Using multimedia to enrich public and specialist perceptions of immigration detention
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Sussex
Unit of AssessmentCommunication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Demography
Law and Legal Studies: Law
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
Summary of the impact
The multi-media exhibition and publication Border Country
(2007-2010 and 2007) by photographer Melanie Friend, with its research
focus on the experience of asylum-seekers at the point of their
incarceration in UK Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs), have contributed
to national and international public understanding of standards of
well-being and human rights in relation to asylum detention, challenging
assumptions about national detention practices and their impact on
individual detainees. It has also informed campaigning materials and
training sessions for immigration centre visitors and lawyers working with
immigrants and detainees. Border Country's impact is on-going: its
images and text continue to be shown six years after the first exhibition.
Key researcher: Melanie Friend, Senior Lecturer in Media and
Film (Photography) at the University of Sussex (2003-present)
While dominant representations of asylum-seekers focus on `our' view of
`them' as `Other', Border Country employed migrants' perspectives,
captured as audio recordings, and photographic images, to reflect both on
the immigration system and on UK cultural systems and practices. Through
its focus on subjective experiences of immigration, Border Country
positions the disillusionment of the once-hopeful immigrant within the
context of the institutional framework that comprises the UK immigration
system. It shows how the very order and rule of UK law, for which the
aspiring asylum-seeker yearned whilst experiencing the anarchy of their
home country, now entraps them, both in the detention centre and in the
labyrinthine bureaucracy which processes asylum claims.
The project's research method involved, first, 43 hours of interviews
with 11 asylum-seekers in detention, recorded between 2003 and 2007. After
a two-year period of negotiation, Friend was also permitted to carry out
photographic research at all eight IRCs in England. The research
interviews focused on male detainees (who comprise 85-88 per cent of
immigration detainees), but also included material from two women
detainees in Yarl's Wood IRC. Interviews were designed to explore meanings
of home, memory and identity in the context of confinement. Individuals
were followed over an extended period, and also interviewed following
Using her highly unusual level of access, Friend explored the use of
indefinite detention and the ways in which the bleak, chilling
institutional structures affected detainees' states of mind. Interviewees
describe their earlier experiences of civil war and torture, and their
present debilitating experience of detention: two talked of suicide; one
described his suicide attempt. Detainees described what they felt to be
the inhumanity of the UK's immigration detention system. Through the use
of audio recordings of interview fragments from these first-person
narratives, Friend's research encourages its audiences/users to reflect
critically on themselves rather than on the asylum-seeker.
The research also explored photographically the meaning and impact of
institutional space, through a series of landscapes of the external
security structures of the UK's IRCs, and a visual exploration of the
design and seating arrangements of Visits Rooms, several of which used a
rigid demarcation between asylum-seekers and visitors. The particularity
of immigration and detention was emphasised through aesthetic strategies
developed in the work — notably the juxtaposition of these clinical, bleak
images (devoid of people) and the first-person intimacy of the individual
voices of asylum-seekers in the recorded interviews.
The Border Country publication (2007) included images, interview
extracts, essays by three contributors (including Friend), biographical
details of detainees and a 75-minute audio CD of a linear fragmentary
soundtrack. The travelling exhibition (2007-2010) comprised 17 images,
made within the confines of the UK's immigration removal centres, and five
simultaneous soundtracks. Friend also published an academic article
discussing her project methodology (2010).
References to the research
R1 Border Country publication including audio CD with
75-minute soundtrack, published in 2007 by Belfast Exposed Photography and
The Winchester Gallery, Winchester. Includes essays by Mark Durden,
Professor in Photography at Newport School of Art, Media and Design,
University of Wales and Dr Alex Hall, Research Associate, Department of
Geography, University of Durham (the exhibition and publication were
submitted as one output for RAE 2008).
• Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Research Leave funding for
Melanie Friend, 1 January 2007 to 31 March 2007 (£19,272);
• Arts Council England (ACE) 2007 (Grants for the arts — National
activities; £2,520 towards the publication of Border Country — see
Section 3, R3 below).
R2 Solo touring exhibition Border Country (17 prints and
five fragmentary soundtracks):
• Belfast Exposed Photography, Belfast, Northern Ireland, 16 November
2007-11 January 2008;
• The Winchester Gallery, 6-29 February 2008;
• The University of the Arts London, Well Gallery, 6-24 October 2008;
• Border Country was selected as one of the ten best works
nominated for the European Central Bank Photography Award, `Europe' 2008,
and was exhibited that same year in the finalists' group show at Fotokina,
Cologne, and at the European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt;
• BCA Gallery, Bedford 16 December 2009-27 February 2010;
• Gallery 44, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Toronto, Canada, 14
September-16 October 2010.
Details of the impact
Friend's work has been used to inform and enhance the training of lawyers
and visitors working with detainees, and has contributed to activist
campaigns and to building public understanding of the lives and situations
of immigration detainees. This was through the impact of the Border
Country exhibition itself, as well as via extensive press and
curatorial coverage of the exhibition [see Section 5, C1].
Requests for the re-use of Border Country material were received
from filmmakers, campaigners and visitor groups working to help
asylum-seekers. Despite some restrictions imposed by the Home Office,
activist organisations (including Dover Detainee Visitor Group, Bail
for Immigration Detainees and the Testimony Project) were
able to use images from Border Country in their publications and
on their websites, and audio material from the project at conferences and
workshops [C2]. The Gatwick Detainee Visitors Group used the
project's images at its Annual General Meeting (2009), in training for
prospective new Visitors [C3]. Both Dover Detainee Visitor Group
and London Detainee Visitors Group raised funds through selling
copies of the Border Country book, the latter at the launch of the
research report Detained Lives at Amnesty Human Rights Action
Centre, 29 January 2009 [C4].
Friend was invited to talk about the project at public lectures and
exhibition openings. The Belfast Exposed public opening in 2007 included a
discussion of immigration detention between Friend and Northern Ireland
immigration lawyer Anna Morvern. As a result, Morvern then employed the
project's images and interviews when training lawyers for the Law Centre
(NI) in 2008, prior to the opening of the Larne detention centre, as well
as in professional talks on refugee rights. For Morvern, the presence of
detainees' voices in the training room provided an immediacy and
tangibility to discussion of theoretical issues about the practice of
human-rights law in the field of immigration, vital for legal
practitioners new to the field [C5].
The work has also had cultural impact. As a result of press coverage,
Friend was invited by writer Natasha Walter, director of the activist
group Women for Refugee Women (WRW), to participate in the staging of the
play Motherland on 14 January 2010 in Bedford, close to the Yarl's
Wood IRC, by using the Border Country images as stage backdrop.
The play, focusing on female and child asylum-seekers in Yarl's Wood, was
directed by Juliet Stevenson and performed by Stevenson, Harriet Walter
and others. Natasha Walter said: `We wanted to bring the play to a local
audience. There were MPs present — Patrick Hall and Alistair Burt, who
took part in a post-performance discussion of the work — and local
activists, as well as the management from Yarl's Wood and Serco [the
private company in charge of the centre], although they refused to engage
in discussions [C6]. The overwhelming response from the local people was:
"Not in our name"' (July 2010) [C7]. Hall and Burt went on to speak
against immigration detention practices [C6].
Direct audience responses (demonstrated through exhibition visitors'
books) similarly evidence the project's power to inform and challenge
public perceptions about immigration detention and the experiences of
Examples of visitor comments are:
- `Absolutely chilling — absence of people in images and presence in
sound works so well — the images are somehow gorgeous too'
(University of the Arts, London);
- `The sound installation gives that personal edge and impacts on the
highly evocative and haunting spaces. Very moving work...' (UoA);
- `Fantastic insight to what actually goes on' (The Winchester
- `As a student social worker on placement ... this was a great way for
me to gain an insight of what other detention centres look like behind
closed doors...' (The Winchester Gallery);
- `The images tell a compelling and moving story of humanity and
inhumanity which we witness but fail to acknowledge until we are faced
with the reality...' (Gallery 44, Toronto) [C8].
Border Country continues to be a highly engaging and powerful
reference point for public and specialist discussion about immigration
detention, with its images and audio still being used, six years after
its original exhibition [C2].
Sources to corroborate the impact
C1 Media and curatorial report held in Department.
C2 See corroborating emails from Vebi Kosumi, former Director of Dover
Detainee Visitor Group DDVG, July 2004-July 2012. The Bail for
Immigration Detainees website (http://www.biduk.org):
still images from Border Country on its home page (24 October
2013: http://www.biduk.org/). Holly
Pelham wrote about Border Country on the website of campaigning
group The Testimony Project, 13 August 2010. Online at:
`Border Country is a particularly powerful illustration of asylum
and makes an impact without the need to push an opinion. Any reader no
matter what their thoughts on immigration would be unable to deny the
miserable existence of detainees seeking asylum in the UK and for this
reason, Border Country is unique'.
In July 1, 2013 Friend was invited to present Border Country at
'The Politics of Detention', an ESRC-funded, public, multidisciplinary
seminar which brought together academics, practitioners, activists —
including some from Detention Action (http://detentionaction.horg.uk/)
— and those who have experienced detention. Her research was described as
`highly engaging' in this context (http://immigration-detention-seminar-series.org\73-2/).
C3 Nic Eadie, Co-ordinator, Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group.
See also: `Book on Detention: Border Country', GDWG Newsletter,
C4 Emails from London Detainee Support Group Director, Jerome
Phelps, 1-7 November 2008, and from Vebi Kosumi, DDVG [see C2].
C5 Emails from Anna Morvern (including the following, dated 14
`I played extracts from the Border Country CD as part of my
training of lawyers for Law Centre (NI) in 2008. [...] having the "voices"
of detainees in the training room made the theoretical issues about the
practice of human-rights law in the field of immigration appear much more
immediate and tangible ... especially to practitioners who were only just
beginning to practise in this area and were unlikely to have visited an
immigration detention centre or to have witnessed a "removal"'.
C6 Details of Motherland and the January 2010 Bedford
motherland. Email from Natasha Walter, Director of Women for Refugee
Women (15 February 2010) confirms the impact of Border Country's
images in the show.
C7 See: http://www.redpepper.org.uk/refusing-to-be-silenced/
C8 Indicative Visitors' Book comments from UK and Canada
exhibitions and events available in photocopies upon request.