It has become de rigueur among the chattering classes to refer to the UK – with all due irony – as a ‘failed state’. Its corrupt banking system, lying politicians and unaffordable housing are regularly cited as evidence, and those that can toy with the idea of finding a way out of it all – a house in France, perhaps, or a new life in New Zealand. The term ‘failed state’ is one of those phrases that we have subsumed into our vocabulary with little regard for what it might actually mean for those who experience its effects first hand, like ‘internally displaced person’ (and its brutal acronym) or ‘asylum seeker’.
Somalia tops the list of failed states, as compiled by The Peace Fund and Foreign Policy (2010 statistics), as it has with dogged fixity for the last three years. Among 12 indicators used to define the extent of the failure are ‘Massive Movement of Refugees or Internally Displaced Persons creating Complex Humanitarian Emergencies ’ and ‘Chronic and Sustained Human Flight’.
It is this terrible, terrified and terrifying human flight that Alixandra Fazzina documents in the bleakest photographs I have seen of late. Her nocturnal imagery surfaces from a place submerged, drowned, utterly wrecked, as she follows the tahrib (the Somali term for migrant) on their desperate escape route out of Mogadishu and beyond. The once thriving Italianate capital is becoming depopulated; 20% of Somalis have fled in a diaspora that began 20 years ago and shows no sign of abating. The most popular destination is Yemen, sometimes as a stop-gap to the ultimate destination of Saudi Arabia, sometimes as an end in itself. As the head of the UN Council for Refugees writes in the introductory essay, Yemen (in 2009) received three quarters as many asylum seekers as the United States. Its generosity cannot be inexhaustible.
Out of this flight has sprung up an attendant industry: people smuggling. The book’s title A Million Shillings refers to the cost of passage across the Gulf of Aden. The price does not include a guarantee of safety and for some guarantees death by drowning, or perhaps beating. The traffickers’ absolute power has absolutely corrupted. As well as providing unseaworthy vessels for the voyage, and tying together their passengers, they rape and murder at will. Fazzina met a woman who had the misfortune to give birth during a crossing. She lost consciousness during the delivery of her baby. When she awoke, she learned her baby had been tossed into the sea. The book teems with stories of the darkest possible brutality.
The darkness of the photographs is worth considering. It has necessarily been determined by the impossible working conditions yet it is also a visual strategy employed by Fazzina, here as in other bodies of her work. While the ‘darkness’ of Africa is an all too common trope in photography, with this work it does not present itself as a lazy metaphor. Many of these journeys take place by night, the traffickers using it as a cloak of invisibility as they shunt their human cargo north from the capital to Bossaso, where they will wait for doons to carry them across the Gulf, or, for one in 20, to their death.
Fazzina’s photographs focus on these shadowy crossings, as well as the state of waiting. Consequently it is very difficult to see what is going on. Looking more closely does not yield benefits. The pictures are anchored by long captions, and though they provide essential context, they are not in the same register as the hundreds of agonizing images that are testament to Fazzina’s extraordinary journalistic tenacity. While the short essays that punctuate the book are well written and deftly edited, the captions are unwieldy and suffer from repetition. There is an immediacy and instinctual quality to the photographs, and the edgy, disorderly sequencing and scope (some 360 pages) bestows the feel of highly complex Russian novel, but with an extra layer of incomprehensible chaos. It’s an ordeal to spend time with this book; it is made for no-one’s reading comfort. Its relentlessness leaves the reader engulfed by this human tide of despair, the more despairing because it depicts a journey that must originate in hope.
One is left wondering why there is not an urgent call for regime change in Somalia, not because the UN-backed ‘transitional’ government is the perpetrator of the deadly violence that shapes lives there, but because that government is failing its citizens, failing at the cost of thousands of lives. It is difficult to summise other than this epic tragedy is allowed to continue because Somalia is not yet prioritised by the foreign policy drives of other nations. Local commentators call for clan chiefs to find consensus, but for now, without the initiation of that process, the most powerful insurgent group, Islamist al-Shabab, is free to continue its campaign of suicide bombings and its aim to impose Sharia law in the areas already under its control: southern and central Somalia.
And so I find myself not really reviewing the photography or the book, save for a few minor details, but trying to better understand what is going on in this increasingly divided land. I would guess that this is exactly as Fazzina would wish it. To achieve a body of work like this requires a certain selflessness, as well as courage and integrity. Fazzina told this story because it had to be told, not because she was looking for a book idea or to win prizes. She works instinctively and her wretchedly beautiful photographs reveal an experience, which, like the fox’s cry in the night, is anguished and haunting, and impossible to comprehend.
A Million Shillings by Alixandra Fazzina
Published by Trolley Books
Hardback. 368 pages. 350 Illustrations
Available from the Foto8 online bookshop