Michel Huneault, Roxham – Sophie Bertrand, An Intersubjective Artwork for Rethinking the Phenomenon of Migrations

[Fall 2018]

By Sophie Bertrand

Thanks to their inherent power, images may function to inform or to reinforce prejudices. For a number of years, photographer Michel Huneault has been concerned with deconstructing pre­ conceived ideas about migratory issues. Each of his new series builds on the previous one, making it easier to understand both his artistic approach and the scope of the migration phe­nomenon. In 2017, he worked on the multimedia project Roxham,1 named for the road in part of the Montérégie region adjacent to the United States that has become the hope for a better future for thousands of asylum seekers who cross the Canadian border there as “irregulars.” Protectively and ethi­cally, Huneault chose to preserve the anonymity of these people by applying to their silhouettes a texture from his im­ ages made in 2015 during the refugee crisis in Europe. With this visual choice, he weaves an intercontinental thread be­ tween these two migrations and points toward the urgency of reconsidering this political imbroglio and the history of migratory movements.

Situating his approach between documentary photography and visual art, Huneault adds audio to his long­term project and experiments with virtual reality. In the immersive narra­tive created for newspaper readers, gallery visitors, viewers in their living rooms, and VR explorers, he proposes that we take the reins of the documentary for an instant, but also that we become witnesses or border guards. The binaural soundtrack plunges us into the confusion that rules in exchanges between the RCMP and asylum seekers, who navigate among the application of protocol, desperation, and emotion.

SOPHIE BERTRAND: What was the genesis of the Roxham project, and how was the idea of creating this connection between the two continents born?

MICHEL HUNEAULT: In Roxham, the first attempt at crossing the border that I witnessed was by a pregnant woman from Nigeria who never dared to cross and was turned back by an American agent. That made up my mind. I wanted to know whether, in relation to the laws in force, other attempts to cross would inevitably fail or if the situation could evolve. There were many images of RCMP agents taking migrants by the hand. I had just seen an exception that seemed relevant to pursuing the debate. I contacted editorial boards, specifying up front that I was uneasy with breaking the woman’s anonymity. My professional experience had led me to understand our responsibility to asylum seekers not to divulge their identity. Due to my sense of morality, I kept to that condition, and that certainly impeded publication of my work at the beginning.

So, I started to do some visual research, cutting out silhou­ettes, placing flat planes of colour. I thought again of the migrant crisis in Europe; I knew that there was a connection to Roxham, that it was part of the same general migratory movement. In Europe, there were many assistance groups, citizens who offered food, tents, and blankets. As a photog­rapher, one is drawn to the textures. So, I had lots of close­ups and I made a selection. It worked. It both preserved people’s anonymity and maintained a connection between the two phenomena…
Translated by Käthe Roth

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1 Produced by the National Film Board of Canada in collaboration with Le Devoir, le Centre Phi, and Dpt. See http://roxham.nfb.ca.

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