OF ‘TAKING BACK CONTROL’
Université Paris Est Créteil / IMAGER, Paris, France
As the Brexit drama unfolded in the UK, the slogan of ‘taking back control’ became the mantra of the 'Leave' campaign in the 2016 referendum, pointing to the perceived loss of sovereignty of the country to the benefit of European institutions. ‘Leavers’ demanded the redrawing of legal boundaries which they felt to have been blurred by the overlapping of European and national political institutions. The myth of pre-European national sovereignty  was now feeding the myth of ‘taking back control’. Physical boundaries also became a stake when the campaign took an anti-immigrant turn: Leavers advocated against the free circulation of workers from the EU and for the restoration of borders. Notably, during the campaign, the UKIP party (UK Independence Party, pro-Brexit,) resorted to misleading maps that seemed to announce a further enlargement of Europe to the confines of Syria. Such distortion of facts was meant to arouse fear of an uncontrollable wave of immigrants coming to Britain.
Indeed, maps act as a seemingly direct and natural representation of territories and their borders: on a simple map, Great Britain can still appear in ‘splendid isolation’, as a country insular enough to evade the complexities of globalization and the invisible flow of big data. Welsh artist Iwan Bala parodied this ‘blissful clarity'  of maps by representing the fantasied territories of Brexit Britain in a piece entitled ‘Little Brexitia/ disunited kingdom (Eaton mess)’: it is a hand-drawn map of the UK evoking both 17th century first topographical efforts and allegorical maps like the ‘Carte du Tendre’ designed for French Précieuses to travel the imaginary lands of love.
Iwan Bala, 'Dis-United Kingdom (Eton Mess)' Mixed Media on Indian Hanmade Khadi paper. 2016-2018. 76x56cm. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Wyn Jones Collection.
On this map, the English seem to have retreated in countless little bastions named alternatively ‘Euro London’, ‘Euro Bristol’ or ‘Free Leeds’, ‘Free Newcastle’ depending on the referendum results. They are now separated from the continent by a ‘sea of dispair’ and a ‘sea of mis-directed anger’. Scotland is severed from England; borders are represented by a thick red line, while Northern Ireland is “a question again”. This representation of the imaginary land of ‘Ukipya’ is a powerful way of exposing Brexit as a fantasy, but also of highlighting the central place of territory and borders in the Brexit narrative.
Along with maps, the UKIP party also used an infamous campaign poster bearing the slogan ‘Breaking point: we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’ with a photograph showing a long file of migrants walking towards camera across a green background. The crowd of dark-skinned male migrants was deceptively suggested to represent Eastern Europeans flooding to the UK due to free circulation in the EU whereas the picture was had been taken at the Slovenian border in October 2015 by photojournalist Jeff Mitchell and showed mostly Syrians and Afghans fleeing warzones. Besides the much commented-upon fact that the composition of the image was reminiscent of Nazi propaganda movies,  this kind of imagery was unprecedented for the way it attempted to articulate in photographic terms the narrative of closed territory and borders underlying the slogan ‘taking back control’. The green landscape visible in the background of the photograph seemed to conjure up a mythical land to be enclosed and protected.
Artist Wolfgang Tillmans seized on this narrative to reverse it in his series of anti-Brexit posters. These were based on some of his photographs of abstract landscapes, with open skies and vast expanses of land only structured by natural lines, and no visible human being. In Tillmans’ images, the lines are not boundaries; on the contrary, they are where the sky and the sea merge, where the cliffs dissolve into the waves. With little sense of scale or direction, but a sublime and cosmic quality, these sceneries offer a humbling counterpoint to ‘taking back control’. Combined with the slogans ‘no man is an island’ or ‘it’s a question of where one belongs’, the images contradict the parochial narrative of a retreat into strictly national borders.
Wolfgang Tillmans, Anti-Brexit campaign poster, 2016.
The theme of borders found in Brexit imagery also underpins Laura Pannack‘s series ‘Separation’, about the implications of Brexit for bi-national couples, where one half is British and the other has moved to the UK from elsewhere in Europe. Indeed, there was uncertainty for three years between 2016 and 2019 about the latter’s right to stay and work in the country and even after this was confirmed, this was subject to applying to an EU settlement scheme. In this context, Laura Pannack staged portraits where the two members of each couple stand separated by a sort of white membrane that seems to have grown between them. Although they still manage to hold each other, they have lost sight of their loved one as the semi-transparent material blurs their features and they are deprived of the sensuousness of a skin-to-skin embrace. In this instance, the doubt and anxiety provoked by Brexit has materialized into a physical separation between lovers.
With this representation of the intimate consequences of a political decision, Laura Pannack’s pictures encapsulate how ‘taking back control of borders’ –as demanded by one half of the British population– might mean losing control of their own lives for many Europeans already in the UK. Albeit metaphorical, Pannack’s series of photographs gives flesh to the fantasy of Brexit and reveals its human meaning and cost. Therefore, more than simply creating a counter-narrative to a myth, such images testify to the power of photography itself to ‘take back control’, that is, to allow for complexity and re-connection to human reality.
Of similar relevance are the photographic projects which have explored the themes of land and borders in the UK and offered a nuanced view of the human experience of territory. Indeed, the country had to negotiate these issues long before the Brexit debate due to its constitution as a four-nation state. In Scotland, the run-up to the independence 2014 referendum aroused new interest in the boundaries of each nation. Photographer Jo Metson Scott dedicated her series The Borderland (2014) to Northern English towns like Berwick-upon-Tweed. Her images registered the visible ‘flagging' of the nation, either literally through border stones and flags, or more figuratively, through cultural practices upheld by the local population. Yet they also addressed the sense of sameness and the invisibility of the border: “same land, same work, same people, but different buses pass” as one of the local people put it. Conversely, the series Unsullied and Untarnished (2013) by photographer Jeremy Sutton Hibbert documented the annual Common Ridings in the Scottish Borders when inhabitants re-enact the ride-outs conducted by villagers in the 15th and 16th centuries to protect their common lands from raids in the context of Anglo-Scottish wars. Along with portraits of proud Scots in full attire, Sutton Hibbert’s images include shots of horsemen galloping along more or less visible borders in vast landscapes, scenes of the local communities coming together for festive events, but also manly shows of force against an invisible ‘other’.
Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, Horsemen, led by Royal Burgh Standard Bearer Martin Rodgerson and his Burleymen attendants, arrive at the Three Brethren cairns summit, to check the boundaries of the lands, during the Common Riding festivities in Selkirk, Scotland, Friday 14th June 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.
Thus, the series offers a multidimensional view of the Scottish borders, all the more so as it enters in a dialogue with works produced by other members of the collective Document Scotland, which Sutton-Hibbert co-founded. Among them, Colin McPherson engaged in a work on the Anglo-Scottish border with the series A Fine Line (2014), which addresses the question of visible separation: in his pictures, lines criss-cross the frame –formed by gates, rows of trees, sea foam, cow paths, barbed wire, hedges, rivers and old graves– but the effect is rather disorienting as it is often unclear where the actual frontier lies. Therefore, the images develop a graphic rhetoric based on human presence and relation with the local environment which resists the simple narrative of national borders.
The issue of physical separation has also informed works on Northern Ireland, where the so-called ‘Troubles’ were settled at the cost of erecting ‘Peace lines’ as early as 1969 in some areas of Belfast to separate Catholic and Protestant communities. Countless photographers –among which Frankie Quinn, Gilles Favier, Antonio Olmos, Martin Bureau, Kai Wiedenhöfer, Enda Bowe, John Irvine– have documented these walls, a unique sight in post-Cold War Europe, and their transformation into street art spots and tourist attractions. Local projects like ‘Off the Rails’ exhibited at Belfast Exposed in 2019 also involved communities living at the interface of the two areas in the representation of their own experience of these lines of separation.
Yet Brexit has stirred these issues again as the frontier between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland is now the UK’s only land frontier with the European Union. It should be noted that one of the outcomes of the 1998 Good Friday agreement ending the conflict between Irish Republican Nationalists and Unionists had been to abolish the physical border and checkpoints between the two nations. Now the prospect of a formal border to be re-established along this line has been a drive for photographers to explore the Irish border anew. For his project ‘The Invisible In-Between: An Englishman's Search for The Irish Border’, photographer Tristan Poyser travelled the 510km-long border between the UK and Ireland and captured the places where the invisible line is located. Then he decided to tear his own photographs to reveal where the border lies: in turn inaccessible when it runs along the summits of the Cuilcagh Moutain, absurd when its cuts through a property in Carnagarve, or fanciful when it follows a river oxbow. In his introduction to the series, Garrett Carr remarked that each tear is “more of an act than a mark, although it has left a visual record of itself, and it is more eloquent than one hundred newspaper articles about the border. The tears capture something of the uneasiness of the border and suggest a deeply felt misfortune. It is usually divorces or family estrangements that make us tear photographs, something has to have gone badly wrong for us to make the tear."
Tristan Poyser, The Path to Cuilcagh. The highest border crossing on the Island of Ireland. Co.Cavan / Co.Fermanagh.
GPS 54°13'56.308" N 7°49'29.938” W. Image courtesy of the artist.
(Left) Gary, Portadown. (Right) Danny, Stockport.
Two of over 550 Public Participation Pages collected between 2017 - 2020
The participatory side of Tristan Poyser’s project –where members of the public were invited to tear copies of his images and to contribute personal comments on the border– further explored the notion of an intimate experience of separation. By allowing the local community and visitors to voice their own concerns and impressions about borders, the project produced an alternative iconography to that of ‘taking back control’ through Brexit.
As a matter of fact, participatory photographic projects in themselves offer another way of ‘taking back control’. For instance, the ‘Pride of Place’ projects by The Caravan Gallery, where inhabitants of several cities of the UK were invited to suggest places to photograph to produce unconventional guides to their cities, or projects like ‘We are Kirby’ conducted by socially engaged photographer Tony Mallon with a group of elderly women, have shown that the people’s contributions combine to produce historicized narratives of place and territory. By involving local communities in the representation of their own shared environment, participatory projects rekindle the essential democratic nature of photography  and recreate the political dialectics lost in simplistic imagery.