Mathieu Pernot’s ‘Something is Happening’: a photographer’s response to human journey

French photographer, Mathieu Pernot, with the exhibition Something is Happening at the Jewish Museum of Belgium talks about the refugees’ experience at the Moria camp.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Sep 16, 2021

Between the two stages of the refugee journey – a point of arrival at the border or shore of another country and a repatriation or resettlement process – is an integral place, the refugee camp. After arrival and before assimilation or deportation, the everyday life at the camp with limited access to basic amenities seldom manages to acquire the keen attention of the photographers. One of the reasons for this limitation could be traced to the difficulty of having a secured path to accessibility. Making an exception and swiftly dwelling through these areas is the French photographer, Mathieu Pernot. His latest exhibition, Something is Happening, at the Jewish Museum of Belgium, in the city of Brussels, is a walk through the conditions of refugees at the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece, located in the Aegean Sea, a few kilometres from the Turkish coast.

Moria Camp, Lesbos | Mathieu Pernot | STIRworld
Moria Camp, Lesbos Image: Courtesy of Mathieu Pernot

The space of the Jewish Museum of Belgium is an attempt to expand the discussion on “exile, violence and solidarity”, beyond the community of Jews. To let the history of pain endured by Jews serve as a learning exercise on the long-lasting pangs of trauma, the Museum remains alert of the present-day refugee crisis. The exhibition is a corporeal existence of a similar assertion. Talking about his interests in the engrossing themes of exile and migration to STIR, Pernot says, “I think that an artist, even more so a photographer, ought to be part of his time and question it through his/her work.” Citing the topic of migration and population displacement as crucial to the current times, the photographer admits, “What brings me to these places, from the Calais camp to the one in Moria, is the fact that I feel at home there and that these are places that speak to me.” Gauging the camp as the places where history is written, Pernot affirms it needs to be documented, “Walking around the camp, meeting the people who live there, taking the time to exchange ideas and wonder about the best way to represent this history is an unforgettable experience even if I am filled with a feeling of powerlessness and injustice regarding their situation.”

Afghani, Moria Camp, Lesbos | Mathieu Pernot | STIRworld
Afghani, Moria Camp, Lesbos Image: Courtesy of Mathieu Pernot

The spectrum of material at the exhibition – photography, video and handwritten material - is a detailed view of the lived experiences led and the reality faced by the refugees. Unlike the popular documentary-style visual imagery on refugees that harks on the tools of posterization and acts of intrusion to document the ones rendered vulnerable, Pernot avoids the strategic approach of dominant imposition. He maintains the distance between photographer and subject to nurture the importance of dignity – a right deserved by everyone. The photographs invite a response from the viewer that is inclined towards the contemplation rather than evoking a sense of aghast at their sorry position.

Burnt notebook found in Calais after the camp fire | Mathieu Pernot | STIRworld
Burnt notebook found in Calais after the camp fire Image: Courtesy of Mathieu Pernot

The images are in conversation with one another, as if strung together for a moving picture, to allow a peek into the variety of events that mark a day in the life of a refugee at the camps. Agreeing upon this, Pernot mentions, “Indeed, there is a kind of story that unfolds with different characters telling what they see and what they experience. This is why there are different mediums used to render each of these forms of narratives. My photographs bear witness to what I see, the videos taken by the refugees themselves with their phones, and the schoolbooks used by the people to learn the language of the host country. This produces a protean, multi-voiced narrative of this story.”

Moria Camp, Lesbos | Mathieu Pernot | STIRworld
Moria Camp, Lesbos Image: Courtesy of Mathieu Pernot

But this is not the first time that the photographer was traversing the interiors of Moria camp, Pernot now for more than a decade has documented the lives of refugees in Paris and the ones ousted from the forests of Calais. To bring in their voice to the visual narrative espoused by the photographer, Pernot does not refrain from making close conversations with the refugees to build a personal relationship. The notes on the pages of a journal scribbled by a young student or images stored in mobile phones of a refugee are shared with him, which in a way let the exhibit encapsulate the expanse of their experiences. Pernot adds, “Photography is an art of reality and real encounters. You have to have a clear vision of what you want to do and at the same time let yourself be surprised by what reality can offer. When the refugees showed me their images shot with their phones, it seemed obvious to me that material ought to be shown.”

Page from Mansour’s notebook, a lesson in French | Mathieu Pernot | STIRworld
Page from Mansour’s notebook, a lesson in French Image: Courtesy of Mathieu Pernot

The lyricism with which Pernot threads his works is carefully pinned with the hope that, “People would understand the situation of those who suffer from exile and displacement in a better light. I fear that the camp of Moria is the incarnation of what it should not be.”

The exhibition ‘Something is Happening’ runs at the Jewish Museum of Belgium until September 19, 2021.

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