Monday 27 June 2016

Interview with Simon Brann Thorpe

Interview: Simon Brann Thorpe

In 2004, Simon Brann Thorpe was in Western Sahara working on a documentary project about landmine victims. Appalled by the political situation and taken by the refugees he met, he determined to return. Thus Toy Soldiers was born. Published to great acclaim in book format last summer, Brann Thorpe is now looking to exhibit the images internationally.

Anna McNay: Your first experience of the war in Western Sahara was in 2004 when you did a project about landmine victims. How did you get from there to your Toy Soldiers project?

Simon Brann Thorpe: The landmines project was my first ever experience with conflict. I never even played with toy soldiers as a child. I was completely taken by the people in Western Sahara. The region is a former Spanish colony. Now it is a disputed territory, sandwiched between Morocco, to the north; Mauritania, to the south; Algeria, to the east; and the Atlantic on the west coast. When the Spanish left, Morocco laid claim to the territory and invaded from the north and, at the same time, Mauritania invaded from the south. The indigenous population of Western Sahara – called the Sahrawi – was effectively split and half of the population fled into Algeria, where they still exist. Mauritania withdrew in 1979, which left the Polisario, or political resistance movement against colonialism, fighting the Moroccans. There was a ceasefire in the 1990s, but over 100,000 refugees still live in refugee camps in southwest Algeria. When I visited the region, I visited these camps. A 2,700km-long sand berm divides the regions. It was built by the Moroccans and is heavily landmined on both sides. The region to the east is known as the liberated zone and that is where Toy Soldiers was shot.

I was really taken by the invisibility of the situation and the fact that the West has been entirely incapable of any form of resolution. The UN has a mandate in Western Sahara and they monitor the ceasefire. They are meant to be bringing about a referendum, but nothing is happening. The refugees have been there for 40 years now, struggling for self-determination. My reaction to the situation is visceral. Toy Soldiers came about because I really wanted to go back and do another project on this issue, but I didn’t just want to go and do portraits of refugees, as that has been done millions of times, as have landscapes. I came up with the idea one day in the shower. I knew I wanted to work with the military – not because I wanted to give the issue a military context, but because it’s very symbolic of the struggle.

Read the rest of this interview here

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