Sounds Unseen: A Photographic Memoir of The Calais Sessions at St Ann’s Warehouse

Art Scene

Sounds Unseen: A Photographic Memoir of The Calais Sessions at St Ann’s Warehouse

Snippets of a phenomenally big-hearted human-centric project, The Calais Sessions, can be found in the documentary photographic work of Sarah Hickson. On view at St Ann’s Warehouse, in Sounds Unseen: A Photographic Memoir of The Calais Sessions, the images shed light on the power of community building across cultural, economic, and artistic boundaries.

Hickson’s project captures a collaborative project between a group of musicians and sound engineers and displaced musicians and singers, living in the ‘Jungle’, a refugee camp that existed in northern France for two decades until its demolition in 2016. Prior to its demise, the ‘Jungle’ peaked at over 6,000 refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eritrea among others. A nearby ‘tent city’, La Grand Synthe, was also part of the project.

The Calais Sessions Viewing

An eye-opening story unfolds through Hickson’s photographs and an accompanying film projected in the exhibition space. The goal of The Calais Sessions was to find musicians in the camp and record tracks that would ultimately be for sale, with proceeds going to aid the refugees. The results, songs that give a voice to refugees and tell their stories, are a testament to the power of music to dissolve barriers and fortify the spirit. Images in the show capture moments of sound recording, laughter, temporary shelters, places of worship, squalor, and resilience.

Calais Sessions Wall

For viewers, the imagination is left swirling. The rhetoric of diversity, globalization, and the notion of a grand “melting pot”, is quite literal in the camps, as evidenced by Hickson’s photographs, albeit in the most challenging of circumstances. The exhibitions installation in a salon style, collage-like format powerfully amplifies these ideas.

Calais Sessions Image Collage

The first session was recorded in September 2015. Hickson began her work in December 2015, and over six months worked to establish trust with her subjects in an effort to reveal an underrepresented aspect of camp life – the full robust humanity of displaced people, despite circumstances. One image in the show captures a message written on what appears to be the plywood wall of a temporary shelter, “We borrow the hearts of nomadic birds who don’t recognize borders.”

Calais Sessions Single Wall

Hickson’s editing of her work results in a carefully balanced presentation of images that show both difficult living conditions and the capacity of camp dwellers for pleasure and joy. In fact, the work does not romanticize the potential of music for healing and communion. Instead, it elevates the capacity for empathy among everyday human beings over the failure of world leaders to govern with conscience and vision. It is quite possible to walk away from this exhibition with a greater awareness of both the ephemeral nature of borders and the transcendental power of cultural exchange.

Sounds Unseen: A Photographic Memoir of The Calais Sessions is on view at St. Ann’s Warehouse until May 28th, 2017, with a possibility of extension. To hear music and for more information on the The Calais Sessions visit:


All photos: Anders Jones