Charlie Hailey


On his book Camps: A Guide to 21st-Century Space

Cover Interview of September 01, 2009

A close-up

When I last flipped through Camps, I paused at three moments that give a sense of the range of possibilities, realities, and complexities in the book.  Each stopping point includes an illustration that samples the book’s imagery base and that renders “camp space” – one vertical, one horizontal, and the last a shell within a shell not unlike a Russian doll of space, politics, and mobility.

The first, on page 92, is a tree camp.  We are looking up through a conifer stand at the undersides of nineteen “tree boats” suspended, and thus truly floating, in a French arboretum’s stately canopy.  It’s a children’s camp turned vertical – a site for dreaming and perhaps for redefining self and community.  This aerial cluster always reminds me of Italo Calvino’s baron of the trees who silently and symbolically left the dinner table to ascend the canopy permanently and to form an independent state of reflection and play.

I then turned to page 327 with its birds-eye view of the Benaco camp for refugees in Tanzania.  The hazy matrix of tents and shelters extends to the horizon.  The Rwandan genocide of 1994 displaced millions, with sites such as Benaco regularly exceeding a quarter-million inhabitants.  In this section of the book, I discuss camps that fall between conditions of autonomy and control.  For many, Benaco, as well as camps west of Rwanda in Zaire, made visible the scale of such emergencies.  It was also an important moment in the process of understanding how interactions of camp, crisis, and need continued to alter forms of assistance and aid agencies. Interior view of Reliant Astrodome, Houston, Texas, September 2005 (Andrea Booher / FEMA).

“Refugee camp” is widely used, but its descriptive breadth hides more particular iterations of dislocation – self-settlement, economic migration, and internal displacement.  Kofi Annan called this latter condition – effecting millions of internally displaced persons who reside in “IDP Camps” – the “great tragedy of our time.”  These camps are some of the most densely populated places on earth, but the sites are horizontally and marginally distributed where comparable densities are typically vertical and urban, and they are considered temporary when they are essentially semi-permanent.  With Benaco camp as a starting point, this section of the book investigates how camps of necessity are planned, protected, named, reported, and inhabited.

On page 424, a photograph, in the news again this summer, triggered my last stopping point.  Forty years ago President Nixon greeted the Apollo 11 crew through the sealed rear window of an Airstream trailer serving as a mobile quarantine vehicle.  In the next photograph on page 427, the narrative is less visible, but evocatively recognizable nonetheless.  In this case, we are looking inside the fuselage of a C-17 military cargo jet between its external hull and the shining metallic shell of an Airstream.  Its recreational line once referred to as the “Silver Palace,” this trailer now seals distinguished military personnel from distractions and danger in a military construct known as the “Silver Bullet.”  This last example, which I summarize as “In-flight Camp,” demonstrates how camping vehicles and camp spaces sometimes collide and in the process blur distinctions of autonomy and control.