organizations were working on the issue, statelessness was nothing more than a footnote in most reports from human rights organizations. Discussions about the issue of statelessness were mostly limited to conversations over the legal elements embedded in the issue or academic conversations about 'citizenship' and 'nationality'. Unfortunately, the stories of stateless people were missing. And as a photographer, it was very obvious to me that there was almost no visual translation of what statelessness looked like, who stateless people were and how statelessness and all the deprivations attached to the denial of nationality impacted people in their day to day lives. All of this has changed over the past 6-7 years. Statelessness has received and continues to receive increased attention. But, I've always felt that there are no blanket or 'one-off' solutions for statelessness. Each situation, whether it be related to an entire community or to an individual, consists of its own unique qualities, characteristics and challenges (historically, politically, socially, legally, etc). Because of that, it is likely that solutions for each of those situations requires different approaches, and this demands people and policy makers to have a better understanding of these unique qualities. That is where documentary photography and storytelling plays an invaluable role and it has been my mission these past eleven years, to do everything I can to insert photography and the voices, faces and stories of stateless people themselves into the conversations taking place around the world about this issue.

After finishing Nowhere People, you took a short break to promote the book, but now you're back working in the field again. In fact you've just returned from a work trip to Malaysia. Could you tell us a bit more about your new project and where you think the work will take you in the future?

Greg: While working on Nowhere People in 2014-2015, I spent a lot of time exploring the connection between statelessness and detention, especially in Europe. The stories had a huge impact on me. Even though I was being exposed to detention through the very small lens of stateless people, it was clear the impact immigration detention had on others was not really being explored by photographers. To me, immigration detention shares similar themes to the issue of statelessness: the arbitrary power of the State, the deprivation, loss, absence and fragility of rights, the value (or lack of value) of documentation, as well as invisibility and identity. The list goes on. So, I decided to expand the work into my next long-term project, which documents, explores and exposes the impact and trauma of immigration detention on asylum seekers, refugees, the stateless and migrants around the world. Where will it take me in the future? What I love about my work is that while some of it must be plotted out and planned, much of it comes as a product of pure discovery and then adaptation and exploration. Right now, I find any number of creative and intellectual elements of this project incredibly exciting (and challenging), and like Nowhere People, I plan to basically embed myself into the issue. I began the project in SE Asia. I will spend the next few years on the project (including in N. America & Europe) and I'm confident the project will make a contribution.  

You are speaking at our conference on arbitrary detention of stateless people in Budapest in May. Detention is something you've worked on in the past (No One Will Notice: Stateless & Detention). What's the thing that stuck with you the most from speaking to stateless people who've spent time locked up in detention?

Greg: Several things stuck with me about the experiences of stateless people in detention. Stateless people already feel invisible but stateless people in detention, it's as if they feel don't even exist. The sense of abandonment they feel and loneliness they live with is unlike many other stateless people I have met before. I met stateless people who because they were stateless, lacked documents, etc, had been in and out of detention multiple times. Many live with the constant threat of being asked for documentation and then being sent right back to detention. The trauma detention has on them and this threat of being thrown back into this vicious cycle of detention paralyzes them. What's worse, when they are put in detention, many know they basically evaporate from the world. Stateless people have told me that trying to explain to a friend or a new acquaintance or to someone of authority that you are as a stateless person is a painful, frustrating and often demoralizing experience. But as a stateless person, locked up in detention, alone, with no access to the outside world, with no idea of how long you will be detained and confronted by authorities (who often don't even know what statelessness is) to provide evidence of who you are, the sense of isolation and powerlessness is unimaginable. This feeling of hopelessness expressed by some of the stateless people I met who had experienced or were actually in detention, stuck with me and it was the real motivation behind this new project.

You've collaborated with a number of ENS members in the past - Praxis in Serbia, Aditus in Malta, CIR and ASGI in Italy. What’s your advice to NGOs working with documentary journalists aiming to use the work in their advocacy and campaigns to bring more attention to the issue? 

Greg: It is all about collaboration. Its about having a vision for how photography and storytelling can amplify your advocacy efforts and how the work can reach strategic audiences. To achieve meaningful results, you're not 'collecting content' for illustration purposes or for marketing or publicity purposes to show people what your organization does. It has to go beyond that. Photography and storytelling provide a platform for deeper understanding and a platform for stateless people to have a voice. Photography and storytelling should be and must be embraced by NGOs as assets and ammunition in how they actually engage people about the people they are advocating for. Photography and storytelling places the people you are advocating for 'in the room' or 'at the table' or 'in front of the stakeholders'. Through collaboration, vision and strategic planning, this can elevate the conversation to a different level and I've always felt like it can be a very effective way of contributing to change.

With everything that has happened in global politics in 2016, what do you think are some of the biggest challenges ahead for organisations working on statelessness and what keeps you positive?

Greg: We know that countries all over the world are becoming more insular. The lines of borders are becoming more bold. Themes that rest at the heart of many situations of statelessness like discrimination, intolerance and racism seem to be tolerated more now than ever before, and in many ways, those non-legal characteristics that I've always felt construct the DNA of statelessness, pose the greatest challenges to finding solutions to the plight of stateless people. Europe may not consist of the large, somewhat geographically contained 'stateless communities' found in Asia or Africa or in places like the Dominican Republic, but Europe is faced with the challenge of how to address hundreds of thousands of stateless individuals and families scattered across the continent, each with a different story and history and portfolio of incomplete documents (or no documents at all) in countries where the climate of 'us and them' has taken on greater meaning in recent years. It seems to me that this one of the biggest challenges ahead and we all know that this could easily result in solutions being postponed and that then leads to the inheritance of and perpetuation of more people being stateless. The question might not be: could this happen in Europe, rather is it happening right now? However, when I look back 12 years, and then look to right now in 2017 and see the progress that has been made and the dedicated, creative and groundbreaking work being done by NGOs and civil society around the world and the research being conducted by academia and this growing sense of solidarity among so many working on the issue of statelessness ... that's something to celebrate, but only for a few seconds ... then back to work!

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