The vilification of immigrants, illegal or otherwise, has been a common reaction to many of the current social problems in the western world. While to some extent illegal immigration plays a detrimental role in these societies, it is almost never the root-cause of the problem. After all, how many waves of immigrants throughout the ages now constitute to the genetic makeup of the UK’s inhabitants? It is an uncomfortable fact that our world is overpopulated and the number of inhabitants is ever increasing. Overcrowding is inevitably going to play a role in the future of immigration patterns. Taking such issues as an impetus, photographer Ben Krewinkel met Gualbert in 2006; he was the only illegal immigrant he met that was willing to be documented in such an unguarded way.
Gualbert left Niger in 2001 after losing his job as an English teacher. Unable to find work he made his way to Amsterdam where he now resides in the southeast part of the city. His family had originally tried to settle in Amsterdam alongside him but their applications for immigration were denied – forcing them to leave. As Gualbert explains, in a short film on the book’s website, he stayed behind to work and provide for his family back in Niger, where most of his wages are sent. Gualbert’s family expect him to return a rich and wealthy man; a common assumption that there is wealth in abundance in the West still prevails. For him to return home without a small fortune would result in being thought a failure by his relatives. Gualbert works tirelessly in the belief that he will one day be able to return home with some savings. However, over the past few years, as immigration laws have tightened, it has become increasingly difficult for an ‘illegal’ to find work.
To many, the lives of such people are hidden. They live on the fringes of normal society, if not because of their financial situations then because of their unwillingness to draw attention to themselves. They exist in a state of constant alertness wondering if their time has come every time the doorbell rings. A reflection of this paranoia comes across in the book, as Gualbert’s face is scratched off the images that could identify and incriminate him. This more documentary style of portraiture is paired with photographs from Gualbert’s personal collection, family letters, official documents and excerpts from conversations between Krewinkel and Gualbert. The project is comparable to that of Jim Goldberg’s Open See as it draws upon various media to make Gualbert’s story his own, moving away from the often exploitative nature of reportage.
At first glance, Krewinkel’s photography seems absent from the book, as Gaulbert’s personal family photographs are the only visible. Just as the lives of illegal immigrants remain unseen and hidden, Krewinkel has hidden his own photographs within the physical structure of the book: they lie between the pages of the Japanese-bound piece, a wonderfully symbolic move, and it is the viewers who must participate and cut open the folded pages to uncover Gualbert’s story.
My favourite image shows Gualbert’s reflection in the window outlined by the trees and tower block outside. He appears to be checking the weather, which looks overcast, or perhaps wondering about his family or the future. How long will he be able to live and work in Amsterdam?
Krewinkel weaves the story through the pages of the book, meandering through Gualbert’s day-to-day routines while continuously referring back to the reason of his illegal residence – his family. As such the book appears like fragmented diary; a little unnerving and methodically constructed. We learn more about the people existing in this unfamiliar world, often working for their families back home. Fans of Jim Goldberg and Seba Kurtis should particularly enjoy this take on the subject of immigration.
The structure and design of the book makes it a unique production, and the viewer participation is an engaging idea. The only problem I faced was neatly cutting the pages (I used a fresh Stanley knife blade and this wasn’t even enough to stop me from tearing some of the pages slightly – a word of warning to all those paranoid book owners, who like to keep their libraries pristine). The book is sealed with a fold-out detailing some of the conversations between Krewinkel and Gualbert who co-authored the work. A Possible Life steps aside from the standard documentary publication and is a beautifully refreshing take in a medium that sometimes removes the viewer from really connecting with the subjects and their stories.