Welcome To The (Calais) Jungle - An Interview With Documentary Photographer Vincent Peal

Vincent Peal is clearly a man who is deeply moved by the plight of outsiders. His portfolio includes photos of the homeless, drug addicts, transgender women, the disabled and protestors, and each image has been taken with the upmost care and respect. If his images could be ever considered sensationalist, that is solely due to the nature of who he photographs.

With the refugee crisis once again in the news, Louise Carey sits down with Vincent, to discuss both his images of the Calais jungle and his thoughts on this political hot potato...

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How would you describe your work to someone that’s never seen it before?
Wherever I go, I want my work to bear witness to what I’ve seen. I went to the Calais jungle as I wanted to see exactly what was going on for myself. The press came to Calais at first, to see what was happening, but after a few days they left and just stopped covering it. The French newspapers said that everything was very calm and that nothing was happening. However, when I arrived I saw just how terrible it was – it was 2 hours away from my home and it was absolute war. There was burning and rioting, but the press just wasn’t reporting it. I knew that I wanted to document it all in order to show the reality of life for the refugees living in Calais at the time. It was incredibly difficult to see everything that was going on, but I’m a photographer – documenting these atrocities is my job.

What do you want to achieve with your photographs?
I want to be able to open people’s minds. The sad reality of the world is that terrible things happen to people every single day. But I want to be able to show people that helping marginalised people is worthwhile. They may live differently, but they’re interesting and beautiful. Everything looks the same here – the cars, the people and the fashion. But the refugees are people from a different culture, with new ideas and experiences that we can learn from. I think we just need to be more open in general.

What are your thoughts on refugees coming to Europe?
It almost feels like an impossible situation. In my home country of Belgium I saw a TV report talking about people’s attitudes to refugees versus our own native homeless population. For some reason, I think people tend to be more giving towards the refugees, but our homeless need support too. I would like to help everyone, but it’s difficult. Can we accept everybody? I would like to, but can we actually do it? I don’t know.

When you’re shooting situations like the Calais jungle do you ever feel ethically compromised? 
Yes. Sometimes when you’re a photographer you feel like you’re a peeping Tom. But this is my work, and I want to show real life. In WWII, there were a lot of Jewish people in the camps in Germany. But there were also a lot of journalists documenting it and showing what was happening. I feel that when I took these pictures I was showing that the Calais Jungle exists. The French press didn’t report it, so it was like they were denying its existence – just like some people try to say the Holocaust didn’t happen. But we have pictures from these journalists that prove that it did take place.

Has anyone ever asked you not to take their photo?
Of course. I do sometimes get people saying that they don’t want their photo taken. However, if that happens then I just say ‘Ok, no problem’, because I respect their wishes. Sometimes I’ll ask someone if I can take their picture, but if they say no then it’s not a problem for me.

What is the most difficult image you’ve ever taken?
One day I was at home with my girlfriend and we were at the window smoking a cigarette. Suddenly she screamed, and I turned my head to see a guy standing naked on top of the roof of the house opposite. He stepped off the roof and fell to the ground. He’d committed suicide because he wasn’t able to pay his rent, he didn’t have the right papers to stay in Belgium and he was completely alone. For almost two weeks afterwards the sound of the body hitting the ground was in my head. On that evening, I decided to go down and take a picture because I wanted to show that even in Belgium people are sad and disappointed, and suicide becomes an option for them.

That must have been very hard to see - why did you take that photo?
Taking the picture helped me to work through the trauma of what I’d witnessed. A lot of people are surprised that I did so, but I always say ‘Yes, why not?’. We know that there are problems like this in Brussels, and I feel that it’s my job to take pictures to show the world that these issues exist, even though doing so is difficult. I always try to talk to the people living on the street, to the people in Calais, and ask them what’s happening with them and where they come from. I like talking to people with different experiences, and feel that it’s very important for opening my mind.

Do you have any advice for documentary photographers who are just starting out?
Don’t think too much about the technical side of photography. Keep going and try to get close to who you’re photographing. I often work with a small camera, because that requires me to interact with my subject. Love and respect the people you want to take pictures of, because they feel it, and that’s how you’ll get amazing shots.

Vincent Peal is an award-winning documentary photographer who has captured hard-hitting images in locations such as New York, Paris and Berlin. See more of his work here