February 27: Love trumps hate, questions find out lies. These are the fundamental photojournalistic aspirations in the era of ‘compassion fatigue’ and ‘fake news’.
In a test of these propositions, today Marie Dorigny opens Main basse sur la terre (Landgrabbing) at Les Rendez-vous du Havre, Créapolis, 79, avenue René Coty, Le Havre, where it is presented in its entirety for the first time. Alongside this exhibition will be Displaced: Femmes en Exile, opening tomorrow, until 15 April.
Main basse sur la terre presents Marie Dorigny’s interest, since she first investigated it in India in 2008, in the monopolization of arable land by certain international investors. As she had done in India, Dorigny went on in Cambodia, Mozambique, Guatemala, Brazil and Romania in 2016, to document the effects of this monopolization on the populations concerned.
It is a new and cruel game of Monopoly, played on a global scale, under the radar: the grabbing of arable land by international investors. Since 2000, over 200 million hectares of arable land have been transacted with governments by consortia or foreign investment funds, mainly in developing countries, in the form of a purchase or through long-term lease.
The land rush is motivated by three main concerns: the concern for food security for rich and emerging countries in the face of and increasing shortage of arable land; new energy sources (biofuels, unexploited mining deposits) and finally, purchase for speculative purposes. In terms of the latter banks and pension funds have been particularly zealous since 2008, the year of soaring world food prices (cereals, soybeans, meat or milk) transforming arable land into financial investments of a new kind.
The actors involved in this large-scale acquisition of land are numerous, but their operating methods are similar: acquisition via pre-nominated companies or obscure contracts drawn up, most of the time without the knowledge of the populations, with local elites more concerned with the inflow of foreign currency than the interests of the population at large.
At a dollar a hectare, or even less, this monopolization becomes a free-for-all with deleterious consequences for the locals who are dispossessed of land they have cultivated for generations, are driven from their homes, and condemned into exile and precariousness.
Through Dorigny, we witness the dismantling of entire extended families’ self-sufficiency. This is not a highly visible story like a war or other conflict, and it requires an intelligent comprehension of the complexities of the issue and persistent approach to go beyond images of direct confrontations like the these below in India and Mozambique.
Globally, this stampede for arable land has the tragic irony of threatening global food security. These 200 million hectares of land would meet the food needs of one billion people, which is the number of humans who suffer from hunger in the world now.
Marie Dorigny’s project was supported by Agence Francaise de Developpement after she won the AFD Polka Grand Prix, Best Photo Report Project for Main basse sur la terre. It enabled her set out in March 2014 for different countries in Asia, South America, Africa and Europe to spend several months working on her project.
Africa is the a favoured target in this scramble for agricultural land, where a hectare of land is leased for a dollar a year. The country’s patchwork of small family farms and the peasants are the collateral victims of the deals, sacrificed in ‘consultations’ organized to get the inhabitants’ agreement to the investors coming in, with promises of new jobs, health centres, wells, etc. Alcohol flows freely and many swap their field hand clothes for those of an agricultural worker. The deals are laughable in terms of compensation; relocated to infertile land and with temporary jobs, the people are often without recourse.
Marie Dorigny lives and works in Paris. Having started in journalism as editor for French newspaper Le Dauphiné Libéré where she could practice and learn the profession, she quit after seven years and began a career as a photographer in December 1989, during the Romanian revolution.
Displaced: Femmes en Exile was commissioned by the European Parliament to investigate situations encountered by female refugees and asylum seekers in the course of their exile in Europe, and was undertaken by Dorigny between December 1 2015 and January 15 2016. She went to the several entry points in Lesbos, Greece, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Passau, Germany. Half the refugees are women and children.
Dorigny’s pictures are somehow made with great sensitivity, despite the obviously stressful situations in which the people find themselves. Many arriving by boat have never seen the sea and cannot swim.
Most of the images in this essay are made close-up, and yet no intrusion or reaction to the camera is apparent. Dorigny has quickly registered fear in this man’s face, rendered all the more intense by the reflection in his eyes of the space blanket in which he was wrapped on arrival in Lesbos.
No sooner do the refugees arrive on the Greek coast than they are taken by bus to the Moria reception centre in Lesbos.
Working under the spotlights of Moira camp and against the sunset sky, Dorigny shoots through the chain-link fence to capture this array of reactions along this frieze of refugee figures. Ominous, sharp patterns of the wire mesh drape across their faces and clothes as they stand waiting expectantly, savouring their arrival after an arduous and dangerous journey. The gestures amongst them, of mens’ interactions with their daughters and older children with their siblings, are tender. At the centre a woman in a headscarf appears to look ecstatically heavenwards. Above all are the herringbone clouds, that set an ambiguous, unresolved atmosphere, as of unsettled weather, that portends the future of these migrant people.
Her use of the small Leica rangefinder facilitates this intimate approach, and her black and white images emphasise factuality and quiet compassion over sensationalism. They have the classical quality we have grown accustomed to in the work of the pioneers of concerned photography, such as those of Dorothea Lange.
With a history of exposing domestic slavery in France, enforced prostitution, child labour and exploitation (in unforgettable images of children sewing Nike-branded basketballs), what is striking about Daubigny’s imagery is that they do not show suffering but instead emphasise human dignity. These are real people, we can see, and they deserve our respect; they are just like us, but that we do not know how well we would endure what they do.