Sarah Hickson's stunning collection of images, Sounds Unseen: A Photographic Memoir of the Calais Sessions, is the inaugural show at the new St. Ann's Warehouse Studio in Brooklyn Bridge Park.


Sounds Unseen: A Photographic Memoir of the Calais Sessions opened the new St. Ann's Warehouse Studio with a stunning collection of images by Sarah Hickson, presented in association with United Photo Industries.

The new, cavernous studio is a beautiful exhibit space located on the waterfront in St. Ann's Warehouse, next door to Photoville's location under the Brooklyn Bridge. Susan Feldman, founder of Arts at St. Ann’s, is the force behind the first exhibit. As we discussed the images, Feldman pointed out how the images give people hope. Even in their situation they come together and create community with music.

Feldman fell in love with the Hickson's earliest images from the project.

Shot from December 2015 through May 2016, Hickson's personal project documents The Calais Sessions, a collaboration between UK-based musicians and refugees in two temporary camps in Northern France. For the refugees Hickson met in the “Jungle” camp in Calais and La Grande Synthe in Dunkirk, The Calais Sessions provided a welcome opportunity to tell their stories, to play and share the music from their homelands, or to pick up an instrument and join with other players.

Sounds Unseen: A Photographic Memoir of The Calais Sessions shares a rare glimpse into the daily life of asylum-seekers, chronicles the evolution of this remarkable project, and celebrates the vital human connection forged through the common language of music.

Sarah Hickson's Sounds Unseen at St. Ann's Warehouse Studio; Photo by Mark D Phillips

©Sarah Hickson; Gallery hours are Tuesday-Sunday, 1-6pm. Admission is free.
St. Ann’s Warehouse is located at 45 Water Street in Brooklyn Bridge Park

The images presented at St. Ann's are striking. A collage print stretches down the entire left side of the Studio. As you study the individual photographs, they begin to come together in themes and collaborations. Hickson told me how she put the images together on a table, moving prints around to form color themes and storty flows. Two days before the show opened, she pulled the print from a tube sent by the printer, unrolled it and saw it for the first time in the finished size. On the opposite wall, prints float away from the wall in bright, aluminum prints. The height of the ceilings allows for a stylized presentation.

The Calais Sessions was the brainchild of cellist Vanessa Lucas-Smith, who organized a collective of UK-based musicians who were eager to respond to the humanitarian crisis unfolding on their doorstep. At its peak, 6,000 displaced people—from Syria, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea—were living in the “Jungle” camp, a sprawling, informal settlement on a landfill site on the outskirts of Calais, just 22 miles from the UK coast. Beginning in September 2015, over the course of a year, the musicians and sound engineers travelled regularly to Calais, armed with a colorful array of instruments and portable sound gear. Upon arriving at the camp they would connect with musicians living there, hear their stories and see how they could collaborate. Down the road in Dunkirk, another camp, La Grande Synthe, primarily housed Kurdish families and children.

The Calais Sessions turned a flimsy plywood shack covered in blue tarpaulin, generally used for language lessons, into a makeshift music studio where displaced persons from a wide range of places in crisis—traditional singers from Kuwait and Syria, a dambora player from Afghanistan, Sudanese drummers, women singers from the Ethiopian and Eritrean Protestant Church, Kurdish percussionists, an Iraqi rapper and many budding guitarist and drummers—performed informally and recorded with the visiting UK artists. In July 2016, tracks recorded in the studio were released as an album, The Calais Sessions, which continues to garner acclaim. A four-star review in The Evening Standard praised the recording for capturing “the raw resilience” of the refugees and offering a “telling counterpoint to the tabloid images” of them. The preeminent world music magazine Songlines included The Calais Sessions on a short list of Best Albums of 2016, calling it “an extraordinarily moving collaborative album. The resilient testament to the human spirit will reduce you to tears, but also uplift your heart.”

Hickson’s images document moving moments of togetherness, strangers building friendships through music, people finding respite from the harsh reality of daily life in a refugee camp, the strength of the human spirit, and capacity to connect in tough circumstances. In addition, what attracted St. Ann’s to the photos was the astonishing sense of society in the camp: restaurants, houses of worship, a library, a recording studio and other places—created from scraps of wood, tarps, tents and metal—where people gathered together.

Sarah Hickson's Sounds Unseen at St. Ann's Warehouse Studio; Photo by Mark D Phillips

Among Hickson’s subjects was Abdullah, who, because he is a Kuwaiti Bedoon, was marginalized and persecuted at home, had no passport and no right to education, health care, housing or work. The generosity with which Abdullah shared his music and stories, and the beauty of his singing, made for one of many memorable experiences on Sarah’s first trip with The Calais Sessions. Hickson also photographed Ismail, an accomplished Afghan singer and player of the dambora, a traditional, two-stringed, long-necked lute. Ismail told Hickson and her Calais Sessions collaborators the harrowing story of his flight from Afghanistan with his wife and children. He rolled up his right sleeve to reveal burn scars, explaining that the Taliban plunged his arm into scalding water to prevent him from playing. He also showed them a gunshot wound to his stomach. On another occasion, after a couple of songs led by the UK group Get Gospel, the Pastor of an Evangelical Christian church at the camp encouraged the Eritrean and Ethiopian women in his congregation to sing one of their traditional songs of praise. What followed was a beautiful exchange of music, prayers and worship.

“We heard heart-rending stories from people who had fled their homes. We saw people living in appalling conditions—people who had been forced to leave their homes, had endured long and dangerous journeys, were coping with the stress of continued insecurity in a fragile and volatile environment, without adequate shelter and food, and with poor sanitation,” explains Hickson. “Amidst all this we also witnessed great strength, resilience, friendship and hopefulness. We experienced endlessly warm hospitality, and discovered wonderful musical talent.”

About Sarah Hickson

Sarah Hickson is a London-based photographer whose work focuses on artists and performance and the role of the arts in a wider social or humanitarian context. Much of Hickson’s recent work explores themes of migration, displacement, transition and cultural exchange; she is interested in the relationship between people, place and context, and in capturing moments of engagement, emotion and connection. Her background as a performing arts producer, and as a collaborator with artists, informs her photographic practice.

Hickson has worked on photographic commissions, residencies and personal projects in West and North Africa (Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, the Sahara Desert and Morocco), India, Europe and around the UK, collaborating with NGOs as well as theater companies, choreographers, musicians and festivals.

Prior to The Calais Sessions, Hickson documented Clowns without Borders UK, which brought performances and workshops to displaced children and families in refugee camps in Northern Greece and Serbia. She was also resident photographer for The Refugee Tales, a 5-day walk from Canterbury to Westminster along the Thames, in solidarity with asylum seekers, refugees and those in detention.

Some of Hickson’s images of musicians in Mali, Senegal, Morocco and London are currently on view at the Royal Albert Hall in London in an exhibition called Beyond the Beat, curated by Songlines Magazine. She was also featured in Call Me by Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond, a group exhibition curated by the Migration Museum Project at the Londonewcastle Project Space in Shoreditch, London. Her photos have been published in The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Suddeutsche Zeitung, Le Courrier International, Wanderlust, Songlines and fRoots.

About St. Ann’s Warehouse

St. Ann’s Warehouse plays a vital role on the global cultural landscape as an American artistic home for international companies of distinction, American avant-garde masters and talented emerging artists ready to work on a grand scale. St. Ann’s signature flexible, open space allows artists to stretch, both literally and imaginatively, enabling them to approach work with unfettered creativity, knowing that the theater can be adapted in multiple configurations to suit their needs.

In the heart of Brooklyn Bridge Park, St. Ann’s Warehouse has designed an award-winning, spectacular waterfront theater that opened in October 2015. The new theater offers St. Ann’s signature versatility and grandeur on an amplified scale while respecting the walls of an original 1860’s Tobacco Warehouse. In addition to the flexible Steinberg Theater, the building complex includes a second space, a Studio, for St. Ann’s Puppet Lab, smaller-scale events and community uses, and The Max Family Garden, designed by landscape architects Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and open to Brooklyn Bridge Park visitors during Park hours.

About United Photo Industries

United Photo Industries is a New York based art-presenting organization that works to promote a wider understanding of—and to increase access to—the art of photography.

Founded in 2011 by Sam Barzilay, Dave Shelley and Laura Roumanos, United Photo Industries has rapidly solidified its position in the public art landscape by consistently showcasing thought-provoking, challenging and exceptional photography from across the globe. Proudly devoted to cultivating strategic partnerships, creative collaborations and community spirit, United Photo Industries has presented dozens of exhibitions and public art installations across the United States and worldwide in partnership with numerous festivals, city agencies and not-for-profit organizations.

United Photo Industries is also the producer of Photoville, the largest annual photographic event in New York City. Working with more than 80 curatorial partners such as Instagram, The New York Times, TIME Magazine, National Geographic, The Pulitzer Center, the Magnum Foundation and many more, Photoville exhibits work by 400+ visual artists annually. Comprised of 70+ exhibitions, 35 talks and workshops, and four nighttime events in an outdoor beer garden, Photoville remains entirely free to attend, offering visitors a unique opportunity to experience thought-provoking, challenging and exceptional photography.

©Sarah Hickson; Sounds Unseen: A Photographic Memoir of the Calais Sessions
©Sarah Hickson; Sounds Unseen: A Photographic Memoir of the Calais Sessions