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Trash/Traces: Lives adrift along the border

Updated: Apr 4, 2022


Researcher at Malmö University


This paper expands on the visual essay ‘Trash/Traces: Lives adrift along the border’, which narrates the author’s experiences at the frontline of refugee rescue operations during the 2015 European ‘refugee crisis’ and explores the Aegean borderscape’s affective geography by tracking the human and material traces of undocumented border-crossings on Lesvos island. Drawing on humanities’ turn to affect and new materialism, and theoretical advancements in border studies this twofold project implements visual and (auto)ethnographic methods to indicate obscured dimensions of the contemporary European border regime and illustrate the affective and somatic impact of its politics upon a variety of actors. This is done through the visual and narrative chronicling of bordercrossing humans and materials, which are regarded and handled as trash to be promptly removed from public view, through their irregular trajectories’ narration by the seawashed personal items. An archaeogeography of undocumented migration emerges through the tracing, conservation, and articulation of the flows of human and material ‘waste’ and their intersections and layerings across liminal landscapes, thereby instigating a rethinking of the affective, bodily and material economies of emplacement and mobility across the Eastern Mediterranean.


The island of Lesvos has a long, yet obfuscated, history as a point of arrival for displaced and irregularly mobile populations (Papadopoulou, 2004; Karachristos, 2006; Hirschon, 2007), and was marked by the ongoing European refugee ‘crisis’, which redirected regional migratory pathways and the bulk of their material infrastructure through Lesvos, turning it into one of the 21stcentury’s greatest disaster sites (Papataxiarchis, 2016).

This paper comprises a supplementary textual companion to the video-essay ‘Trash/Traces: Lives adrift along the border’, which was conceived and completed shortly after the author’s return from volunteering as a lifeguard during the European refugee ‘crisis’ on Lesvos. The video and the paper draw on long-term ethnographic research on the Eastern Mediterranean borderscape using as primary material a photographic collection depicting bordercrossers’ seawashed belongings found and captured by the author on Lesvos’ shores. The interweaving of a personal narrative with the photographed objects in the video, and their theoretical contextualization in this paper has a twofold aim: to illustrate less-considered aspects of the human/material/natural assemblages of forced migration and their affective encounters within the Aegean borderscape, and integrate them within the archaeology of contemporary undocumented migration framework (Hamilakis, 2016) from a geographical perspective.

Analytical framework

The lexical juxtaposition of ‘trash’ and ‘traces’ in the film’s title refers to the photographed objects, and to the people that owned them – both designated simultaneously as waste, and as traces of larger social processes. This parallel reference puts emphasis on waste material, on dirt and its residual marks, and on their significations and implications for marginalised individuals. “Dirt”, as Mary Douglas writes, is regarded as “matter out of place” which “implies two conditions: a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter, in so far as ordering involves rejecting inappropriate elements” (Douglas, 1966, pp. 36–37).

Visual and discursive representations of migrants and refugees often strip them of their humanity and personhood (Bleiker et al., 2013; Giannakopoulos, 2016; Chouliaraki and Stolic, 2017; Petersson and Kainz, 2017), reducing humans into peripheral beings, akin to animated objects caught in protracted sociospatial liminality (van Gennep, 1960; Turner, 1967) and systematically construed as matter out of place, on Lesvos and beyond. Similarly to household trash, bordercrossers are swiftly collected and removed from public view, and thereupon classified and contained within camps, which serve as “a kind of omnibus compendium which includes all the rejected elements of ordered systems” (Douglas, 1966, p. 37) and function according to the migration- and refugee rescue industries’ moral and financial economies (Givoni, 2011; Gammeltoft-Hansen and Nyberg-Sørensen, 2013).

The residual materiality of unauthorised border-crossings instigates environmental pollution doom-mongering (Skanavis and Kounani, 2016; Tyrikos-Ergas, 2016; Kounani and Skanavis, 2018) of comparable magnitude to the moral panics of sociocultural contamination incited by migration’s recast sociality. As the ethnographic account of Tyrikos-Ergas (2016) illustrates:

“The northern and eastern shores of the island of Lesvos, hundreds of kilometers of shoreline that consist of grey-brown rock and pebbles or sand, had changed color. It had turned into a very bizarre, out of context, phosphorescent orange hue, covered by the discarded life jackets worn by the refugees (p. 227)… For some, the life jackets stand for “invasion”: it is their quantity that stands out…the refugee movement is an invasion of “otherness” into Europe. The very number of the life jackets on the shores of Lesvos…has, for them, become a representation of a very concrete threat. “All this filth entered Europe” said a local official…pointing to a pile of life jackets thrown in a municipal rubbish bin. A woman of the conservative left wrote fervently to the local press against “volunteers and refugees destroying our homeland”, warning that “all these life jackets hide stories of hundreds of jihadists that are now here, somewhere hidden threatening us. Look at the life jackets. They are proof of what I say.”’ (p. 229.)

In a survey administered by Kounani and Skanavis (2018) locals in Lesvos are reported to strongly agree that mass refugee influx “could cause environmental pressure in receiving and hosting regions…and the inadequacy of the state mechanisms could contribute negatively in that pressure…Also, the inhabitants maintained that refugees’ mass arrivals could cause conflicts among locals and refugees due to the competition in natural resources” (p. 331).

Both the physical and social contamination caused by unauthorized migration on the island are similarly resolved through forceful ordering: ‘special waste’ byproducts of refugee crossings ( life jackets, rubber dinghies, and wooden- or fiberglass boats) undergo processes of profit-oriented sorting, in/visibilisation, repurposing, recommodification, or disposal (Tsoni, 2016, p. 43).

Although subtler and less voluminous than other ‘refugee waste’, bordercrossers’ seawashed belongings are similarly treated as environmental pollutants, much like the humans they refer to. Ordinary objects found across Lesvos’ northern shores were shed in/voluntarily, or even sacrificially – accidentally dropped, tossed to lighten the boat’s load, or thrown as offerings to appease the hostile sea. Most may be functionally interchangeable (shoes, clothes, toiletries), yet others have unique affective and spiritual dimensions: they are cherished family/personal mementoes and sacred amulets salvaged before fleeing and serving as identity referrents in the midst of forced migration. Despite having little, if any, monetary value, they are invested with great symbolic and emotional value. They have distinct life periods and bear deep personal and cultural markers as they undergo successive transmutations: from ordinary things, to treasured keepsakes, to landfill-bound seaside trash, and recovered ephemeral traces of human passage.

Viewed from a new materialist perspective (Ingold, 2007, 2012; Coole and Frost, 2010; Witmore, 2014), although they all are man-made items, they are not inert matter but processual, relational and storytelling entities. They are ‘sensitive objects’ (Povrzanović Frykman, 2016, p. 90) with their own ‘object biography’ (Kopytoff, 1986; Joy, 2009), and possess ‘thing-power’ (Bennett, 2010, p. xvi) exceeding their ordinary status and manifesting traces of ‘lively’ agency. They are interconnected with global influences, individual subjectivities and surrounding environments. Through them the living, the lost and the ancestral are connected; the ‘where’ of ‘here’ and ‘there’ of homeland and exile are linked, while the ‘when’ of ‘now’ and ‘then’ is located, bridged and carried into the future.

From such a standpoint, borderscapes (Rajaram and Grundy-Warr, 2007; Brambilla, 2015; Brambilla et al., 2015) are fleshed out through the non-anthropocentric interaction of matters inside and outside human and material border-embodying bodies, and the physical and affective states that arise through- and, in turn, reciprocally influence the sociocultural and environmental conditions within which these bodies exist and function. According to Rajaram & Grundy-Warr (2007) the borderscape is “a zone where the multiplicity and chaos of the universal and the discomfits and possibilities of the body intrude ... to indicate the complexity and vitality of, and at, the border’ (p. x), while Brambilla portrays them as “landscapes of competing meanings” through which “fluctuating borders are imagined, materially established, experienced, lived as well as reinforced and blocked but also crossed, traversed and inhabited.’ (Brambilla 2014b).

This work is an ‘archaeogeographical’ endeavour, which draws on affective geography (Navaro-Yashin, 2012) and responds to calls for advancing the archaeology of forced and undocumented migration (Hamilakis, 2016), which “valorize[s] the material remnants of mobility and border-crossing experience, especially when such remnants are seen as “trash” – another seemingly “environmentally sensitive” way to express xenophobic attitudes” (ibid p. 133), and an archaeology of emotion and affect (Tarlow, 2012), which can bring “a sense of contextual historicity to the discussion and developing our knowledge of how material things and places are involved in shaping and expressing emotion” (ibid. p. 169) in historically variable ways. These perspectives urge the valorisation and archiving of the material remnants of cross-border mobility experiences, particularly when such objects and their human referrents are subjects of systematic erasure. They historically contextualise how, not only humans, but also materials and places are imbued with affect and emotion, while also being involved in shaping and expressing them through processes of mutual affectation. An archaeogeography of undocumented migration on Lesvos, therefore, foregrounds both migrants and objects as protagonists and attends to the physical and metaphorical ‘excavation’ and preservation of the Aegean borderscape’s human/material ecology of traces, trajectories, livelihoods and affective ambiances fomented by forced migration in times of momentous historical significance.

Methodology and methods

Reflexive video ethnography has gained traction in human/geographic sciences (Margolis, 1994; Sandercock and Attili, 2010; Garrett, 2011; Voicu, 2013), and border/migration studies (Fox, 1995; Jacka and Petkovic, 1998; Biemann, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2009; Biemann and Sanders, 2003), as a medium that can capture affects’ circulation (Spinney, 2015), as well as document and represent research findings adequately, accurately and reflexively (White, 2009). The video-essay follows the ‘ethnographic fiction’ genre, using evocative visual and narrative storytelling of incidents that may not always correspond to actual events, but create truthful composite scenes and characters, and reveal understandings gleaned from previous qualitative research (Gray, 2004).

Inspired by the inscription of the female name ‘Somaya Zanardi’ inside a discarded lifejacket (Image 1) at Lighthouse beach on Lesvos (Figure 1), the narrative of a semi-fictional interaction between the author/videographer and Somaya is weaved. The two women may have never met in person, but their exchange is reminiscent of similar encounters and events witnessed by the author herself or narrated by other border-crossers. As such, this work explicitly draws on research data to express embodied truths and represent the absent ‘Other’ (Sparkes, 1997; Inckle, 2010), while remaining aware of the practical and moral problems of representation (Smith, 2002, p. 113). A lived ‘reality’ of- and at the European eastern border is thus presented – a reality that is not invented, but rather emerges through the addition of characters and plot onto seemingly disconnected objects and witness accounts of actual events.

As Smith posits, ‘ethnographic fiction and poetic representation are utilised as a possible way to evoke emotions; broaden audiences; illuminate the complexities of body-self relationships; include 'researcher', 'participant', and 'reader' in dialogue; help us think with stories; and … invite the reader-as-witness to morally breathe and share a life within the storytelling relation’ (Smith, 2002, p. 113). As such, this audiovisual narrative, raises the question of how we may relate to, represent, and research borders and the various bodies and objects populating their complex and ambiguous landscape.

One of its central aims is to ‘open up’ the unfamiliar spaces and encounters described by the researcher/rescuer and make them accessible to audiences of various backgrounds so they may immersively feel their way into them, beyond prevalent logocentric methods. As opposed to prior applications of this genre (Jupp, 2006, p. 319; Petros et al., 2016) this project includes, rather than removes, the researcher’s perspective in an autoethnographic manner (Ellis, 2004; Davis and Ellis, 2007). By evoking the proximal senses (smell, hearing, taste, touch), viewers get sensorially and affectively attuned to otherwise overlooked elements of everyday life within the Aegean borderscape, as they are submerged a haunted, liquid atmosphere populated by objects and absent humans in a state of ruination.

Visual data collection and technical description of the video-essay

The video-essay was directed, edited, written and narrated exclusively by the author. Seventy-three out of approximately 300 photographs of seawashed objects found at Lighthouse beach on the northern shores of Lesvos were selected, based on a range of technical and aesthetic criteria and their storytelling potential. They were captured with a smartphone camera over a one-month period in the winter of 2015-2016, during the author’s participation in the refugee-boat search and rescue operations on the island as a volunteer lifeguard.

A uniform capturing angle and simple square framing emphasized each object individually, and no visual filters/effects were applied on the images or the video, preserving the natural colours and lighting. Items were photographed untampered on location, isolated from surrounding objects. The background (rocks, mud, seaweed and plants) thus turned into vital compositional and storytelling elements: far from being mere negative space outlines, they underlined and accentuated the powerful contradictions between the objects’ intimacy, their owners’ physical fragility and the environmental harshness afflicting both. The imagery was presented in a steady sequence of still photographs separated by minimal transition effects, and followed a stable, meditative pace regardless of the vocal narrative’s rhythm and speed. Audio effects aimed to enhance immersion to border atmospherics and comprised of three distinct elements: looped recorded samples of waves on Lighthouse beach; the recorded author-recited narrative voice-over, and an edited version of a music piece by Heinali (2012).


This archaeogeographical approach of the human/material encounters of undocumented migration is attuned to the borderscape’s ‘wasted’ materialities, socialities, and temporalities and tries to capture and contextualise borders’ affective resonances in space and time ‘from below’ and impact the actual and metaphorical trajectories of refugees’ arrested lifepaths at the margins of Europe, even if incrementally. Affective borderscapes, such as the one partially traced by this project, emerge as fluidly demarcated interstitial spaces, where the paths and pathos of a transitory assemblage of human and non-human bodies intersect and interact. Across them, feelings, instincts, presumptions, memories, actions, perceptions, sensations, material relations, mobilities and intangible forces circulate and come together, surrounding, situating and steering the bodies emplaced within them.

Narrative- and content analysis of this project’s audiovisual material indicates the severity of the somatic and affective impacts of the EU border regime upon refugees and other borderlanders, while also revealing the magnitude of human suffering and loss due to borders’ necropolitics. Along with them, the scale of human solidarity and resilience is brought to light, despite the physical and emotional trauma inflicted upon border-crossers and those who rescue or receive them.

The stranded everyday objects, along with the rescuer’s narrativized experience prompt the consideration of embodied and material dimensions of everyday life in forced mobility while also acting as mirrors, evoking overlooked similarities between ‘regular’ and ‘irregular’ lives and reiterating how ‘Others’ are not all that different from ‘us’ after all, despite the persistent physical and psychological shunning of refugees.

Selected video-essay stills

Image 1: The film's opening image. An adult-sized lifejacket with the handwritten name ‘Somaya Zanardi’. Next to it lies child-sized lifejacket and a small pair of shoes in a plastic bag.

Image 2: A baby bottle wrapped in a plastic bag and a rusted metal chewing gum tin. [08:45].

Image 3: Broken watch dial stopped at 09:30'23'' [02:16].

Image 4: The first of six handwritten pages describing in detail the preparation of several traditional Syrian desserts [01:54].

Image 5: Two toothbrushes inside a plastic bag [04:21].

Image 6: Iron, folic acid and zinc capsules (commonly prescribed during pregnancy) in blister packaging, from Ibn-Alhaytham Pharmaceutical Industries in Aleppo, Syria [03:17]. Other medicine found were Naxiprazol 20mg capsules (for gastric disorders), Ponisstan 500mg tablets (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug), Entero-Stop pills (intestinal tract antibiotic), Faderin 100mg tablets (cardiovascular system drug), Tribion Forte 1000 (multivitamin), and many other unidentifiable drugs.

Image 7: Child-sized inflatable swim ring with cartoon decorations [03:39].

Image 8: Complimentary notepad from the five-star hotel Cham Palace in Damascus, Syria [05:34].

Image 9: A pack of menstrual pads wrapped in a plastic bag with four pieces of headscarf-securing pins attached to it [07:10].

Image 10: Laminated booklet containing a selection of surahs from the Qur’an [02:31].

Image 11: Complimentary hotel shampoo bottle from the four-star hotel Best Western Konak in Izmir [09:02]

Image 12: A tub of “instant full volume” mascara from the Turkish brand Golden Rose [08:29]. Other make up products found included lip gloss, lipstick, eyelash curlers, and eyeliner pens among others.

Image 13: A black trash bag full of Alhamraa long cigarettes from Aleppo, Syria – one of the most popular brands among Syrian smokers [04:15].

Image 14: Customised Saint Christopher amulet: After its original buckle was broken, a new hole was drilled through the pendant and a new link was inserted. [09:16].

Image 15: The inscription on the back side of the amulet: “St. Christopher / patron of travelers / pray for us / protect us / in our travels” [09:23].


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