How did you come to be drawing in the camp?
A friend of mine came back last year, and told me about it. There were some details about her experience there that lodged in my head, things I didn’t expect: the disorder, the lack of official aid presence, the numbers of people, the conditions. I think I realised then that this was something of a modern day line, a which-side-are-you-on, like the civil rights movement in America. Either you help, or you’re with the people that call refugees cockroaches.
I took a gap year at 18, so I’m well aware of the syndrome of "whitey-goes-to-help", something to assuage guilt, or give him stories that make him look compassionate, so I’m under no illusions as to whether my going was pure and selfless, but with migration being the next big issue of humanity, I felt I had to be on the right side of the line. I brought my sketchbook with me because I always do.
What drawing materials did you use for the works?
Black crayons, black ink, dip pen, brushes, and a little jar of water. I should have brought tape for the paper as well, as the wind is so strong in this open wasteland, so close to the sea, that it snatches your drawing from beneath your hands. I spent most of my time trying to keep the paper attached to my sketchbook, positioning my elbows to clamp it down.
What was your working day while you were there — you were working in the kitchens?
I worked in the kitchens for three weeks, and drew for the last week. I initially went down for a week over Christmas, but stayed until the end of January. I got the van from the warehouse at about nine in the morning, got into the camp, started chopping onions and making huge vats of chai for breakfast. Prep, serving and clean up was about four hours, and then we went to the food distribution queue in the centre of the camp and managed the distribution for another few hours. Then it was the evening meal back at the ashram kitchen. I’d eat in the restaurants with friends, do some writing, and walk home to my little caravan past the lines of French fascists lurking, in all weather, outside the camp.
Well, the white-gaze was my problem. I was shy about going up to people and asking to draw them – because of the imbalance of our political polarity, it was hard for me to establish an equal footing between us as humans. I felt awkward about drawing people like they were animals in a media zoo, what with half of the volunteers in the camp taking photos to boost their prestige on Facebook.
But there is something about drawing, I think based mainly on how long it takes, that is less like taking a photo, snatching an image and framing it out of the context of the subject’s life, and something more like honouring the sitter. I was humble going up to ask people if I could draw their camp, or their portrait, but because the process is so intimate, with lots of heavy eye contact, breaking into smiles, almost like flirting, and because putting images on a blank bit of paper is very much a spectator sport, with lots of people crowding round to watch, it was always quite festive. In the end, it felt more like an exchange of gifts, and concluded with tea, or conversation, and the swapping of Facebook details, so I could send on the images.
Censuses claimed between 400 and 500 unaccompanied kids were there, the youngest around 10 years old. Either their parents sent them alone, or were split from them along the journey. They would hang out in groups, and were often the ones to start the occasional fights in the camp. In the food lines, they were often the ones skipping the queue, causing the people behind them to shout, and turning the atmosphere nasty. I stepped in to one fight, in a queue I was managing (a queue of about six or seven languages, none of them English), found the protagonist, and ended up squaring up to a 14 year old. It was ludicrous, and sad – me, a foot taller, and him with a rock in his hand. He wouldn't back down, or take his place, and I needed to calm the queue. It was a horrible moment, but in a situation with no professional aid workers in the camp, my lack of experience and training was all that was available. I learnt two things from this encounter: one, a smile works better than aggression, and two, this kid had to cultivate toughness to get where he was.
How did drawing the refugees at the camp change your views about them?
Not one bit. I’ve travelled a lot, and ten years of that makes you realise how similar we all are. Nationhood is a political construct, and mostly people are all different, wherever you are — that’s the similarity. It depends how sharply you focus the lens – from a distance, everyone is the same. Coming face to face with people, you see that some people are assholes, some people are angels, and most are a blurred mix in between.
So, no, it didn’t change my mind, but it did increase my empathy. What if I'd left my friends and family in London and was sleeping in a freezing camp at some arbitrary border in the mountains of Turkey? I’d be wearing second-hand dungarees from a charity shop bin bag, queuing for two hours in the spitting rain for a plate of curry. I'd feel lonely, and angry and totally under-equipped, with my illustrator hands, to fight off the Jungle mafia, the French police, the security forces and lines of hate-filled fascists, cutting my way through razor wire every night.
What do you think your drawings will achieve?
The honest answer is sweet fuck all. I lost my faith in political protest on the fifth Iraq war protest I went on, kettled into groups of 50, lines of police taking our photos, horses escorting us along the road. Protest in England seems like an analgesic, administered by a ‘democracy’ that closes its Westminster windows to the whistles and drums and waits for evening. It’s something for the hippies to do on a Saturday. Similarly, when my drawings were published in the Guardian, the responses were predictable. The pro-immigration lot found them beautiful and full of humanity, the anti-immigration saw them to be lefty, hippy propaganda.
So I didn’t hold out for a sea-change in opinion just because some illustrator had done some pictures. It did, however, allow me, on a personal level, to get to know some of the people in the camp that I didn’t encounter through serving food. It allowed me to engage with these people on a level that wasn’t so patronising, doling out aid for the poor misfortunates. I’m still in touch with these guys on Facebook, and some have even made it to England. They are real people and their lives go on, whether the West bothers to notice or not.