I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to be forced to make the difficult decision to leave one’s home in search of a ‘better life’. In recent months alone, thousands of people have boarded unseaworthy boats from North and sub-Saharan Africa, risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea, hoping that Europe will offer them sanctuary from violence, conflict and oppression. Others travel from Syria, fleeing the civil war and IS.
According to a BBC article published 25 June 2015, more than 150,000 migrants have crossed into Europe this year and the number shows no sign of abating. The first port of call is often the island of Lampedusa or Sicily, although mainland Greece and its islands are also common destinations. As more migrants arrive in Europe, pressure continues to build in the countries that receive them and discussions by European politicians about what can be done become ever more heated and urgent.
The majority of imagery we see through media outlets in relation to the migrant crisis is reportage-based, photojournalistic, but some photographers are choosing to interpret the theme of migration in more creative ways.
While researching this article, I was reminded of the work of Aida Silvestri whose project Even This Will Pass explores the journeys and experiences of Eritrean refugees. Silvestri, who was born in Eritrea to an Italian father and Eritrean mother, photographed refugees from the East African country who have made the dangerous journey to London on foot, by car, bus, lorry, boat, train, aeroplane, and even by camel. To protect the peoples’ identities she unfocused her lens when taking each portrait, and mapped the routes they had taken across the surfaces of the images. What results is a powerful and moving collection of portraits through which the photographer intelligently and imaginatively interprets what is a huge and difficult to document issue.
I’ve been a fan for a while now of Sam Ivin’s series Lingering Ghosts, which again, uses portraiture to explore migration but with a twist. In this work, Ivin photographed asylum seekers from Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan and Iraq, among other places, who now live in Cardiff. Like Silvestri, Ivin was conscious of protecting his subject’s identities so he decided to scratch away the surfaces of his images until the people were no longer recognisable. The act of literally scratching away the person’s face also acts as metaphor for the loss of identity many asylum seekers suffer as they wait to learn whether or not they will be granted refugee status in the UK. These are people, says Ivin, who are in a state of limbo, unable to fully integrate into British society, and whose futures are uncertain. Ivin will be producing a book with communications research centre Fabrica later this year.
Another photographer who has been working on a project about migration with Fabrica is Michael Radford. Our Rights focuses on members of the migrant community in Château Rouge, northern Paris – one of the largest in France, according to Radford. Constructing a pop-up street studio using a sheet and a flashgun, Radford photographed passersby against a white background, removing all context. He then later created digital collages by combining fragments from the various portraits to form what he calls ‘an abstract, distorted view.’ Viewers can see these digital collages here; clicking on part of the image takes the viewer through to the complete portrait. “The idea is to give these migrants a voice and a pedestal to stand on” says Radford. ‘The media is saturated with negative stories about migrants… I often feel that they are stereotyped, labeled, and thrown to the bottom of society. I wanted to show that these people are just like everyone else: a mother, daughter, father, son, doctor, labourer, student, lawyer and so on.”
The desire to use photography, specifically portraiture, to show the human face of migration and to remind viewers that these are people with feelings and histories, is something each of these three photographers shares. And, even though the photographers deliberately distort and obscure their subjects’ identities, they have created what are, in my mind at least, startling, meaningful and intimate images that shed light on this most pressing of humanitarian issues.
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