When Wolf Böwig, a German photographer I’ve known for a few years, asked me if I’d like to write something inspired by his new project, Borders and Beyond, I hesitated. Wolf had been spending a lot of time in eastern Europe documenting the movements of people trying to reach central Europe. During his travels he would often send me emails with his photo collages and excerpts of his visual diaries. The images moved me in ways I couldn’t immediately define. I wasn’t sure how I could add anything, first of all, because I hadn’t been there. Wolf, being determined as he is, insisted: Borders are everywhere. This was about the issue, the ideas, this was about going beyond the media agenda. So, I started thinking and imagining and I realized I was already writing.
To escape: a verb that brings to mind action, movement, speed, breathlessness. Yet, a great part of escaping is waiting, and perhaps it is this long stretch of waiting which is too unbearable on the body.
Escape also brings to mind night and the protection of darkness. But here they are in daylight; all too visible.
Life, noisily, goes on. Mothers breastfeed their babies to stop them from crying, children find ways to laugh in the minutiae of the earth, a stone, a snail, a tree to play hide and seek with; men and women chatter, argue, go silent, then sing: a song from their childhood, a tune that makes them feel like they know who they really are. At nightfall, timid fires lend the sky a comforting glow and summon the thought of lost bright cities. People kiss their loved ones and make promises to their children; they say goodnight with an unspoken hope for tomorrow.
Think of landscape. Think of how elements come to be attached to one another, how it’s impossible to separate the road from the field, the field from the tree, the tree from the water, the water from the sky. We cannot attribute natural features to the lines we design just as we cannot attribute natural causes to those dying as they try to cross them.
Every person has a story. Not just a story, but a beautiful, moving, intelligible story. A story with potential to be added to a universal canon. There is no one story that is better than another. The fault lies with the ones telling it, nurturing its way into the world. The task of the storyteller before a crowd – a crowd desperate to be heard – is impossible. One is bound to fail, like a doctor who gives up on one to save another.
A man waves – for example that one man, there, with the sulking child beside him – and we can’t know if he is calling for attention or if, on the contrary, he is tired of looking for attention and would like to be able to choose silence.
Think again of landscape and think of the togetherness of crowds. That swell of people, with its seemingly incomprehensible organic rules, is impressive but not unfamiliar. The collectiveness of fear, of survival, and the most acceptable inertia, is only too familiar. We’ve seen before how people can be horded and the ones who break from the horde, irretrievably lost.
Soon, what we see daily – the new, the news – will be a memory. It won’t stop hurting because it’s a memory, not for the ones who lived it. For us, watchers, it will be history, told in a certain way, with the forgiving distance of generations.
Movies will be made, actors, directors, eloquent public figures will make speeches about how civilization won’t let violence, despair or pure indifference happen again. We’ll be driven again by the unshakable intuition that our children will be better than we are.
I observe my hands closely, thinking of how so many other women are, at this precise moment, observing their own hands. I observe them closely for signs of aging, spots, marks, rough bits of skin – I look for proof of a loss of strength. (I have always failed to observe what remains the same – the lines of the palm – since, for very private reasons, I’ve always been skeptical about what our bodies predispose us to.)
Every woman who closely observes her hands knows that everything she does – every job well done, every child born, every man loved, every person cared for, every bag carried filled with essential belongings, every gesture made – will show in her hands.
It has been said that, even to cross to the other side of life – that is, death – you must pay. It has been said that not even hell is entirely free. Someone will collect something from you, if not a fee, maybe a word or a sign. Maybe a sacrifice.
A newspaper report says 64 refugees from two war-torn countries arrived this morning. They arrived just before dawn, when light smooths out the sharp borders of things and people alike. The pictures show tired faces, but their expressions have not been emptied – on the contrary, they seem full of meaning, they seem to talk. They also seem to look, at least as much as they are looked at. They arrived at a discreet airport and were transferred to other means of transport that would take them to several parts of the country.
“Future” is a borderless word. Everyone knows that. I know that. “Future” is a word by nature open to interpretation, its existence depends on imagination. But once you are at risk and are trapped in uncontrollable events, the future becomes a clear, well-defined objective. It’s very much alive then.
I could tell you a personal history: of how I am the child of refugees, of how, in a different time, a different context, with a different language and different codes, my mother and father, my grandparents, my uncles, my cousins, fled a war and various difficulties. I could tell you how sure they were that they still had a future and that this is why I’m here, where I am now, writing in a shielded, bright cafe, which is warm and has a view. Only the sound of the wind through the cafe’s glass-paneled walls, and the sight of the sand swirling over the beach into a large cloud of mysterious shapes, remind me of what my parents taught me: that nothing can be taken for granted, that anything can change at any moment. That tomorrow I might need you. Or you. Or you.
Susana Moreira Marques is a writer and journalist living in Lisbon, Portugal. She is the author of Now and at the Hour of our Death, recently published in the US by And Other Stories.
Wolf Böwig is a photographer based in Hannover, Germany. He has photographed in many conflict zones and his work has appeared in die Weltwoche, NZZ, Le Monde, Liberation, Internationale, El Pais, The Independent, Guardian, Stern, NY Times, amongst other publications.