‘Connection: Time to Rethink Migration’ – Gerard Liston

Photographer Gerard Liston explores new interactive workshops which use photography and sound for personal reflection and respectful discussion on global migration.

Global migration is a matter of growing importance that can polarise opinions. In his recently-published book ‘How Migration Really Works: A Factful Guide to the Most Divisive Issue in Politics’, sociologist Hein de Haas observes:

‘On March 7, 2023, Rishi Sunak gave a press conference with a striking visualimage: Britain’s first prime minister of colour stood on a podium emblazoned with his government’s slogan, ‘Stop the boats’. It is an image that encapsulates the oddities of the polarising issue – a nation perhaps becoming more at ease with its diversity struggling to cope with a migration debate that feels ever more panicked.’

Designed as an interactive workshop and titled ‘Connection: Time to Rethink Migration’, my current photography project invites people to:

  • Look mindfully at glimpses of life in Britain – tinged with the colour of lifejackets and the open sea
  • Listen to human stories from the media about global migration – retold gently and with compassion
  • Reflect and discuss how British life may be connected to the situation of people seeking refuge in our country

Apart from government policy and political rhetoric, media coverage often uses images of small boats packed with refugees in lifejackets heading for British shores.

But little is said about the reasons that people embark on long and perilous journeys to distant lands.

Migration is driven by ongoing catastrophes, including climate change, extreme poverty, conflict and oppression and there is every indication that the situation will become worse rather than better. Many may feel powerless and even fearful and so labelling people – or ‘othering’ – is perhaps a natural human response to protect what we might perceive as ‘ours’.

My aim is to create an environment for reflection and discussion where participants can listen to other viewpoints and raise questions rather than present solutions. The hope is that creativity can prompt the search for a way of living in which we consume less, waste less and share more, both as individuals and as a society. Participants’ hand-written responses are curated to become an essential part of a free-to-view/free-to-share online publication featuring words and images. They also have access to a digital pack of resources, enabling them to plan delivery of workshops themselves, either face-to-face or online.

My own experience of working with people who have lived experience of migration started with a photographic project in 2021. Working with young people on an English course for speakers or other languages – most of whom were seeking asylum – we explored the post-industrial Yorkshire town of Halifax. They used both their new English skills and their home language to write comments alongside images and then took their own photographs on mobile phones, looking at the town with completely fresh eyes.Most recently, and for Refugee Week 2023, I had the privilege of working collaboratively with ten people with lived experience of migration.

An initial discussion with each of them provided quotations that became the brief for photographs taken by myself and by the participants. The project cultivated in me a sense of solidarity with this remarkable group of people who were willing to share their hopes and aspirations for the future.

This new project is ambitious because it neither photographs people seeking asylum nor involves collaboration with them. Instead, it turns the lens on to day-to-day life in a relatively wealthy and powerful nation that is receiving people from other countries.

A pair of audio-visual presentations brings together human stories about migrant boat disasters with images of quotidian British street scenes, backed by meditative soundscapes. We are invited to consider if our consumer lifestyles, our demand for fossil fuels and our colonial legacy make us, in some way, complicit in the plight of people escaping ongoing conflict, poverty, persecution and the effects of climate change.

The images are deliberately intended to be disconcerting – even slightly dystopian.

But I have tried to avoid the risk of lecturing or promoting personal views by shaping the project as a workshop that provides time and space for personal reflection and respectful discussion. I have also sought guidance from individuals and organisations with greater knowledge and experience of working in such a sensitive and complex environment, including Counterpoints Arts and Earth Charter. A pilot workshop with youth people in Brighouse was hosted by Valley of Sanctuary, which is part of the UK-wide City of Sanctuary network.

Shaping this project as an interactive workshop does feel like a risk. Holding an exhibition in a pleasant gallery space or printing a carefully-crafted photobook is probably less likely to ignite strongly-held opinions. But, by presenting some basic ground rules for workshop conversations and by including participants’ written contributions in the output, my hope is that it might discourage entrenched viewpoints and encourage expansive thinking. As Hein de Haas also states in his book:

‘Any real debate on migration will therefore inevitably be a debate on the type of society we want to live in.’

Feedback from the workshops in Calderdale included:

“Here at Calderdale Valley of Sanctuary we are all about building a culture of welcome towards people who seek sanctuary in our Borough, and workshops like “Connections: Time to Rethink Migration” help us do that by challenging our local communities and individuals to interrogate their own attitudes towards the incredible suffering that people who seek sanctuary go through both before, during, and after their journey to their new country. Importantly, this workshop does not stop at the level of individual agency and responsibility, but also highlights the part that our country’s colonial history has played and continues to play in creating the very conditions which force so many to have to leave their country of origin.”

About the Author

Gerard Liston’s socially engaged photographic practice often explores themes around his home in Yorkshire’s Calder Valley. Gerard, who is self-taught and has taken photographs all his adult life, completed an MA in Photography at Falmouth University in 2023.

See more of Gerard’s work here and view resources from the workshops here.