Art & Photography


Felipe Romero Beltrán’s new photography book captures the purgatory of young migrants awaiting legal status

All photography Felipe Romero Beltrán

Like all good book covers, Felipe Romero Beltrán’s Dialect sets out its intent right from the start. An official document related to migration law has the majority of its Spanish text redacted, thick black lines obscuring information, rendering the bureaucratic process even more opaque. The Colombian photographer’s remarkable new work, recently published by Loose Joints, is the result of a three-year project covering the “state violence” enacted upon nine young Moroccan migrants in Seville, Spain, as they wait to gain legal status after entering the country illegally. In some cases, this process can take years, and Beltrán’s lens perfectly captures the listlessness of this seemingly endless wait in limbo. Fusing documentary photography with instances of collaborative performance, there is a real economy to the images, which never stray from bodies (lithe skinny limbs in that awkward pupa stage between man and boy), food (bread broken between friends, rotting fruit) and shelter (dishevelled bunkbeds, the barbers being invoked through a single plastic chair) as their subjects. At the same time, the expansive use of blank white space throughout gives them room to breathe, speaking to the oppressive weight of dead time, the mundanity of purgatory.

Alongside the photography are moving first person accounts – detailing not just the how of crossing borders, but what is so crucially overlooked in media coverage on migration, the why – as well as disarmingly creative responses to the subject, such as a mathematical calculation of boat thrust force if it is carrying 40 people, and what happens when you translate a crossing into classical music notation. Urgent and poetic, the fiercely original work has already won the 2022 Aperture Portfolio Prize.

To celebrate its publication, Port spoke to the Madrid-based photographer about recreating the past, responsibility through affection, and the role of the image in conversations on migration.

How did this work come about? 

The work began in 2020, when I was invited to a workshop in a theater in Seville, in which I shared my own experience as a Colombian migrant as well as meeting more people from different backgrounds. This is how I met this group of migrants from Morocco, who were at the same workshop. At first, I started to take pictures of them, not for the project, but for their IG, Whatsapp, etc., then we slowly started to build a relationship and spend more time together. After a few months, I proposed them to do a project, Dialect, over a period of 3 years, the same time it takes them to get their residence permits.

Documentary photography and ‘performance’ seem to be in antithesis to each other as aesthetics, yet it works so fluidly and eloquently with this work. Why did you decide to incorporate performance and choreography into Dialect? What happens when these two modes are used together?

Previously, the photographic medium established categories of truth and lies related to reality. The documentary approach, traditionally associated with the concept of truth, has always been much more complex. My photographs respond to a documentary approach, but with a different starting point: some of the photographs are re-enactments of past experiences lived by the people portrayed.

After spending time talking with the guys, I was looking for a tool to approach those experiences from the photographic image, the re-enactments were a tool to approach those situations that were not photographed but that are brought back to reality through their own performativity.

The cover of the book is very powerful, speaking to the obscured nature of the migrants you photograph. What are you hoping this project reveals? 

The cover is the first page of the Spanish migration law. Hiding parts of the law reveals other unconscious parts of it, in other words, to subtract a new law within the official law. This shows the different readings that the migration law can have in European states, built to protect but at the same time control those who are in their territory.

In addition, more than revealing something with the project, for me it is important to establish a conversation about the social subject and photography as a medium.

What considerations did you have in the back of your mind when working with such young men? Because they’re trusting you with their stories, their bodies, and that is a big responsibility. Obviously they felt safe enough to do so, because the vulnerability and honesty in Dialect is striking.

Absolutely. Responsibility is exercised through affection and constancy within the project. Generating a body of work always brings successes and failures, but understanding the implications of each project is fundamental in work with social character. At first, for me the project was a series of images about a group of kids, and their relationships and tensions with each other. It was not even about migration, however, as the project developed, I became aware of the implications of their political and social status. That’s why I think the socio-political layer is also important, not only the connotation with the law but also how they are depicted and the tools used to generate the images. I also must say, to the fortune (or misfortune) of the work, until last year nothing had happened with it. This allowed me to work closely and very intensely on the photographs (I had no external agent to determine what was going to happen with the project), so the piece of work becomes a learning process, not only on a photographic level, but also on a personal level.

In the UK (and many European countries) some politicians have dispiriting views when it comes to migration, separating ‘deserving’ migrants (those feeling war, for example) and those they spin as ‘opportunistic’ and therefore ‘underserving’ economic migrants. But, migration (in all forms) has been an intrinsic part of humanity’s story for millennia – what role do you think art and photography can play in helping shift these reductive and negative narratives?

I believe that these narratives are merely political economies to poorly exercise a discourse that we all know. Perhaps the issue is even more problematic: what conditions does the law (in this case, the Spanish law) generate to create this kind of subjugation of migrant bodies? And on the other hand, what is the role of the image in this scenario? These are questions that of course I have not answered, but I try to place them in the project.

There’s a real tightness in the image type, and simultaneously, I love the space you give the sequence of photos – how did you want the book’s form to engage with its themes?

The book, published with Loose Joints, was a very intense and interested work process. On the one hand, my work is supported by the images: I do not pretend that the photographs “inform”or say many things, in other words, I believe in a non-verbal, primitive image, which precedes all of it. On the other hand, I’m conscious the images are situated in a concrete socio-political context, that’s why the book has different elements that don’t talk about the project itself, but resonate with it. 

There’s also an incredible variety of essays and texts also included. How are you hoping these essays and creative responses inform and elevate your photography? 

I am interested in the texts expanding the readings of the book. The texts in 1st person are stories written by Youssef and Zakaria, two of the most recurrent boys in the images. The calculation of the boat written by Ricardo, starts from an image of Youssef inside the boat just before arriving to the Spanish coast. The choreographic notation is a new work in progress with Bilal, one of the guys on the project. The essays don’t talk about the images, but put them in tension, built a more open device.

3 years is a long time for any type of project. Are there any particular stories or memories from your subjects that will continue to stay with you?

I’m still working with part of the group; we are working on new projects that dialogue with other disciplines, so more than the memories or stories I have with them, I’m very excited for the next ones to come.

Felipe Romero Beltrán’s Dialect is published through Loose Joints, out now