In Paris walking along the Seine, a young woman stops about eight feet from some approaching tourists, spotting something on the ground. She places herself in their sightline, stoops down and a large golden ring appears in her hand. She looks at it admiringly and asks the tourists if it is theirs. After some moments of wonder, she offers to sell this golden ring to them for maybe what appears to be a surprisingly small sum of money. A few blocks further, a young Romanian boy stoops to pick up another invisible ring off the ground and the tourists pause with his questions of ownership. A few blocks further it is an elderly woman who bends down with surprising dexterity. A relatively harmless scam that gives the impression that the roads in Paris are literally paved with gold.
Since 2003 Jim Goldberg has been working on a project about the "New Europeans," that is, refugees escaping their homeland either because of war or poverty to make a new home in Europe. His new series of books, Open See just published by Steidl, brings together a multitude of voices speaking of their journeys towards a "better life."
Using different media such as multi-format photographs, polaroids, writing, ephemera and objects, Goldberg presents these fractured histories as a flow of harsh realities of dislocation where hope seems pushed to its limits. The most common denominator between the participants is the disconnect between dreams and reality. One is offered a job by a cousin only to be sold into prostitution. Another dreams of the wealth of Europe and yet faces even more poverty as racism keeps them from getting any job. It is a set of books as much about the cruelty of man attempting to take advantage of the powerless while they are in their most vulnerable state.
Like in his book Raised by Wolves, Goldberg's approach is a collaborative effort - the marginal given their spotlight. He photographs and collects the histories but also allows the subjects their own voice by way of writing on the photographs he takes of them. Often without translation, my first impression was of annoyance that I could not fully understand each person's plight but now I think that lack of translation is a strength. By denying certain information due to language barriers, Goldberg has placed us into a similar uncomfortable space as those approaching a foreign country with limited means of communication.
I found it also a way to avoid the 'refugee as spectacle' which is so prevalent in photojournalism. In an effort to describe these lives with the small hope of changing something or helping, often the subject becomes nothing more than a case in need of a solution. My only criticism is that the art-making aspect of collage and intentionally amateur, in-the-moment constructions, can feel a bit forced. It is Goldberg's scrapbook approach - perhaps identifying that the mediums he employs can only provide but a part of the story - that I am both seduced by and yet weary of.
As books, Open See is a set of four housed in a flimsy cardboard slipcase. Three books are relatively thin and concentrating on what appears to be Eastern Europe, India and Africa while the fourth is much thicker and a collective global portrait. There is little text apart from what appears in the images themselves but for two stories in the larger book on a woman sold into prostitution and a Moroccan man who's complicated and life-threatening journey into Italy ended with him unemployed and left with little option but turning to crime to survive.
The genetic lottery of where and when someone is born and the circumstances in which they arrive into is a question the Moroccan man ponders. He asks why couldn't he have been born 14km north of his birthplace. It could be as simple as a few kilometers or a moment in history that shifts a life from normality to horror. This book will mostly sit on the shelves of the affluent, those on the right side of borders, those that probably will know no hardship like those in the photos - the lucky ones, living lives that are the dream of others.