The possible life of an illegal alien

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Fifty-three-year-old Gualbert from Niger lives illegally in south-east Amsterdam. Photographer Ben Krewinkel has followed him for years, documenting the life of a person who officially does not exist.

Ben Krewinkel met Gualbert in 2006. The photographer wanted to make a portrait of a illegal immigrant in Amsterdam. Gualbert (not his real name) was the only person he could find willing to cooperate.

The photos can be seen in Amsterdam at an exhibition entitled A Possible Life. Conversations With Gualbert.

Of course, the Niger immigrant runs the risk of being recognised and deported, but he thinks it’s important that his story is told. To be on the safe side, he has made himself unrecognisable on the pictures by little scratches on his face.

In Niger, Gualbert was an English teacher. When he lost his job in 2001, he came to Amsterdam. He began working as a cobbler, at first via a temp agency with a fake work permit. Nowadays, it is more difficult to work for an employer because there are strict controls on illegal immigrants. The money he earns from casual work gets sent home to his family in Niger.

Cheerful pictures
In the beginning, his wife and seven children came to the Netherlands. But their applications for asylum were rejected and they had to go back. Gualbert stayed behind, he never applied for asylum. The exhibition also shows his own photos: of his wife and children and of his wedding. Often the cheerful pictures contrast starkly with his life in the Netherlands.

Gualbert thinks about returning to Niger more and more often. As co-author of the exhibition catalogue he shares in the proceeds. If he can earn enough, he will be able to return home to his family with his head held high.

A Possible Life. Conversations with Gualbert, to be seen at the Centre for Fine Art (Centrum voor Beeldende Kunst) in south-east Amsterdam until 7 April.

Suggested reading: Spinoza: "The purpose of the state is freedom"