Moving Histories: Heritage, Migration & Storytelling

By September 18, 2018John McDougall

In October 2014 a group of EU member states, including the United Kingdom under the advice of then Home Secretary Theresa May, stopped financial support for Operation Mare Nostrum. The Italian-led search and rescue operation was replaced by Triton, an operation delegated to the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders, otherwise known as Frontex. As border control agents, Frontex are designated to control so-called “irregular migration,” with a focus on the solidification of the EU’s outer borders, and as such the humanitarian efforts carried out by Mare Nostrum were minimized under the new plan.

In just under four years since then, upwards of twenty thousand men, women, and children have lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Many more are missing.

Given Lightwaves’ themes of heritage and migration it is hard to ignore this fact—not merely because of the horror that comes with analyzing these numbers, but also because of the shifts in political and social languages which have developed around them.

The UK’s Brexit dilemma has brought this even more strongly to mind, with conversations about who we are or what it means to belong somewhere becoming fractured and contentious. In Québec, a strong sense of national identity within a larger state has its own misappropriations and controversies.

At times like these it is often artists who provide us with insight, their visual approach allowing us to think beyond the buzzwords and catchphrases of everyday analysis. Photographers, with their particular sense of responsibility to the stories they tell, can often open up a space far beyond the personal and intimate realities of the subjects they portray. Exchanges such as Lightwaves offer the opportunity to explore these realities in a new way for the artist, to explore new ground, to translate the world of strangers through their own eyes. Brought together by exchange residencies involving dialogue in words and images, the stories told by Josée Pednault, Melanie Letoré, Bertrand Carrière, and Mat Hay explore ideas of heritage and migration with separate voices but through shared grounds.

Josée Pednault, drawing on past work and thought processes, finds that her own journey in search of an imagined island creates an empathy for the stories of islands and their inhabitants. Upon arrival in Scotland she found herself drawn to St. Kilda, a whose evacuation of its human population in the 1930s due to food shortages and disease is echoed in today’s tales of migration. At the same time, she met a fisherman from Somalia who has been forced to seek asylum in Glasgow.

By developing a project in which the histories, journeys, and mythologies of St. Kilda are intertwined with those of her friend in Glasgow and her own continued search, Josée seeks to highlight the entanglement of natural resources and human movement which runs through each strand of the tale.

This layering of narratives is also key to the work of Bertrand Carrière, playing on notions of memory, place, and time. Bertrand’s work takes as its starting point his first visit to Scotland in 1977, when as a twenty-year-old aspiring musician and photographer he hitchhiked around the UK, deliberately avoiding Glasgow due to warnings about its reputation for violence. “Don’t go to Glasgow,” he was told, and he didn’t.

Speaking at Street Level on his last day in Glasgow, he spoke of his admiration for the work of Paul Strand, and that inspiration is clear in his bringing together the studied portraits of his sitters, the street scenes in and around Glasgow, and the distant landscapes which punctuate his explorations outside of the city. With images newly printed from his 1977 visit to Scotland, Carrière manages to encapsulate a sense of the unknown, the hopefulness bound up with uncertainty that comes with any young person’s thoughts on the future.

Melanie Letoré visited Québec on a more tangible journey of self-exploration. Having grown up in Geneva, a city inhabited by the United Nations, the Red Cross, and CERN—initiatives embodying the very ideal of international collaboration—Melanie seeks to untangle complicated threads of cultural identity. Her grandparents’ migration from North America to Europe in the 1950s came with its own traumatic experiences, adding another layer to her search for identity.

Melanie depicts the world around her with a thoughtful understanding connecting everyday events in ways which are surprising and revealing. The exchange has allowed her to hone this skill into something more relaxed and confident about the ever-unfolding stories around her.

Mat Hay, whose exploration of place is evident in previous projects, brings his painstaking approach to research to the fore. Creating graphic interpretations of the historical maps, graphs, and charts which formed the basis of his preparation for travelling to Québec and utilizing them as overlays upon his images, he produces a flattening of time and space which recognizes the depth of history and human movement which has formed of our environments, social structures, and everything that comes with them.

Observing the tools and infrastructures created for and by our movements while at the same time recording his own small part of that exploratory instinct, Mat gives the viewer space to think about how for the duration of our existence on earth humankind has naturally migrated.

Each photographer in the exhibition is in some way touched by their own history of migration, whether it was ancestors risking life and limb to find a better life or contemporaries seeking to explore their own stories and heritage. The personal aspect of their journey, facilitated by this partnership between Street Level Photoworks and VU Photo, has given them the opportunity to add their own small part of the story to the wider canon of tales which makes up human history. Their projects remind us that current migratory routes cannot be separated from those which have formed the very nations and cultures which seek to close off access to them, to divide despite a heritage that is undeniably shared through centuries of movement.

The resulting exhibition becomes a space for thought, without the forced direction and deliberate misdirection we face on a daily basis through political soundbites and social media controversies. We are offered the luxury of time—time to look, and hopefully to understand our own place in time and space a little more deeply.


John McDougall is a writer, curator, and photographer based in Glasgow