Calais by Sam Nixon

How did you get into photography? 

My father is a photographer, so as a toddler I was always running around photo studios. When I got older I used to take very 80s family self-portraits using a remote shutter. We also had a darkroom at home that I used for high school assignments and messing around in. At university I studied something completely unrelated and nerdy and I hated it! So I started assisting other photographers as opposed to studying photography at college. 


Of which project are you most proud and why?

My most recent project - a 120-page photo book about a South Korean musician, shot on location in Korea. It was so much fun. But I also love the project I’m working on right now that involves horses!


Tell me a bit more about your personal projects. How do these come into existence and evolve?

I try to find an interesting subject matter, or group of people, and go out and visit them in person. I always bring my camera with me, but I don’t use it right away if it's not appropriate - I first try to get to know these people and mix in. My aim is for them to feel comfortable with having me around so they can act normally. If it’s street photography (and more instant) I ask permission to shoot when necessary. When this happens there’s a 50/50 chance they’ll agree. I try to sneak pictures where I can too.  



Can you tell me how your Calais series started?

My friends from Gasoline, a photographer's collective, and I decided to go and document the situation there for ourselves. The situation looked desperate on the news and it seemed so far away, yet it was right on our doorstep. We only went for a few days and had no idea what to expect.


What was it like when you got there? 

It really was another world. There were makeshift shops and restaurants and barbers all patched together with odds and ends, scrap wood and plastic tarps. I was saddened that innocent people were forced to separate from their families and be on the move with nothing. I felt kind of useless there but it was really eye-opening to see people come together as a community in crisis and survive in such harsh conditions.


What did you do after that first afternoon?

I spent the rest of my time in Calais just talking with refugees about their situation and getting to know people. I offered to help where I could and would always bring food and snacks. I enjoyed being able to help, even if it was something small. I fixed a kid's bicycle and had fun riding down the dusty hills with them. Everyone I encountered was so friendly and selfless, it was humbling to witness. 


How much time did you spend photographing?

I took most of my images on the first afternoon with a small camera held low. Most people were very friendly and said hello as the walked passed, others kept to themselves. I would stop and talk with people and ask about their individual situation.


Is there one story that stood out for you?

Ahmad showed me his hands, torn up and scarred from countless attempts at scaling the four barbed wire fences guarding the Channel Tunnel. His objective is to make it into the tunnel either on a truck or train, where he would cling on for his life or make a run for it. The goal is to make it through unscathed or at least be arrested past the halfway mark (where he’d officially be on British soil) and taken to an English prison where he’d then be processed as a refugee and hopefully gain asylum. Asylum in England is all that matters to him, as he has to send money for food home to his family in Sudan.

Ahmad has been arrested on the French side three times and spends time in jail every time. He insisted that I sat with him and offered me tea and lunch. I didn’t want to take anything from him but he wouldn’t have it any other way. He had near to nothing but still he shared what he had with me. He explained that when they have food, no one in his community goes without. Sharing keeps the community alive. 


What’s your favourite (and least favourite) thing about photography?

My favourite thing is being able to gain access to situations or people that I would otherwise have no access to or communication with. People generally accept the fact that you're there to take pictures and that's enough. The most annoying thing is regularly having to work for free and paying for all of the expenses on projects for companies that make a profit. 


How does your commissioned, personal and video work exist next to each other?

Most clients want the commercial work to look like my personal or editorial work, so that helps. Sometimes factors like fashion, casting or creative concerns mean that’s not the case, but I always hope that all three disciplines work well together.


If I could look inside your head, what would I see?

A small amount of anxiety about a half-finished to-do list lying around somewhere. Sometimes nothing! Sometimes music and general thoughts about life. 

All images by Sam Nixon