Halfway Home by Kurt Deruyter

Halfway Home is a photobook about the so-called “transit” or “arrival neighbourhoods” for migrants in Brussels, more specifically about the neighbourhoods around the canal (Kuregem and lower Molenbeek). The canal zone was the industrial heart of the Belgian capital until, in the course of the last century, its factories and workshops have gradually fallen into disuse. The zone became impoverished and eventually also deserted by the original inhabitants. Ever since, migrants from all directions know that after arrival in Belgium they will find a temporary shelter somewhere in Kuregem. Once there, they hope to move on to another, more permanent basis. But it is also from there that – when luck is not on their side – they have to disappear into the so-called illegality or that they return to where they come from. In Kuregem, life constantly vacillates between hope, good and bad luck.

© Kurt Deruyter

Photographer Kurt Deruyter is building a body of work that “explores these arrival communities and offers a glimpse of a fascinating, often hidden world characterised by chaos, cosmopolitanism and the will to survive.” His book Halfway Home (self-published in 2015) is said to be part one of this work. Kurt describes it as “a broad multi-faceted visual research on these neighbourhoods.” Kurt’s visual language rather relies on the registers of the researcher, the anthropologist than on the artistic registers of the famous big city photographers of the twentieth century. His approach of reality seems to be an objective, purely documentary one. He is not looking for the personal experience or for the symbolical but for the reality of this specific environment.

© Kurt Deruyter

To come with photograps that are reflecting reality is of course an artistic challenge as well. It is a challenge that requires a box of tricks only known to the great masters. And we will see that Kurt, resorting to the art of the photobook, knows the tricks all too well. For one thing, the book is multifaceted indeed: it succesfully juxtaposes street photographs, landscapes and portraits. Some are in colour others are in black & white. In between these images, different types of texts are integrated: a legal text, personal testimonies from migrants, sociological and academic texts, some maxims (“Rising nations attract migrants, declining powers try to keep them out.“) and some texts that shed a more holistic light on the forms of migration in the age of globalisation. Despite all this heterogenity, the coherence is never lost.

© Kurt Deruyter

We will come back to these texts, but we let us first be moved around in the canal zone through Kurt’s rechearcher’s gaze. The area does not seem to be flourishing. We are looking at unpainted façades (mostly from the rear side), at empty depots, at an abandoned car-wash service. We see pavements that are broken or covered with weeds and puddles. Sometimes there are empty pallet boards or even cement blocks hindering the passage ways. Here and there we see blind walls or fences making inaccessible areas invisible. Rarely – and only from far away vantage points – we see the lights of impenetrable offices where local clerks must be working.

   

© Kurt Deruyter

What I find a brilliant is that we gradually adopt the gaze of the migrant who – from traffic island to traffic island – is wandering through the cement jungle of these neglected neighbourhoods. There is not much comfort. There are not many venues to go. There is nothing or nobody to interact with. Belgian society is around but nowhere to be found. The host community has turned its back and remains mute. We are confined to the dumb reality of these uninspiring streets. Through the photographer’s registration of these grey urban shapes we start to realise what exclusion looks and feels like.

Kurt Deruyter has also travelled to photograph in some of the inhabitants’ home countries, mostly in Tafersit in the heartland of the Rif Berbers in Morocco. Somewhere in the book, someone is quoted saying about these places, “Anyone who has the bad fortune to be born in a third-world country, is essentially born in an open-air prison.” Interestingly, in the photographs he has made in Morocco, we see the same cement jungle, the same unpainted façades, empty store houses, cement blocks and empty pallet boards on the pavement. In this book, the photographs of Tafersit and Kuregem are mirroring each other. It is understood that Kuregem is an open-air prison just as well. The specific urbanistic elements that Kurt has chosen to show (either in Africa or in Brussels) are representing the same structural obstacles to freedom: the invisible, intracable mechanisms of deprivation and exclusion. Like in the Odysseia, no one in this book can be sure about reaching his or her destination. The title (“Halfway Home“) starts to make sense.

© Kurt Deruyter

One of the premises throughout the texts is that arrival neighbourhoods like Kuregem are either well-functioning (“when they become jumping-off points for migrants to realise their dreams“) or poorly functioning (“holding areas for young, frustrated migrants with no way out“). It follows- as Kurt Deruyter writes in his afterword – that the choices for the hosts and their political rulers (for us) are “really quiet simple“: “we can invest massively in eductation and social mobility for migrants or let the situation slowly deteriorate and risk conflict and violence“.

© Kurt Deruyter

The readers of Kurt’s book should know that in the current pre-electoral days in Belgium, only mentioning this choice means already hitting some badly infected tooth nerves with some of our political rulers. (Especially the nationalist ones who are defending semi-racist, anti-migration politics). Kurt does not enter the political debate, he sticks to his role as researcher or anthropologist. He remains the photographer trying to capture the reality of a life in exile, characterised by dislocation, rootlesness and marginality. And this brings us to the most beautiful aspect of this book: the many portraits of the (temporary) inhabitants of the canal zone. The portraits are devoid of any sentimentalism, judgement or compassion. They are frontal and they bring that emotional charge to the book, that is indispensable to the great works of art!

© Kurt Deruyter