Chroniques immigrées by Christian Carez and Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

The Belgians are preparing for local elections. The main theme is not a surpising one. Like in many other countries, nationalists are dominating the debates. They are asking for a political mandate for a tougher policy on foreigners and on the multicultural realities in the country’s larger cities. They are representing social-cultural diversity as a problem and, together with many voices in the media, they are framing migrants as a threat to the identity of the locals. The nationalist point of view is demanding of every single member of the electorate some reflexion about co-citizens of foreign origin. So, in order to shake up awareness of foreigners living in Belgium, I am turning to a photobook that was published exactly forty years ago by Christian Carez and Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt (deceased in 2015): “Chroniques immigrées” (immigrant chronicles).

© Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Carez and Vanden Eeckhoudt started out in 1975 as photojournalists “working on socio-political phenomenons that are generally neglected“. From 1976 till 1978 they worked on the theme “immigration in Belgium” and this work was eventually published by “Editions Vie Ouvrière” in Brussels.

Raising awareness for the situation of immigrants in the late seventies,”Chroniques immigrés” undoubtedly was (and still is) a book with clear political message. This message is not only suggested by the humanist, empathic, concerned style of the photographers but also articulated by the numerous accompanying texts: There are many quotes from conversations that the authors have had with their subjects. Most are speaking about the precariousness of their daily lifes (hazardous work conditions, fear of getting ill and losing a job, low salaries, racist comments from the local population, especially from police officers).

When a woman asks for work, the manager says: ‘There is no work’. Then the women says: ‘I have a present for you’. These presents, are mostly pieces of gold. Sometimes 3.000 or 4.000 francs. Or a golden ring. Or sometimes, they are asking something else, the managers.”

Racist bar in Wavre – Le travail aux Belges (jobs to the Belgians) © Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Various other texts describe the successive immigration waves in Belgium and also the particularities of each wave. Some of the authors have academic backgrounds, others are syndicalists, politicians or social workers. They basically all blame the liberal economic policies of the (then) EEC or the Belgian bourgeois state for the hard daily life situations, as they are depicted in the book. The book was a product of a counter-force!

landlord throwing out his tenants © Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Political as it may be, as far as I know, this is the first thorough photobook in Belgium about immigration. Thorough, because they have tried to spot what is characteristic to the experience of being a migrant in a broad range of daily life situations. What I find interesting about the depictions of these situations is that they all have a certain symbolical quality. Captions added to the photographs are highlighting these symbolical qualities: “the daily meal”, “at work”, “pay day”, “queuing for unemployement benefit”, “learning in school”, “birth in hospital”, “friday prayer in the mosque”, “departure for the annual holidays”, “visit of a politician from the home country” ….

© Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Many photographs are illustrating the hard working conditions (factories and coalmines were still active in 1978) and the toughness of life as a migrant in general. We see small living rooms, insalubrious kitchens and also an ill man in his bed.

© Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Other photographs depict moments of joy, relaxation or boredom.

© Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Still other photographs show moments of social resistance.

© Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

My favourite picture of the book is the next one. We are seeing a retired Turkish coalminer. He is sitting in his gloomy living room at a table and his position is oriented towards the light of the street outside. The caption says that he is listening to Radio-Ankara. The initimacy of the moment is so strong that the photographer’s presence, betrayed by the reflection of the flash light in a mirror on the wall, is not distracting the man’s attention from the voice in the radio.

© Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Today, the good old humanist style of Carez’ and Vanden Eeckhoudt’s images, originating from the deep trust they were able to build with the persons they have photographed, is still able to pass on strong emotions. The same counts for the texts. In the introduction to the book we can read that foreigners were subjected to a special law that opposes the legal and social status of “the foreigner” to that of “the national”, thus cementing the position of the “foreigner” into the weaker one (compared to the position of the “national”). The legislation in Belgium was designed in such a way that it facilitated the exploitation of foreigners as a cheaper labour force by government and the private sector.

© Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

The foreigners law is still in place but since 1978 many foreigners have been naturalized and Belgians from foreign origin have equal political and social rights now. They are building a new force in the political arena. Hence the resentful, divisive discourse by also the leading nationalists? Chroniques immigrées brings to my mind the great George Orwell: “Nationalism […] is inseperable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality…….Moreover, although endlessly brooding on power, victory, defeat, revenge, the nationalist is often somewhat uninterested in what happens in the real world. What he wants is to feel that his own unit is getting the better of some other unit, and he can more easily do this by scoring off an adversary than by examining the facts to see whether they support him …… Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quiet happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connexion with the physical world.” (Notes on Nationalism, 1945)

© Christian Carez & Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt

Share this...
Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedIn