It was when I walked among the metal fences lined with black-and-white photos that I finally saw The Stations come together as an artistic project. The pictures of refugees featured in the exhibition at St Martin-in-the- Fields were beautiful and evocative, as well as sad and haunting. But the way they were displayed was also a stroke of genius.
Exhibiting the 30-plus large-print photos in the relatively confined space of the foyer at the central London church was going to be a challenge. Traditional easels would be expensive and take up too much space. When creative director Marksteen Adamson struck on the idea of using metal fences (the type normally used to cordon off building sites), this proved to be the perfect solution. They were cost-effective, it was easy to hang pictures on both sides and the fences could be arranged as a maze that created a mini journey for the visitor.
Like all great artistic ideas, the fences worked on more than just a practical level. Feeling ‘caged in’ was an entirely appropriate sensation while viewing the images of people who had themselves faced all kinds of physical and cultural barriers in their flight from conflict.
Every person featured in the photos was far from home, stranded in a camp or a ramshackle bedsit. Many of those featured had reached the relative safety of neighbouring Lebanon, having fled from Syria or Iraq. Others had travelled the length of Europe only to reach a dead end at the metal fences of the Calais border.
These were individual faces from a much larger crisis. More than a million refugees travelled to Europe in 2015 and more than 4,000 are estimated to have perished while making perilous crossings of the Mediterranean. Reports of those who lost their lives became so frequent that the media and public stopped paying attention to them. Public attitudes started to harden against the refugees.
Then in September 2015, graphic pictures of dead toddler Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey seemed to turn the tide of public opinion. The heartbreaking image led to an outpouring of compassion towards those caught in the crisis. It was an example of the way an image can cut through headlines and political posturing to speak directly to the heart.
ART AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS
A picture can speak a thousand words, and it was in this context that the idea of an artistic project started to materialise.
I had been interested in creating a modern-day reinterpretation of the Stations of the Cross – the traditional set of images depicting the journey of Christ from trial to crucifixion and burial – for the Easter edition of Premier Christianity magazine. When I suggested the idea to Marksteen Adamson, creative director of an award-winning branding and design agency, he suggested that the refugee crisis would be the obvious contemporary lens through which to retell Christ’s journey of suffering. So The Stations was born.
As a committed Christian and accomplished photographer, Marksteen had been searching for a way to respond creatively to the refugee crisis. Within weeks he was visiting the Calais ‘Jungle’, camps in Lebanon and making friends with refugees who had made it to the safety of UK shores.
I wanted to engage as deeply as I could
The aim was not to simply produce a beautiful exhibition and magazine feature but, by meeting some of the individuals beyond the headlines and newsreel footage, to connect hardened hearts in the with real people who are part of the crisis. Importantly, this would be an artistic project not simply about refugees but produced with them.
She tells shocking stories of what she witnessed
One of Marksteen’s incredible qualities is his ability to quickly connect with strangers on a personal level. On visiting the Calais camp, he soon realised it was not the place to use a long-distance telephoto lens. He needed to get to know the residents.
‘There is a difference between reportage and art,’ he says. ‘With art there’s a license to look at composition and structure that adds to the feeling you want to create. I wasn’t really interested in doing reportage; we’ve seen plenty of that. I wanted to engage as deeply as I could in the time I had with individuals so that I could really understand their stories and then create an image, with their permission, that would create that feeling.’
PHOTOGRAPHING THE ‘JUNGLE’
By the end of 2015, more than 5,000 people were living in the makeshift Calais camp. Efforts in early 2016 from the French authorities to discourage further arrivals have seen part of the camp demolished and some new quarters established. On the trips he made to the camp, Marksteen was drawn to those who were already employing their artistic skills.
The Jungle’s Orthodox Church, erected from sheeting and scrap wood, had come to stand as a beacon of hope in the confines of the camp. There he photographed a young Eritrean man, Abdullah; one of a number of artists who had decorated the makeshift sanctuary with paintings of icons and sacred triptychs. The attention and detail was ‘extraordinary’, according to Marksteen. Abdullah would become the subject of ‘Station 08: Outlaw’, photographed in front of the church’s roughly hewn cross, his eyes closed and palms turned upwards in surrender.
The camp’s Kurdish community also welcomed the photographer as he spent time with mothers, fathers and children. Two teenagers told him their story of being separated from their mother, Salma, after their father was murdered by a criminal gang in Iraq. His head had been left on the doorstep of their family home. They stayed with their grandmother while Salma fled with her youngest children. In the depths of winter, stowed away in the back of a trafficker’s lorry, she arrived in the UK heavily pregnant and with two young children in tow.
After the death of their grandmother, the teenagers made their own perilous journey to be reunited with their mother, brothers and sister. They made it as far as Calais and have been stuck there ever since. Photographed next to a sheet bearing the poignant words ‘Zero to landfill’, they represent ‘Station 12: Family’, in which their picture is held by Salma, photographed back in her flat in Birmingham, waiting to be reunited with them. Marksteen continues to involve himself in their legal case. Another striking portrait was taken of a young, unnamed woman. While not constituting one of the set of 14 images for The Stations, the woman, pictured in a headscarf and with with piercing eyes, would come to be known as ‘Mary’. She stood at the entrance of the exhibition; a maternal presence marking the start of the impending journey through The Stations.
LEBANON’S SYRIAN REFUGEES
The next stop on the journey was Lebanon. The country is only a little larger than Wales, yet has accepted more than 1.5 million refugees from neighbouring Syria into both official and unofficial camps. A local church provided a base for Marksteen to meet refugees fleeing from the war-torn country. The government is in disarray and infrastructure is almost nonexistent, yet this is the country that is bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis.
While there, the photographer’s eyes were opened to how Christians have been at the forefront of providing relief to thousands of Muslim refugees who have crossed the border in search of safety. Several days were spent meeting families who had been given shelter and support, as well as visiting refugee camps located around Beirut. Family units often consisted of mothers looking after children alone in tents or bedsits, their husbands killed in conflict or separated as a result of other circumstances. Invariably, there was a dignity to those he met, despite their torrid living conditions.
One woman, photographed for ‘Station 07: Burden’, cares for her two disabled children in a cramped room on the roof of a house. She told Marksteen how her original home in Syria was completely destroyed. Aged 17 and 24, her sons have serious physical and mental disabilities and need round-the-clock care. This made the journey from her home in Syria extraordinarily arduous. She tells shocking stories of what she witnessed there, including seeing Christians, some of them recent converts from Islam, being crucified by ISIS.
It was a chilling reminder that death and execution of the most barbaric kind still occurs in this part of the world. In response, Marksteen wanted to create a visceral shot of a prisoner hooded for execution, representing a modern-day crucifixion. ‘While I was in Lebanon I came across a man (whose name I can’t mention for obvious reasons) who had been through persecution and torture and had fled Syria. We had a conversation about this image I had in my head. I also wanted him to be naked. I felt that was important because Jesus was stripped. With a lot of imagery we shy away from showing that. But stripping is humiliating,’ says Marksteen.
The man agreed to pose for the picture that would become ‘Station 10: Murder’, and the opening spread of the magazine feature. But Marksteen had to be careful for this particular photographic assignment. ‘It wouldn’t have been a good way to get arrested,’ he says. ‘We drove up into the mountains and found a derelict building, set it up, took the shot and got out of there as soon as we could.’
Karzan, the refugee featured on our April front cover and in ‘Station 06: Humiliation’, lives in the UK but was unable to return to his home country due to his conversion to Christianity. When Marksteen photographed him for the project, Karzan was battling for visas to allow his wife and child to join him. Happily, they were recently reunited and have begun their new life together in the UK.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
Once the travelling and photography was over, the task of deciding which shots to use for the project began. I met with Marksteen at his Cheltenham studio to begin filtering the reams of material into 14 distinct ‘stations’. We had decided not to slavishly follow the traditional set of images, but chose moments in the Passion story, from betrayal to burial, that resonated with the stories that had been captured.
A BBC crew filmed part of our decision-making process, as well as interviewing one of the British refugees, Karzan, who was involved in the project (see box). A TV documentary called The Battle for Christianity subsequently aired during Holy Week and featured The Stations project.
More hands were brought in to help arrange exhibitions and deliver further resources. Julie Tomlin and Lou Dawson crafted the words that would explain the context and story of each Station, while Marksteen set about creating response packs that included wristbands, prints, a newspaper and other resources, which were sold at the exhibitions and online to raise money for refugee relief.
And the journey isn’t over yet. The images have begun to make their mark far and wide. Some churches have arranged their own exhibition or Stations of the Cross services, and youth groups used the images in their Easter activities. Others are planning to use the images during Refugee Week in June, when the theme of the exhibition will switch to ‘Journey Together’.
For Marksteen and myself, the journey has been a humbling one: seeing and meeting people living in desperate circumstances, yet not without hope. They often seem to exhibit a peace and fortitude that goes beyond natural explanation. Many have walked the path of betrayal, rejection, persecution and suffering, but also know that the one who walked that same path walks with them today.
Find more stories, images and resources about The Stations at premierchristianity.com/thestations
To purchase The Stations response pack visit thestations.org.uk
You can also help to support the running costs of The Stations by purchasing one of the sets of exhibition prints.