About a week ago I went to the Frontline Club, to see a talk and presentation of Transit, a photo-essay project by award-winning Norwegian photojournalist and picture editor Espen Rasmussen. Espen has spent much of the last seven years photographing the plight of refugees and displaced people around the world, having first become involved in the stories of Iranian refugees in Norway. The project has just been published as a book by Dewi Lewis, exists as an interactive website (www.transit-project.com), and is currently being exhibited in Norway.
Transit is an impressive achievement by any standards. Covering ten countries across Europe, Africa, south Asia and south America, it is a remarkable series of photo-essays, similar in breadth (although very different in approach) to Jim Goldberg’s work, which I blogged about when he won the Deutsche Borse prize earlier this year. Rasmussen spent weeks at a time in each country, researching stories, meeting people and gaining their trust; he states that he spent far more time talking to and interviewing the people that he met than he did photographing them.
As is becoming increasingly commonplace in photojournalism projects like this, Transit also features a number of audio-slideshows (you can watch some of them on the Panos website), or photofilms, as part of its narrative. To some extent they give a voice to the characters portrayed in the photos, add another dimension to the stories, or provide a more immersive experience than simply looking at pictures on a page. However, powerful as Rasmussen’s work is, I’m not quite sure how successful some of these particular audio-slideshows are. But, as Harry Hardie, curator of HereOnTheWeb, pointed out in his introduction to Espen’s talk, the book version of the project is itself very film-like. The sequencing of images, establishing shots, introducing characters without giving too much detail, does have a cinematic quality to it. It is this element that started me thinking about the word transition – and about whether if a book can be more cinematic than a film, do we really need the film?
The literal definition of transition is the act of passing from one state or place to another. A transition in the cinematic sense is the process of moving from one shot to another in sequence – whether that’s a straight cut, a fade out and in, a cross-dissolve, or so on. And its becoming an increasingly important word for photographers who are getting involved in audio slideshow/multimedia/video production. A couple of days after the Transit talk, the Photographer’s Gallery and British Journal of Photography staged one of their monthly ‘social’ events, this time (by coincidence?) on the theme of photofilms and the challenges for photographers (and photography) in making the transition from still to moving image storytelling.
Speaking at the Photographer’s Gallery event, photographer/filmmaker CJ Clarke imparted an obvious but fundamental piece of advice to anyone from a stills photography background trying to make the leap into producing moving image pieces – that (and here I apologize if I paraphrase slightly – but he did say something very much like this in essence): ‘as soon as you introduce the element of moving time into your project, you have to start using the language of cinema’. By this he meant precisely the conventions of transitions, the tracking movement or drift of the camera on a shot, the interplay of sound combined with images – all of the basic elements that make up the video sequences that we see every day on television and in cinema, but rarely stop to deconstruct and analyse.
Photofilms are being increasingly seen as an effective way to tell stories visually without going to the full extent of shooting and making a fully-blown film. But it would be a mistake to assume that this means photo-films are easier to produce. In fact, in many respects I would argue that they are more difficult to make. Their success relies in many ways on the quality of audio that is captured, as well as the selection of voices/narrators, music, on-screen text or elements of video that are incorporated – as well of course on the sequencing of the images and the transitions between them. Advances in technology have presented traditional photographers with small lightweight digital cameras that can capture all of these different media elements, but it’s still difficult for one person to successfully gather all of them at the same time and produce and edit them. The most successful examples that I’ve seen have almost all been collaborations, involving other several other people besides the photographer themselves. And so it is here that understanding the language of cinema is essential, even done to the basic, non-technological approach of sketching out a story-board first.
I don’t know how much or how little of this Rasmussen knew or understood when he was producing the stories that would become Transit. He spoke of how his ‘day-job’ as a picture editor (for Norway’s largest newspaper) helped him bring some discipline to the process, but also hindered him as he is used to editing other people’s photographs rather than his own. But whatever the process, the result is unquestionably an important body of work, photo-films included. It’s a compelling document of our times, a period of great upheaval and uncertainty that has prompted the mass migration and displacement of people on a huge scale.
There are currently more than 43 million people registered as refugees or internally displaced people around the world. The stories of just a tiny number of those 43 million that Rasmussen presents us with are harrowing and could be unremittingly depressing. But, as the former UN Emergency Relief Co-ordinator Jan Egeland says, in his essay that accompanies the book, Transit is “as much a book of hope and promise as it is a portrait of a world of injustice and brutality”.
For his part, Rasmussen says that pretty much every displaced person or refugee he interviewed simply said that their dream was to one day go home. Transit concludes with a powerful series of photographs of the (mainly makeshift) empty beds that the people he photographed along the way would sleep in.
Ironically, in some ways it is these pictures – devoid of the people we’ve been introduced to in the preceding images – more than any of the others, or any of the multimedia elements, that tell the story of what it must really be like to be a refugee.