Having photographed extensively in West Oakland, Harlem, South Central LA, New Orleans, the Caribbean and other parts of Europe, Watts, a professor emeritus of art at UC Santa Cruz, knows the territory. Closer to home and to the point: he’s also the co-author of a brilliant photographic history of the Fillmore District, Harlem of the West – The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era, a book that details what a powerful force in jazz San Francisco was in the 1940s and 1950s — before redevelopment, known then as urban renewal, destroyed the scene and drove out many of the neighborhood's African-American residents.
Watts maintains that his inability to speak French hampered his work, and I have no doubt that it did. Yet in the pictures he displays there’s scant evidence of it actually having done so. His subjects reveal themselves openly or else carry on as if the camera weren’t there. Still, that doesn’t mean language wasn't a problem. One symptom is a notable absence of images depicting discord, racism, poverty and strife. Here Watts’ interactions with refugees hit closer to the mark; yet even in these, which were taken far outside Paris, in Calais, there’s a defiant optimism, evidenced in posters, improvised games, and scenes of caring and camaraderie. Watts shot them in a camp known as The Jungle, which, since 1999, has served as both a detention center and point of departure for refugees trying to illegally board trains, cars and trucks headed to the UK. These pictures succeed precisely because they defy expectations.