ACTIVISTS KAISA VIITANEN, 34, JOURNALIST, AND KATJA TÄHJÄ, 34, PHOTOGRAPHER, FINLAND

Kaisa and Katja have produced a book and exhibition about the hidden lives of undocumented people in Europe.

Kaisa: In 2008 I took a sabbatical break from my job as a journalist on Finland´s biggest women’s weekly magazine and went to Amsterdam, where I got involved with an organization that helps undocumented people – mostly rejected asylum seekers, men with mental illnesses, and mothers with children. It opened my eyes. I hadn´t realized before that there are millions of people living secretly in Europe.

Katja: I am a freelance photographer. When I visited Kaisa in Amsterdam, she took me to a secret café for undocumented women, where she was working with their children. I realized that those people were invisible. Officially, they don´t exist. Undocumented people are the poorest of the poor. They don’t just lack money, they also lack rights to housing, education, fair working conditions, safety, freedom of speech. I had been thinking about starting a photography project on human rights, and I decided that this was what I wanted to cover.

Kaisa: We started to search for undocumented migrants who were willing to be photographed. It wasn´t easy. And no wonder – if they appear in public, they may end up being detained and deported. For a year and a half we travelled through seven EU states – the UK, The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Greece, Sweden and Finland – and talked to 21 individuals or families who were prepared to share their life stories. I wrote the stories in their own words, and Katja´s photos show their hidden lives – their homes, workplaces, loneliness and hunger.

Katja: We introduced a new word into our language – paperiton, paperless. This term already exists in Swedish (papperslös) and French (sans papiers). Then, in September 2010, our book, Paperittomat (Paperless People) came out, and Finland’s largest newspaper published a long article written by Kaisa, with my photos, about an undocumented man living in hiding.

Kaisa: We wanted Finnish people to feel what it’s like to live in constant fear of being caught and deported, so we organized an event called Undocumented Living Room in the centre of Helsinki. We rented a gallery and decorated it to reproduce a church we’d visited in Brussels, with mattresses on the floor, people drinking tea, and a sound installation of their interview recordings. Katja´s photos were displayed out of doors in big rainproof frames. It was too risky to invite any undocumented people to tell their own stories but they donated most of the items we used – such as the mattresses, blankets and tea cups – and we enabled their voices to be heard.

The book was dramatized and performed during the event, and there were discussions, films and art, all on the ’Paperless’ theme. Finnish people learnt a new word and started to think about undocumented migrants. Now we want to reproduce this event in other European cities.

Katja: This project has changed my world. Even the streets in my home city look different. I discovered a world that I never knew existed. Undocumented migrants are living in the shadows of the citizens, without rights or dignity. They clean our local food store on slave wages, unprotected by labour legislation; they pick the fruit we eat, build the houses we live in and wash the dishes in our restaurants. But if they don’t get paid or are victims of crimes, they cannot go to the police. They are invisible and abusable. During this project I learned to see the invisible.

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