By Alvaro Deprit
Reviewed by Leo Hsu
In the murky, viscous photographs of Suspension, Alvaro Deprit addresses the experience of adolescent boys living in group homes in Italy, refugees who exist in a dual state of “suspension”. In the eyes of the state, these youth in Italian group homes inhabit a double illegitimacy: as minors who benefit from care even as they lack the full rights of adults, and as individuals who, fleeing conflict, may be on the path of seeking asylum. Being alone and with limited guidance in a foreign country, having fled their homes - often in traumatic circumstances - the boys lack the family and community support systems to guide them through adolescence, let alone the legalities of immigration. The Casa Famiglia group homes in which they stay provide varying degrees of support to assist them in entering society when they become recognized as adults at the age of 18. Until then they live in a form of quasi-house arrest, free to leave but returned to the group home should they encounter police.
Deprit visually conveys a silent world where time does not seem to pass at all. Everything is submerged in greens and blues. Sunlit scenes are dulled; even daylight has a fluorescent wash. A photograph of white clouds in a blue sky, a soccer ball suspended in the air, is subdued. The shadows are high and the highlights are low, and the pictures occupy a dense midrange of soft, sometimes grainy, textures. The boys hang out, sitting: on steps, by the window, at a desk; head down on a book, or in a tree. They pass the time eating, sleeping, listening to music. In nearly every image they look away from one another and away from the camera.
But Deprit recognizes their consciousness: even as their bodies are still, they are always paying attention to the world outside – stars, the night, a visit to the park. The tranquility that Deprit’s pictures depict is less a peaceful calm than a paused state of living with limited agency. One photograph of an embrace stands out in its description of physical and emotional closeness – Deprit’s sparing use of a moment such as this one is effective in highlighting the absence of intimacy in other images.
The mute space of this extended, undifferentiated moment contrasts with the photographs of keepsake pictures of loved ones that the boys brought with them. All of the smiles and nearly all of the eye contact in the book are found in these treasured images, pictures of pictures: a family of four posing together, a young boy smiling over a new baby, a woman smiling broadly, a girl on a horse. Deprit has photographed them resting on a table or a patterned bedspread, the memory set in the present context. Some of these pictures are crisply articulated but through the course of the book the saved images appear darker and blurrier, evoking fading memories.
Suspension is a small book with leather covers, the pages with rounded corners; it feels like a diary - the first image in the book is the cover of a notebook - but it also reads like a dossier. The main body of the book, forty uncaptioned photographs, is followed by back matter printed on blue pages printed with simulated binder-ring holes. A map shows the routes that the youth have traveled to arrive in Italy, from Lagos and Kampala, from Baghdad and Damascus, from Islamabad and Kabul, and other points among and between these locations. The book continues with an essay by Arianna Rinaldo and a brief interview between Rinaldo and Deprit, followed by drawings by the boys. Two pages reproducing handwritten translations of everyday phrases in English and Italian is affecting: What his name; What are you; Do not worry; I am not happy here; Where do you live?; Listen often our radio.
Delprit has framed the experience of these young refugees, not in terms of where they came from and where they are going, but in terms of the limbo state where they are, held in place by powers beyond their control. With the dossier concept, Delprit foregrounds the state of waiting, indicating that this condition is what we must know about these young people. He uses a visual language through which both the subjectivity of the youth and the physical conditions of their surroundings can be described with complexity – particularly impressive as the emotions at hand do not lend themselves to outspoken expression. The overall effect is powerful.
Suspension addresses both the effects of conflict and the movement of refugees into Europe in a way that invites the reader’s identification. The project, begun in the late 2000s, bears witness to the ongoing flow of people into Europe, fleeing 21st century conflicts in the Middle East and Central Asia, and East and West Africa. The publication of the book precedes the massive influx of Syrian refugees into Europe in 2015, and addresses only a specific demographic - young males under 18 who arrived in Italy alone. But by examining this particular experience with subtlety and feeling, Deprit provides access for his audience to engage with questions of refugees’ experiences and struggles more broadly.
The book, however, offers little background detail about the subjects of the photographs, or about the pathways and options for refugees in Europe, generally, or Italy, specifically. (Deprit avoids the term “refugee” entirely, in order to keep the reader’s focus on the state of suspension as a “universal existential idea.”) This is frustrating: Deprit is successful in describing a phenomenon and psychological experience, but his strong visual narrative provokes curiosity and a desire to know more. The book leaves the reader with many questions. The state of suspension that Delprit describes is, after all, the subjectively felt expression of social and political realities.
Still, while Delprit’s story intersects with those realities, they are not what the book is about. Suspension is an essay on the loneliness and helplessness that emerges where adolescence and the consequences of conflict meet. Delprit tells a story that is rarely heard, let alone felt, with a creative use of photography that is entirely effective.
Alvaro Deprit’s project won the 2012 Viewbook Photostory “Small Stories” Award. The prize led to the publication of the book Suspension in 2014.
All images © Alvaro Deprit
Leo Hsu is a photographer and writer based in Toronto and Pittsburgh.
Contact Leo here.