Jim Goldberg ‘Open See’

Jim Goldberg’s book and accompanying exhibition ‘Open See’ is part of his ongoing project about what Goldberg calls the “new Europeans”. His subjects include illegal immigrants, refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Goldberg also encourages his subjects to write on the Polaroid portraits he has taken of them. Inspiration of the title ‘Open See’ came from one subject’s assertion that “in the open see [sic] there is no border”. Goldberg plans to also show this body of work in the communities in which he made the images to tell the story of what he has documented.

One of the first, and most direct images you see is Goldberg’s stark portrait of a young man called Syed Saibor Rahaman from Bangladesh. He is standing against a white wall, the silhouette of his shadow outlined in red. Inside this shadow Syed has written simply “My dream is to go to Europe.” Another subject from Somalia wrote about his heartfelt problems “I make 68 taka [$1] a day and have despair.” Another describes the nightmare of displacement… “Don’t have papers, I can’t stay here, I can’t go anywhere.” These few words add powerful impact to Goldberg’s images, giving these immigrants a voice. Often the writing surrounding the images is in the language of the person writing it, which adds mystery to the story, yet still seems to engage the viewer.

Whilst on his travels Goldberg also encountered women who had been trafficked into a life of prostitution. He encouraged them to express themselves on their portraits. One girl wrote: “I am a whore” above her portrait. Another girl named Beauty wrote: “After seven years of this fucking life, all that’s left of my beauty is the name.” As well as written expression, some of Goldberg’s subjects drew upon their portraits for example one man drew arrows in green felt-tip, pointing out the burn marks on his back with the words “Taliban Torture Me.” Amongst the messages of despair and hurt was a glimmer of hope from an immigrant who described Greece as “his Paradise”.

Through a variety of formats such as Polaroid’s, photographs, video stills, found images and hand-written texts Goldberg aims to create a fragmented narrative about the “new Europeans”. This fragmented narrative is unconventional of reportage or straight documentary photography but suits Goldberg as he likes to call himself “a documentary storyteller” as opposed to a political documentary photographer. He has used text and ephemera alongside his images to tell stories in this way since 1970, claiming that; “There’s a thread that runs through all the work that is to do with bearing witness. The photographs are about asking questions, though, not answering them. I’m not a politically radical person. In fact, I’m much more interested in being radical aesthetically.” It has been said that by presenting his work in this way Goldberg is able to indirectly address the issues surrounding immigrants. Often immigrants are documented in such a way that causes the viewer to become desensitised by the sheer volume of images of suffering that they are exposed to, but with Goldberg’s creative collaborations the viewer is kept engaged in the story he is telling of these immigrants.

Magnum photographic agency commissioned him to begin the project in Greece in 2003, studying some of the estimated two million immigrants living there who were unable to work legally or access even the most basic of human rights. This early part of the project won him the Henri Cartier-Bresson prize in 2007 which then helped fund him to continue his project in the Ukraine, Bangladesh, Liberia and beyond. Goldberg continues with this project to date going where his photography takes him. Yet even after involving himself in this work he considers himself an outsider and admits he doesn’t always understand what he is seeing; he just wants to do his job as a documentary storyteller.

The style of fragmented narrative that Goldberg uses to tell his story is much like what I am doing with my final year project. I will be asking dyslexic students at Coventry University to take their own images with a disposable camera about how it feels to have dyslexia, but then I will be asking them to draw / write on their images as well. I too like the added layer of information that this gives the images. Similarly to how Goldberg leaves some of the annotations in the language of the subject, I will leave any spelling mistakes or crossings out as it adds character to the images and gives the viewer insight into the dyslexic students experiences. Not only will this allow my participants to put their own unique personal stamp to the images, they will be one off pieces that cannot be replicated. Therefore I will exhibit the actual annotated photographs for the viewers to appreciate on a personal level.



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