Picture Postcard Conversations
During the lockdown back in the spring of 2020 some Migrants Organise members joined in a Picture Postcard Conversations Project based on their experiences of staying in rural Wales. The project forms part of my PhD research project, which explores practices of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers in the context of rural areas of Wales. The research looks at ways these small-scale activities create, shape, and mobilise narratives of migration, welcome and belonging in these rural areas and beyond.
Over three years (pre-pandemic), individuals and small groups of members, volunteers and staff came for short breaks to stay in the domestic, home environments of two houses in a small village in Monmouthshire. Some returned more than once. One or two have been back many times. As we could not meet or plan more visits, we exchanged postcards which carried meanings through a combination of image and a short chunk of text, enabling people with a wide range of language and literacy skills in English to participate and creating visual and written representations of our times together. The people who participated in the visits, and also in the postcard project, have widely different histories of migration, varied language resources in English and very different senses of familiarity with being in rural Wales. This mix is has co-produced some rich material through this creative process.
Sending and receiving a postcard is far more than the obvious moment of writing the words on a card or reading them. It is also about images, feelings, knowledges, memories, anticipations, and ‘multifaceted relations to people and place’ (Pennycook 2010). The process of exchanging cards created a new space for reconnection for those that took part. In this online exhibition of the material you will first find some images and thoughts relating to the process and unfolding of the project and then some examples of the cards themselves. It is planned that the cards will be framed and displayed in the village hall here in Wales – and hopefully Migrants Organise members will be able to come and see!
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Geographer Doreen Massey thinks about place/space as made up of the intersection of our mobile trajectories and constellations of ‘stories so far’. These individual and local movements and moments are caught up in wider, global networks of power that influence our mobility – and create inequalities in how, when and where we are allowed to, or are prevented from, moving.
This short time lapse video sequence made by a Migrants Organise member, seems to link with these ideas. The tree, animated with birds, brings to mind the settling and un-settling, too-ing and fro-ing, gathering and leave-taking that mark the visits to the house. Our trajectories meet fleetingly within the larger network of interconnected branches. Somehow, we all got here to this place, though our experiences and stories are so different.
The static image is a card I made for this visitor – because I was thinking about how we all arrived, in different ways, to the postcard project too, and the way we used it to look back on our temporary convergence in the house.
Other ways of communicating grew around the postcards. A WhatsApp group and a creative card making Zoom session enriched the repertoire of resources available for a shared language of participation. We posted images of our postcards on WhatsApp. I posted short home-made animations as prompts: https://youtu.be/X3F7rftK7xU
During the Zoom session people scrolled through their phones to find photos of their visits and held them up to their Zoom cameras. Some photos inspired postcards. We showed our creative work, and reacted with facial expressions, gestures, sounds and words. Boundaries between spoken, written and visual language, working with technology and with paper, being in physical and digital space, were broken down as people seemed to combine and switch frequently and easily between them. The card I made was of the Zoom screen.
There was something, for me, particularly affecting about the material aspect of the postcard exchange, the textures, the mark making, the packing and unpacking, the enclosing and the revealing, the passing from hand to hand via the post. As these objects moved between us they narrated our experience in a different mode to the immediacy of spoken dialogue. The process allowed thinking time. There were pauses while we waited for a reply, time to dwell on cards received and consider our response in relation to the recipient. We had a chance to say things that we didn’t say at the time of the encounters we shared.
This collage of some of the cards shows them as fragments brought together. They perhaps tell different stories taken together or apart.
I have arranged the cards in the following sections into themes, with a few tentative thoughts about how the combinations of pictures and words seem to express things about ways of being in, or ‘going to’, a place, the possibilities of being in more than one place, distance and proximity, associations of places with feelings, the specific, the everyday and the imaginary. Initially cards of Wales and London were provided as a starter – then we went on to make our own cards.
Unless relevant I haven’t indicated whether the contributions are from refugees, non-refugees, other transnational migrants, volunteers, staff, hosts or guests, or myself as researcher, as I was hoping to avoid defining people in these terms, especially as most do not fit only into a single category.
WAYS OF BEING HERE/THERE
The cards above show individuals writing about using images as a way of accessing memories and sensory experiences during the restricted mobility of lockdown, and about turning to memories as a means of escape from the restrictions of the city. Freedom is depicted as being able to fly – movement not tied to any particular location. The way online gatherings have worked as spaces of strength and solidarity is also mentioned.
This set of images and text, express ways existing in-between places, or feeling a separation of self in relation to different places. An attachment to place is described in terms of something remaining there, or as the disturbance caused by being physically located in one place while the soul is somewhere else.
“So when we went to Abergavenny, where we live in the same way….having other guys around me…, your own mattress and very nice and amazing. And make a queue to have your shower because M can spend one hour …(laughter from others)” (Group Zoom)
“My card is also is a connection between Abergavenny landscape and a lake, a place where I used to go with my cousins during holidays back home. The weathers are different, but wherever you are, you feel the same warm, calm fresh air, peace…”
“I very miss this green scenery with the fresh air, walking, laughing, having fun with my mates, gathering them round the table as a family, with a welcomed family”
“No one has noticed my skin colour, social status, background…. Just my humanity.” (Text from postcard)
The first picture seamlessly combines the hilly landscape of Wales with a lake visited on a family holiday before arriving in the UK. Like a double exposure in photography the two places merge. The accompanying text focusses on the similarity of feelings associated with these places. Several participants talk about their sense of being ‘in family’ and at home. Here it is closely linked with the ordinary, everyday activities that come with being together in a shared domestic space (as depicted in my card in response on the right). The focus on everyday ways of being together is a reminder of lives lived before arriving in the UK. It reminds those of us who are not refugees, of what sometimes gets lost in narratives about them – the significance of everyday life. It suggests the idea that perhaps a sense of belonging can sometimes be felt through what we do together, rather than being fixed on a particular place – even if only temporarily.
What this person also brings to our attention, is the sense of release, that comes from not solely being noticed, or recognised through social and racialised categorisations. It is the recognition simply for his everyday humanity that seems to allow the feeling of family and home to exist for him during these periods of time.
FROM THE PARTICULAR TO THE IMAGINARY
Images and descriptions move from the very specific and local in time and place to the other worldly and to imagined futures. Although everyday experiences are significant in the narration of these encounters – this doesn’t exclude the limitless scope of the imagination!
NATURAL CONNECTIONS: URBAN AND RURAL BELONGING
“The tomato plants I have looked after so carefully are suffering from frostbite.”
Details about seasons, animals, tomato growing, and wild plants, illustrate an interest in and engagement with the natural world within the city as well as beyond it – wherever nature is to hand. Misleading assumptions are sometimes made about migrants and city urban dwellers being disconnected from knowledge and experience of the natural world and rural spaces. This can feed into exclusionary narratives which see certain groups as being out of place and not belonging in the countryside.
Words like ‘haven’, ‘escape’, ‘peace’, are used by several participants in relation to their visits, and this is good to hear, since predominantly white, rural places in the UK can often be experienced as unwelcoming by those racialised or minoritised as other. Although rural settings are often seen as remote from the social concerns of the city, they are far from immune to the consequences of the increasingly hostile environment created around asylum seekers and refugees. Perhaps it is in the intimacy of the micro-environment of the house, being hosted and accompanied by people seen as local through their whiteness, which has masked any potential discomfort for those who might otherwise experience it. It’s also possible that some participants as former ‘guests’, may hold back from mentioning any negative aspects of their experience. Whatever the reason, it is encouraging that some participants have used these words to describe their experience.
DISTANCE AND PROXIMITY
Distance and proximity in time and space, and hopes of future return to Wales, are expressed in a variety of ways. This exchange is between myself and Kat Lewis, who led a writing project with a group at the house. We express feelings of distance in time and ‘landscape’, but proximity through the enduring significance of the encounter. There is a feeling of transience in that these temporary ways of being together somehow capture what we want or hope ‘life to be like’ even if only for passing ‘moments’.
I have asked for and would welcome more comments and thoughts from participants and others on the process and material produced from this project. There is of course more to say, and this is a small window through which to view some of the research. I hope that the virtual exhibition here and the display of cards in Llanvapley will be a way for stories to be mobilised beyond the research project itself.
‘So many memories that this card could not bear, even more a book.’
‘It freshen up all the old memories we shared together. It was like flicking though old albums.’