ref·u·gee \ˌre-fyu̇-ˈjē, \ Noun: a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc. Oxford English Dictionary.
The last couple of years, indeed a decade, a migration crisis in Europe has been preoccupying politicians, journalists and local communities, moreover it has captured global imagination as well. The emotionally-charged issues circle around the possible and actual threats to the well-being of European citizens, the truth claims about the real reasons of those who migrate to Europe and their grueling journeys across the multiple borders and seas. These issues are used, tackled, exploited by many; among others, politicians and media makers, global business ventures and local smuggling networks, as well as journalists, photographers, filmmakers and even artists. At the center of this crisis is “a refugee”.
At the end of 2016, UNHCR reports: “An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. Nearly 34,000 people are forcibly displaced every day as a result of conflict or persecution”.
The legal categories of “stateless person”, “refugee”, “forced from home” become hard to comprehend from afar. Numbers themselves gets more inscrutable, sensationalist, irrelevant.
“In 2015 there were 851,319 arrivals in Greece”; “departures from mainland Greece accounted to hundred of thousand; so the arrivals to F.Y.R.O.M., to Serbia, to Hungary and to Austria.” All those contributing to the creation of the so called ‘The Balkan Route’. Within the year 2016: 332,492 arrivals by sea to Europe (1,015,078 arrivals by the sea in 2015). 3,930 dead or missing. That's about 90 a week. It's nearly 13 every day. One person out of every 88 has been lost at sea trying to reach the shores of Greece, Italy or Spain. Arriving in Greece the proportion of men in 2015 was 45%, children 35 % and women 20%.
But who is “a person who flees for refuge or safety, especially to a foreign country, as in time of political upheaval, war, etc.”? What is a “foreign country”, “political upheaval”, eventually “fleeing” and “safety”?
The book in your hands is an attempt, in a visual form, to touch upon these questions. We are eleven photographers, with eleven pairs of eyes and hands, trying to answer this question equally passionately. Yet our images inevitably vary as do our age, techniques, interests. Eleven angles give us the advantage of avoiding the danger of pretense of knowing what “refugee” is from the very start. Further, we move through space and time, from Duhok, Iraq to Patra, Greece, from winter in Eidomeni to summer in Lesvos, from the horn of Africa to a rail station in Budapest. We meet people on the move, from the same or different backgrounds, from Syria to Afghanistan, from Sudan to Kurdistan. We inhabit the times of everyday lives in camps and temporary homes as well as those that they desperately try to flee. Despite these differences, our eleven gazes hold a common and overwhelming interest in “a person” whose “safety” is deprived during the “fleeing”. That is we try to understand the space and movement and to visually express and compare equality overwhelming similarities of human spirit during the crisis.
Yet, as photographers, we take part of responsibility for making this “crisis”, and we try to keep a reflective distance and actions at the very process of image production. The emotional exchange between the photographed refugee, and those engaged in helping or hurting them, and the event of photography, becomes our focus. This produces less easily consumable, but hopefully no less thought-provoking, images.
Shores, Walls, Enclosures | Space over Time
In Milos Bicanski’s photograph, a woman in a life-jacket on the Aegean sea shore with the child on her lap is posing; is she a volunteer or a refugee, is it a staged scene for the media the photographer captures, or does the photographer himself set the scene? Or has it just happened? Is it the same woman who desperately tries to carry the boy from the boat? Isn’t the world watching? The possible answer comes with Andrea Bonetti’s photographs of acts of kindness; an apple, a blanket, a hug, shared by the volunteer and a person just arrived by boat; the division between “you” and “them” is leveled out.
The duration of “fleeing” indefinitely prolonged, levels down the difference between normality and “crisis”, opening up human imagination in unexpected ways. The snippets of everyday life which start in the Middle Eastern refugee camps and end in the squats of abandoned factories in Europe, are captured by Dimitrios Bouras, exactly to open up our imagination to a more complex understanding of the depth of the person. Among the images of make-shift homes, wedding parlors, and bakeries, the photograph of a woman in a black dress and red jacket, who gracefully carries the canister of water, apart from trash container and yellowish water pond, nothing that can give us a clue of its exact location. All but her gracious pose, that carries the history of the person, or rather frees the person from the history at ground. In a few pages, almost the same woman reappears, with the same grace strolling though the deserted pathways of the camp, with the black umbrella. History of human grace in a frame.
History that is interrupted by the wall as event, in Louisa Gouliamaki’s photograph: the chaos of the space and persons comes in one: a border riot, a boy carrying a child, school bags and tents scattered, photographers running, elderly woman helpless collapsed down on the ground. Whose dream is that? What is the place of “safety”?
The fragility that Yannis Kolesidis is concerned with: the uneasy passage through the streaming river, the arrival of the overcrowded boat, a rainy night in the camp on the rail tracks, a squatted building with the tent inside. So little is required to protect or to destroy the human. Suddenly the photographer emerges as a maker of that history. John Liakos captures the scattered photographs on the ground, which is more or less the testament of those thousands missing, not only dead at sea but those in the far away countries and cities at war; his other image of black figures walking through the morning landscape, allows us to abstract ourselves from the concrete situation and to understand it on the level of universal story.
The outer feeling of enclosure becomes Menelaos Myrillas’ aesthetic exploration of that inner suffocation: hands touching the roof of a tent, the car window obstructing the face, a container shape box turned into temporary shelter, but even that, as much the life of one “fleeing” is obviously temporary, and the journey, the track to Europe, requires repetition of overcoming yet another wall, border, fence.
The tracks, be it railroad tracks or tracks made by the thousands of human feet, come as a repetitive focus in Nick’s Paleologos photographs. The “fleeing” itself becomes a space. This space is marked by the materials and objects: the inflatable boat, life-jacket, thermal blanket, barb-wire, tent, telling larger stories about the modes of global capitalism. In Anna Pantelia’s photographs these objects frame the faces of people in distress, allowing to see the person within this scale of the crisis, while in Fotis Plegas’ images, the materials and persons are enshrouded in shadows, in darkness, in double frame, that allow to distance ourselves from the media-produced emotions, and give a necessary time for reflection. Orestis Seferoglou’s photography, chooses in yet another vector: here it is water, forest, grass, that is nature which surrounds human produced camps, track and walls that surround the refugee in European imagination.
The book is an attempt to break these walls.