John Vink

Centre National de la Photographie

Refugees: the nomads of the nation-state. They number over 20 million; another 25 million are simply labeled “displaced persons” because their flight has not taken them across an international border. Since 1987, Belgian photojournalist John Vink has been following groups of them—the identifications are cumbersome because by definition these are people from one place who have gone someplace else—Guatemalans in Mexico, Bulgarians in Turkey, Cambodians and Burmese in Thailand, Kurds in Iraq, Mozambicans in Malawi, Romanians in Hungary, as well as DPs in the Sudan, ex-Yugoslavia, and Angola. Most of Vink’s excursions into this limbo of human suffering were made in collaboration with the French-based humanitarian organization Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without borders), but the project is basically a personal one, intended to mobilize public opinion. “I’m not a war photographer,” explains Vink, “but someone who photographs the results of war.”

In this exhibit of 115 photos, all black and white, 12 by 16 inches, clustered in groups of four or six, not by country but by theme, it was difficult to imagine the impact that any one image might have had when it appeared in a newspaper or a magazine as a fragment of visual “reality” anchored in textual fact. But the shift from media to museum, intended quite respectably to focus attention on the refugee issue, was frankly unsettling. In the first place, the particularities of a given situation were lost in the welter of images. Impossible to look at an individual photo—except for a few poster-size enlargements—without having at least three others packed around it. According to Vink, this horror vacui approach was meant to counter the tendency toward estheticizing such experiences, but the result was more often the opposite. The images that managed to stand out were not necessarily the most informative, but the most visually striking, stylized, and ultimately, artistic.

Vink anticipates such criticism by asking, “Should the photographs be ugly because they show refugees?” calling to mind Arshile Gorky’s dismissal of social realism as “poor art for poor people.” But that Vink’s art is good art for (or about) poor people is still disturbing. In part, this is a function of his style, an esthetic of immediacy that brings us as viewers much closer to these refugees and displaced people than we as reasonably settled individuals would necessarily like to be. To cite only one example: a photo taken in a food dispensary for Burmese refugees in Bangladesh (1 June 1992) confronts us with an undernourished infant cradled upside down on his mother’s legs while she feeds him with an enormous spoon. The human geometry is perfect, but the baby’s eyes are also—inescapably—in the center of the composition, and the high-angle shot brings the mother’s toes uncomfortably close to our space.

This discomfort is all to Vink’s credit, but it is not the whole explanation. The problem with photo-essays of this kind is that the subjects are almost inevitably reduced to the same passivity in their photographs as they are in their lives. We see them eating, sleeping, carrying out all the tasks that are necessary to get from one day to another, and above all, waiting. But they are always observed and never addressed. An occasional glance at the camera is the only semblance of dialogue. Seemingly conscious of this limitation, Vink has also published a CD-ROM, Camps de Réfugiés (Refugee camps), with 300 photographs, spoken commentaries, video interviews with himself and the former president of Médecins sans Frontières, statistics on the different refugee groups, and a selection of their music. But there is still not one word from the refugees themselves, and their silence is deafening.

Miriam Rosen