Written review by
Photoeditor New York Times International, France
For his workshop assignment Till presented a project on the migrants living under the subway bridge in northern Paris in between the stations of Stalingrad and Barbes, choosing to photograph them in Black and White. It is not an easy subject to approach, especially given the very short time Till had to develop the story. Migrants live there in very precarious conditions, sleeping eating and storing their few belongings under and around the bridge, and it is not obvious for them to welcome a stranger, a photographer that wants to focus on them and document their lives. To be able to approach his subjects, gain their trust and get them to open up and accept his presence is a very important quality for a documentary photographer. Very often, if on an assignment for a media outlet, the photographer can end up having very little time to do this and to deliver a story to his client. From this point of view, I am very impressed by Till’s success in convincing to let him in and spend time with them, in such a short time frame and with very little time at his disposal.
The opening image sets well the context of the story, showing a migrant climbing over a fence under the bridge, surrounded by clothes and bags hanging from the fence. The photograph successfully conveys the context of his project: it shows the bridge, some belongings, suggesting the idea that the migrant might live there and providing a good introduction to the take.
I really like Till’s second image, which shows very simply, but with some quality of directness and simpleness, two migrants, one sitting and one behind him with hands on the shoulders of his friend. I say friend because the gesture captured by the photo is sort of intimate, the migrant who is sitting is looking in front of him, and the scene depicted shows a very normal, natural and relaxed moment suggesting that the two men know each other. The image at the same time shows us the subway bridge above them and they are surrounded by objects, specifically mattresses which introduced the fact that people actually live and sleep under the elevated metro line. I like the fact that Till has been able to capture such a spontaneous moment, and that the photographer’s presence is not felt in the photograph, showing that Till has really been able to be accepted and work with his subject in a very short time.
For the very same reasons I find image 3 much less successful: a migrant is photographer under the bridge, in the center of the frame. the elevated line is above his head, crating a sort of geometry that feels sort of contrived. the migrant is staring at the camera, all together giving almost the impression of a non natural photograph. When doing documentary work, it is very important for photographer to be very careful about their interaction with the subjects, and my feel is that Till is too present in this image.
The following picture, 4, shows again a migrant under the bridge, photographed with the same distance and photographs 2 and 3, creating a repetitiveness in the sequence, and in showing a very similar perspective in 3 photos one after the other, I think the sequencing here is not working too well, showing too many similar images in a row. The migrant is holding a cigarette in his hands and looking to his left, but agin the picture and the body language of the person feel a bit contrived, as if he was too aware of Till’s presence.
The same thing is valid for image 5, again same perspective, a man photographed from the waist up, with the bridge above his head.
With image 6 Till starts showing what is around the bridge, the main boulevard that runs on the side: the image incorporated some clothes hanging from the fence, reminding us of the context, and people passing by, as well as a van. the photograph is fine, but maybe Till could try to improve this situation, trying to get a little closer to the people going by, which seem a bit far. A possibility could be to try to catch the expressions of the people the walk by the migrant camp: the woman in the frame seems to be looking in that direction, so this could be a path Till might want to explore more in depth. How do the people passing by react? do we see compassion in their eyes? are they nervous, do they try to look away?
The 7th photograph is a very nice close up of a moment of the migrants daily life: a man helping an other man to shave. All we see are the hands of the migrant working with a blade and holding a cigarette and the other man’s head from the side. A very nice moment and a good image, well composed, brings the viewer in and shows an intimate moment.
Same thing applied to image 8 which shows a close up on a mattresses , a bag and a koran, adding a religious, spiritual element to the documentation of the migrants lives.
Image 9 also depicts an other daily life moment; migrants playing domino or a cardboard. But from the point of view of the composition the image is not completely successful. The migrants hands and bodies overlap too much, on the left side of the frame we see the arm sleeve of a man (guessing, because I can’t see the hand) which does not help the framing, the leg of the man on the right side of the frame is too prominent: all these elements make the picture a bit hard to read, Till seems to far from the important elements of the photo.
Image 10 is an other very good close up of a man combing an other man, both this and the shaving photo are very successful, depicting daily life normal instants of the migrants’ day.
Image 11 is again a bit flawed for me, because of the interaction of the subjects with the photographer: a group of migrants sitting along the fence, but the man on the right is looking at Till, and alms smiling. The fence behind the man is an important element, because the migrants’ camp under the bridge is surrounded by it, giving almost the impression of a cage: this is an element of the story that Till might want to explore more.
Image 12 presents a very similar issue: the man is starting into the camera and smiling. A part from that, the composition does not work: on the far right of the frame we have a small part of somebody’s arm, not really adding anything to the content of the photograph, and not really successful in terms of composition.
Image 13 is a repetition of image 7, with an almost an identical composition: Till needs to make a choice and keep just one of them, the photos are too similar to live in the same tight edit. my feel is that image 7 is stronger.
Image 14 is the closing image, and the only night scene, which is important to have, but the picture is too loose and the scene too confused to be successful.
Till could think of going back to document more of the night moments, like the immigrants preparing themselves for the night, to go the bed and sleep under the bridge, with basically no shelter. other elements that I feel Till could work on are more the migrants belongings: what do these man try to keep with them and protect, try to store and hide to avoiding loosing them? are they important objects which help them survive, do they have objects reminiscent of where they come from and their previous lives?
One last idea: I think that food would be an other important element to represent in the story, but it is not present: an option could be documenting the food distributions and the meals of the migrants.