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‘An infinite regress of separations’ In 2022–2023, Belgian photographer Aurélien Goubau made a series of trips to the Polish-Belarusian border to document the lives of residents, activists, and refugees
Granica by Aurélien Goubau
A dense ancestral forest stretches along the border between Poland and Belarus. It was amidst this forest that the Minsk Agreement, which led to the dissolution of the USSR, was signed on December 8, 1991. Today, a 186-kilometer (around 118 miles) wall marks the border between the two countries. In 2022 and 2023, I traveled to the Polish side of this border zone, to meet a variety of people inhabiting the place. I wanted to experience this border and try to perceive, through these encounters, the multiple tensions that characterize this region today. During my stays, I met refugees from Ukraine and from countries further south, as well as local residents. Although each of them revealed a unique perception of this border, they were all closely linked to it, be it through the banality of daily life or its emerging challenges. The border creates a reality that affects the lives of those who live nearby. All these individual stories, which initially seemed distinct, convey, in the end, a common experience of the border.
I wanted to explore the border that divides what we generally (and all too easily) refer to as the East and West blocs. I was searching for a specific location that would symbolize this division, and during my research, I came across this particular region. What made it even more compelling was the current situation with refugees crossing the border. It added an additional dimension to the story. Also, the recent construction of an iron fence in the area made it especially relevant to the context I was exploring.
The border between Poland and Belarus stretches 390 kilometers (around 240 miles). The authorities are quite unfriendly in the area, and it is difficult to get close to the border without being seen. Though it’s formally permitted to get close, in practice if you get caught near the border the guards will take you away. It happened to me twice. They caught me and drove me to Hajnówka, approximately 10 kilometers (around six miles) from the border. But the hardest to document was probably the situation of the refugees in the forest. I worked with activists from a local NGO and together we went into the forest and walked for hours. Sometimes we spent entire nights in the forest. One has to be able to imagine what it’s like for the refugees walking in the dense forest in such conditions.
My objective with this story was to document the situation in this border area, and to try joining the stories of various individuals, who have a shared connection to this border. I wanted to to address a broader theme of the significance (or lack thereof) of borders. The challenge was to find a visual approach that would link together these different stories. I encountered young people in theaters, refugees traversing the forest and villages on foot, elderly women with ties to neighboring countries, activists, and Ukrainians. All of them held unique perspectives on what this border symbolized. For instance, to the young people, the border represented a feeling of isolation, as if they were at the edge of the world, facing a dead end. Refugees saw the border as an obstacle to overcome on their journey. For the older generations, the border represented a constantly changing situation, depending on the geopolitical relations between the two countries. The challenge was to find photographic distance and connect their stories, and how to address each individual in the same respectful and engaging way. Another obstacle was that I met people with whom I disagreed (for example, some held very negative opinions of refugees).
I also arranged to meet members of the Tatar community, who were involved in digging graves for refugees who died while in this region. One of the people I met was named Yadgar. As he dug the graves, he spoke about his own roots, tracing them back to Crimea, and shared that his grandparents had been deported by Stalin. Listening to him talk about his heritage while digging a grave for a Yemeni person who had lost his life here because of a lack of humanitarian aid , it became apparent to me that there were deeper connections between people and events than we might initially perceive.
The people I met had, to some extent, a link with this border and thus with one another. You have members of the Tatar community who take care of burying dead refugees and Polish activists who take care of refugees from African countries, but these same activists also welcome people from Ukraine. I met elderly people who didn’t want to take part in helping refugees, but were affected by the new wall separating the two countries because they couldn’t visit their husband’s cemetery on the other side.
Paradoxically, when you build a wall, you can think, or at least hope, that you’re going to separate two things, apparently different (otherwise the border has no meaning). The paradox is that the wall itself becomes a link between the people it was intended to separate.
Some of my encounters were spontaneous, while others were planned in advance. For instance, I photographed two young boys I ran into who were studying at a forestry school near the border. They were busy preparing for a performance in the school theater, with forestry posters completely covering the wall behind them. I realized that the forest, which enveloped everything in the area, might be the common thread connecting everyone. It seemed like everyone somehow had a connection with the forest and that this would allow me to connect the different stories.
Through my work on this border, I’ve come to realize that borders, especially this one, are multifaceted. I believe that what we try to separate physically with walls and fences is, in reality, a spectrum of environmental, ideological, economic, and social gradations. During my research to prepare the text for this documentary, I drew inspiration from an article by Tristan Garcia, a French philosopher and writer. In his 2018 work “Logiques de frontières,” he explores various ways of interpreting borders. One such interpretation involves comparing borders to natural boundaries:
Those who claim to establish the true boundary between territories in nature always end up, to their disappointment, finding nothing more than material variations: more or less and continuity. This compels perception to acknowledge a gradient in which what appears distinct blurs, and the parts that seem different blend into each other.
When I was at the border, I had the impression that it wasn’t straightforward but created, instead, an infinite regress of separations, from near to near, from person to person. It’s a bit like looking at plants through a microscope when you look at plants. When you take a first look, you see different separations between different parts of the plant. But when you zoom in, what seemed separate at first now seems fused, and you see new separations. You can zoom in again — and new separations and fusions appear.
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