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Gary Younge

An Oromo family visit the seaside in Brighton, having come to the UK as refugees from Ethiopia under the UK Government Gateway Protection Programme. Photograph: Howard Davies
100 Images of Migration: journeys of the century

While travelling along the US-Mexican border a few years back I met a man in New Mexico who called himself Quasimodo and patrolled the frontier in search of undocumented immigrants.

"I can tell an illegal just by looking at them," he said.

"How?" I asked.

"Well, I can tell you're black just by looking at you and you can tell I'm white."

"But you can't tell my immigration status just by looking at me."

"Well, it's like wild dog versus tame dog," he said. "They just don't have the same kind of look."

You can't, of course, tell where someone was born, let alone whether they have moved or under what circumstances they have arrived just by looking at them. That makes a new exhibition being held at Hackney Museum in east London particularly challenging. Titled 100 Images of Migration and part of the Migration Museum project, the aim of this collection of photographs is to chart the immigrant experience in Britain over the past 100 years.

Jean Mohr managed it in A Seventh Man, published in 1975, which chronicled the migration to and within Europe in the 1970s, with considerable assistance from John Berger's text. "The photographs, taken over a period of years … say things which are beyond the reach of words." True enough. And yet to speak with any authority they also had to narrate the journey in its entirety. The political, economic and historical forces that pushed the migrants from home are every bit as significant as those that pulled them abroad or the physical trip itself. "It is not men who immigrate but machine-minders, sweepers, diggers, cement mixers, cleaners, drillers, etc," writes Berger beneath a picture of two officials looking out over hundreds of workers at a recruitment centre in Istanbul. "This is the significance of temporary migration. To re-become a man (husband, father, citizen, patriot) a migrant has to return home. The home he left because it held no future for him."

In the absence of that sequence one is left with a litany of apparent incongruities and abstractions: an Oromo family from Ethiopia on Brighton beach, an Indian woman standing beneath an England flag, Vietnamese girls near the pier in Weston-Super-Mare. Individually they speak of community, identity and suffering; collectively of racial and ethnic difference and diversity. But it is only alongside the pictures of a passport stamped by the immigration department, a Jamaican family outside their Jamaican home preparing to leave for Britain and an Irish family on a boat to Canada, that one gets a sense of migration.

The distinction is important for two reasons. First, for much of the past century in Britain, the inability to distinguish between race (the colour of people) and place (the movement of people) presented a particular challenge for those who laboured under the delusion there was an intrinsic, essential "look" and cultural performance that underpinned what it meant to be British. So ingrained was the connection that pollsters often lumped the two themes together, inviting people to express their concerns about "race/immigration" as though the two were inextricably linked.

"We need to be reassured that strangers, especially those from other countries, have the same idea of reciprocity as we do," argued David Goodhart, the director of Demos thinktank in a particularly noxious article in Prospect a decade ago. As I pointed out at the time, such framing raised the questions: "Who does he consider to be the strangers from our own country? How did they become strangers in their own land? And who does he mean by "we"?"

Second, without understanding where people came from and why – be it colonial occupation, war, poverty or career advancement – the potential for resentment of "strangers" who seem to have appeared from nowhere can be substantial. This was particularly significant for that period of mass migration during the middle of the last century from former colonies. In the words of Gilbert, a Jamaican immigrant in Andrea Levy's award-winning novel Small Island. "But for me I had just one question – let me ask the Mother Country just this one simple question: how come England did not know me?" I still have the British passport my mother brought with her to Britain from Barbados in 1961, along with three A-levels in English literature, European history and British Constitution.

The photographs in this exhibition showing young Italians in north London or the Jewish woman holding the family pendant she hid in her shoe while in Auschwitz broaden our understanding of the migratory patterns that have energised Britain beyond that particular wave at a time when so much of the immigration is now from Europe. When Gillian Duffy approached Gordon Brown in Rochdale that fateful day three years ago, her specific concerns were about eastern Europeans – even though she lives in a town where one in five were Muslim and the Bangladeshi population had increased 58% in a decade. With portraits of women, asylum seekers and refugees the photographs also go beyond Berger and Mohr's timely but time-limited portrayal of the archetypal migrant being a man seeking work.

Such images are useful because, with the impulse to retreat into the nostalgia of a monocultural, monoracial nation that never was, Britain needs a new image for itself. Migration is not only not new. It is not going away. As a small island that was once an empire in an increasingly interconnected world, migration is not only the product of a modern world, it is the reality that Britain itself has done a great deal to produce. You cannot tell if a person is an immigrant by looking at them; but you can tell a country that has been enriched and enlivened by immigration by looking at it.

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