Looking at France: Searching for Europe's Invisible Borders • John Vink • Magnum Photos

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Politics

Looking at France: Searching for Europe’s Invisible Borders

Belgian photographer John Vink traversed the Franco-Belgian border in a post-Brexit Europe

John Vink

John Vink Beach at the French-Belgian border near the camping 'Les Perroquets'. Bray-Dunes (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), France. 21/10/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

When John Vink returned to Europe after living in Cambodia for 16 years, he found a continent where borders had become newly politically charged. Britain had just voted to leave the European Union and nationalism was on the rise across other European countries. As a result, border enforcement and protection was on the political agenda like never before. In practice, however, the borders in mainland Europe are largely undefined. John Vink’s conceptual collages seek to explore the borders between France and Belgium, using photographs alongside topographical references such as maps to explore what borders really mean to him, as a Belgian looking at France.

John Vink Chapel on the Chemin Mitoyen. Saint Laurent (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), France. 25/10/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Sweet shop at the border on the D318. Mont Noir (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), France. 25/10/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Lotissement Les Aubépines, rue Mitoyenne. Oost-Cappel (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), France. 21/10/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Old bunker on the Rue de Watou. Houtkerque (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), France. 25/10/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Truck at the former border post on the N58. Villers Cernay (Ardennes), France. 2/11/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

A border – in this case, the one that separates Belgium from France – on an ordnance survey map and on Google Maps, is clearly defined. And yet it is the only place where that is the case. Once one gets there, the clues are more subtle: a slight change in the road surface, other kinds of road signs, different street furniture, and a modified territorial layout; signs of a central power on a given territory. A border is nothing but the physical limit of power over a group of people. Despite the blessing that is the freedom of movement of people and goods in Europe, this physical limit discreetly remains. But what would happen if barriers were to rise again, the borders to close again, and customs posts dusted? What if, as a photographer, an inhabitant of a buffer state born from a battle lost by a Corsican in Waterloo two centuries ago, I was unable to go to the other side, to go through this line?

John Vink Maison Forte along the D6, a bunker disguised as a house which was destroyed by the Germans during the 2nd World War. Saint Menges (Ardennes), France. 2/11/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Rue du Sommet. (Ardennes), France. 2/11/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Fleigneux (Ardennes), France. 2/11/2016: D777. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Horses in a field near D318. Mont Noir, France. 25/10/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Rue de Sedan. Fleigneux (Ardennes), France. 2/11/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos

I would not see much more than I show here, my back to Belgium, facing France. No more, no less. A few derisory landmarks, in black and white, in color, a dot on the map, it does not matter. We may look, but this line does not scar this hill, this valley, this stream. Nature does not care about borders. It would thus be forbidden for me to defy something nonexistent. On the other hand, I would not have access to my neighbor in the same way anymore. By extension, the denial of passage toward the other, access, openness to one another, has much deeper consequences than a line drawn through a grove. These borders diminish the mind, might they be on a single territory, between territories, social groups, or communities. The real walls, the real borders are there, between people.

This story is part of The France Project: perspectives on the social, political and cultural landscape of contemporary France. In this ongoing project, initiated in 2016, Magnum photographers explore the background to  issues influencing debate in the country in the run-up to the election. See more stories from this project here.

John Vink Fog in a field next to the D4, near the N58. La Chapelle (Ardennes), France. 2/11/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink Cemetery with graves of Belgians and French on the Rue de Cassel which marks the border. Boeschepe (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), France. 25/10/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos
John Vink House of a potato seller at the border on the D23 which was burglared 4 times already. La Sapinière (Nord-Pas-de-Calais), France. 25/10/2016. © John Vink | Magnum Photos