Renowned artist shows human story
Documentary photos by Greg Constantine are on exhibit in a “pop-up show” at Fault Line Projects through Sunday, March 4, wrapping up four months with the Salt Spring Arts Council’s Artist in Residency program.
Constantine is an independent documentary photographer, author and researcher based in Bangkok who has dedicated his career to projects that focus on human rights, inequality, identity and the power of the state. The award-winning artist spent 11 years working on the acclaimed project Nowhere People (2006-2016), a global exploration documenting the lives and struggles of individuals and ethnic communities who have had their citizenship denied or stripped from them by governments.
He’s now working on Seven Doors, a long-term project exploring how governments are increasingly using detention as a significant component of immigration policy, and the resulting trauma to asylum seekers, refugees, stateless people and migrants around the world. His black and white photos often take the form of searing portraits, although he also captures moments of protest, unrest and refugees in motion.
Constantine started photographing the Rohingya in 2006, many years before most Westerners were aware of their plight. He is now banned from Myanmar (Burma) for his work documenting the state’s treatment of the Muslim minority group, which lately caused their violent expulsion and flight into Bangladeshi camps.
As he explained at Fault Line Projects on Friday, Constantine envisioned Nowhere People as an “embedded project.” He felt the problem of statelessness was far too large and complex for a two-week assignment, but didn’t realize what he planned to do over a year and a half would extend to nearly a dozen years. He made his name as a photographer in the process, being the first person to try to show what the issue of statelessness looked like visually, just at the time NGOs and academics were recognizing it as major problem.
Fundamental themes of statelessness — whether expressed in Kenya, Nepal or the Dominican Republic — are discrimination and intolerance. Constantine argues the manifestation of those things into state policy as a denial of citizenship is what makes the issue so unique. In most cases statelessness is not caused by poverty or the inability to pay for documentation alone; it’s systemic racism or “othering.”
“Most stateless people know where their home is because they’ve lived there for generations, but the state says, ‘This is not your home and we’re going to deny you your home,’” Constantine explained.
Almost everyone Constantine has met in his work has wanted their story told; they are used to being forgotten, abandoned and pushed aside, so they welcome a chance to be seen at last. Sometimes they are too vulnerable to share their image or identities, including people Constantine spoke to in more developed countries for the Seven Doors project.
Constantine said that although one image can sometimes inspire societal change, most of the time people’s attention spans are too short. His publications in major media outlets and his awards aren’t enough to make a difference. That’s why he prefers exhibitions that are connected with opportunities to engage with audiences. During his four-month residency on Salt Spring, Constantine was able to commit time to the research his work demands and launch the website for Seven Doors, but also prepare for important exhibitions in London and Washington, D.C. where powerful people can be expected to be present, and hopefully take notice.
Constantine’s final events on-island will include a talk about his career and life trajectory for GISS multimedia students. He will also facilitate a Q&A session after a screening of The Venerable W at the Salt Spring Film Festival. The film explores extreme Buddhism and its role in targeting the Rohingya in Myanmar.
For more on this story, see the Feb. 28, 2018 issue of the Gulf Islands Driftwood newspaper, or subscribe online.