On the 10th of March of 2016 Sabela described her emotional ties to London through a photograph she made for my project on the experience of Spanish migrants.
Sabela: ‘this picture was taken in Heathrow right after collecting our suitcases ( ) this ‘giant welcome’ is how I felt about London and about the country, like a land of opportunities ( ) I had plenty of opportunities here. But this welcome is a hypocrital “welcome”, totally hypocrital, because it is not a “welcome” ( ) that is how we are now experiencing it – welcome, but wait a second, show me your bank account, your passport, how long are you going to stay ( ) I consider that this picture, now, represents several important things that are going on.’
(Extracted and translated from a recorded conversation with Sabela, 10/03/16)
This ironic and portentous image made before the EU referendum can be interpreted in other ways now in the aftermath of Brexit. The photograph hints at a general uncertainty about the position of migrants now and the hypocrisy of UK immigration policy. Who is welcome? At one time EU citizens might have been more welcome than other nationalities. Pre-Brexit it might have included a second word i.e. “welcome back” to license the frequency of European free movement. Now we are at the end of that moment.
Sabela was one of the Spanish participants, with whom I worked for my dissertation, in which I wanted to see evidences of place attachment of immigrants through photography. The participants respond through producing images to a set of questions; afterwards, conversations help to understand their answers, which facilitated more data to elaborate the entire project. A year after her premonitory words the realism of the sad realities of Brexit have created an epidemic of uncertainty with regard to the futures of young Spanish people living in London.
The main consequences of this referendum still remain to be deeply felt, although economically some indicators have begun to show. The political propaganda for Brexit was loaded with racist discourse and anti-immigration sentiment. Probably, now, the discourse has moderated its explicit xenophobic tone but there is a latent anguish of grief. Perhaps, this is an opportune moment to talk to immigrants to know how welcome they feel within the UK after the Brexit. The anxiety of the circumstances defines the speculative conversations that immigrants hold about the Brexit. These discussions are a meeting point on an everyday basis where news is commented within a permanent atmosphere of uncertainty. To me, this particular moment is clearly defined by the uncertainty of the consequences.
I have attended numerous academic debates, talks and conferences that have proliferated in universities as they attempt to explain and make sense of what has happened. What is striking is the voices of young migrants are largely absent from these discussions. What is needed is a lateral dialogue where these voices can be heard too. The gap between academia and everyday people on this topic is palpable. Pundits deliver talk but do not engage with the everyday reality of EU citizens living here. This is a moment to give voice and to listen to the citizens. I would also argue we need to try and see London from their point of view too and this is where photography can be a real cultural and political resource.
The photographs taken by my participants showed their attachment to London places in subtle ways while also pointing to the double standards and racism within the immigration debate that undermined those attachments. Photography suggests with its subtlety. This medium, which is not a substitute for memory, often helped to evoke feelings and memories, working as a visual trigger for emotion. A visual emotional landscape may work as a collective gathering place to reflect about this historical challenging period. To me, there is a need to ask immigrants about their emotions but also to inhabit their perspective. Photography may help some people to alleviate part of their current anxiety. These different means of participation allow them to express their feelings in various forms in order to raise and to empower their silent voices in this particular uncertain moment.
Nacho Piqueras (Spain) is an artist based in London. His photographic practice expresses multi-dimensional philosophical interests and is rooted in a fascination with performativity and visual memory. He received his MA in Photography and Urban Culture from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2016, with distinction.