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Giovanna Del Sarto and Bern O’Donoghue present “Another Crossing” at Hastings Debates, 28 February 2018

Another Crossing is a collaborative artistic venture by documentary photographer Giovanna Del Sarto and visual artist Bern O’Donoghue, in which they bring their work together to track experiences of precarious living in the framework of the current European humanitarian crisis. Both work though their art to explore our response to the displacement and suffering of those from afar seeking sanctuary with us, using a combination of photography, installation, and discussion. Felicity Laurence from Hastings Community of Sanctuary invites us to join two remarkable artists and talk about crossing cultural boundaries.

Another Crossing has been shown in many communities, and indeed exhibited in Bexhill’s Murmuration Gallery in 2016 (see HOT review). Since that time, the crisis addressed by their respective artistic practice has worsened to an extent that it calls into question at the profoundest levels the civility we in Europe imagine ourselves to have achieved, and to practise. In the past two years, the governments of the EU, including our own, have undertaken an agreement to send people back to Turkey from Greece, in a procedure whose legality (let alone its morality) is utterly precarious. And where at first there was a sense of care and welcome – albeit not shared by everyone- in the countries where refugees first entered Europe, Greece and Italy, now there is a severe hardening of attitudes. This is currently particularly sharp in Italy, in the context of imminent elections, with promises from the far-right party Northern League to deport hundreds of thousands of refugees back to their countries of origin, no matter their circumstances, hardship, or suffering on the journey to Europe. Already the existing Government, headed by the Centre-left Democratic party, has been accused of colluding with groups in Libya to prevent migrants from leaving that country in the first place.  Our own taxes support similar EU initiatives to ‘train’ Libyan groups in border control – already known to have had brutal consequences.

Bern and Giovanna’s work joins a growing artistic response, in particular within film, photographic work and visual arts, to this paradigm-shifting crisis of our times, accompanying the political and social analyses that proliferate, and indeed the heart-breaking work on the ground in all those places across Europe where people go to try to help those who are in turn trying to make their way here for sanctuary.


Photo © Giovanna del Sarto

Like our previous Hastings Debates speaker Clare Moseley (founder of Care4Calais), and those in our own town who have gone to help in Calais and further afield, Giovanna Del Sarto felt she too must go and witness for herself, and help as she could. She volunteered in Serbia, Lesvos, Athens, Idomeni and Chios, also patrolling the seas off the Turkish coast with the Norwegian NGO “A Drop in the Ocean’. She took her Polaroid camera, and during this time, the project A Polaroid for a Refugee came into being. She explains: “It was based on the concept of giving – giving something back to the refugees, a moment of their life and journey captured forever”.  She wanted to move away from the ‘normal’ narrative of the photographer –“to steal a moment in history that then becomes news” – and instead to use the lowest tech – the Polaroid –“the instant photograph you can touch” as a way of relationship between her (us) and the people trying to find refuge all across Europe.

In an article published by the online journal Window 18B, Giovanna suggests that we may not need to identify with the ‘other’, or to find what we have in common, as a prerequisite for being able to reach out that person. Instead it can be enough, and possible, simply to acknowledge that alterity (the person’s ‘otherness’) while also being able to see her (him) as a fellow human being; this is, she suggests, sufficient condition for offering “unconditional hospitality with that other person”.

She is clear that the real story goes past the sadness and horror – “what prevails – is the strength, the courage”.  The physicality of these Polaroid pictures – that she has to take a step forward or backwards to get it ‘right’ and be in direct touch with the people who look at us from her pictures –  can be seen as a uniquely humanising way of approaching the enormity of this epic Crossing of our times. Giovanna explains: “The Polaroid reflects the inner strength and dignity maintained by refugees during their long and harrowing journeys.” A copy of each photo then becomes a gift – a symbol of that “unconditional hospitality”. Its moment of human relationship shown in each picture is preserved in the inscription on it: ‘Wherever your destination may be – tell me when you feel you have reached a safe space’. Giovanna gives this as “a message of hope, which, sadly, for some may never be fulfilled.”

Bern O’Donoghue likewise has continued disseminating her artistic work, with a particular focus upon the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean, as explored in her installation Dead Reckoning. An article written in conjunction with the exhibition of this work at the Tate in 2017 (published in Open Democracy)  describes its aim as to inspire empathy with those crossing the Mediterranean; thus, Bern’s work is underpinned by the more familiar narrative of trying to get us to feel something in common with those humans making this terrible journey. But what Bern documents is those who don’t make it. Each of the thousands of small paper boats in the installation represents someone who drowned on their crossing. In 2016, there were over 5000 -there are thousands more now: and each of these small origami boats “symbolises a loss of someone significant: a daughter, son, neighbour or friend”. Bern chooses familiar places (her kitchen) and materials (paper, water) to make this work which “identifies some of the most basic similarities we share with refugees and migrants”.

Bern actively involves her audience in making the boats: in this way, she hopes to “widen the debate”, by making it possible for people to start imagining what it might feel like in one of the boats; “as we work, I ask them about their experience of and thoughts on migration…we touch on the possibility that if we needed to escape death, precarious living or poverty, how without doubt, we’d all make the same decisions as refugees or migrants.” Through this interactive artistic process, Bern pursues this “attempt to foster connection, so that empathy and nuanced discourse might follow”. She hopes to help people get beyond the discourse of numbers which can so alienate us from the reality of thousands of people perishing on our doorstep.

As she puts it; “I found it disturbing to see numbers used as a means of distancing people living in safely from the human tragedy and felt compelled to make some work to bridge that distance”.  “how we choose to respond to what’s happening outside our own bubble, including to desperate people risking their lives in flimsy boats, is a measure of how emotionally healthy society is”.

We are honoured to welcome these two acclaimed artists, Bern and Giovanna, as our next speakers at Hastings Debates, where they will take us interactively into their magical and profoundly moving work, and pose to us too, though these artistic media, these fundamental questions about who we really are as a society.

Everyone is warmly invited to join the discussion at Hastings Debates
at the Printworks, 14 Claremont TN34 1HE
7pm for 7.30pm, Wednesday 28 February.
Entry is free, donations are invited.
For more information, see the Facebook page or
contact info@hastings.cityofsanctuary.org.




Posted 12:10 Wednesday, Feb 21, 2018 In: Home Ground

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