Photojournalist Jason Florio has worked in countries around the world—from Senegal and The Gambia to India and America—and shot stories for The New York Times and The New Yorker. This spring, his work was singled out by our international jury in the Magnum Photography Awards 2017.

We reached out to Florio for more details on the foundations of this project, including his two-decade-long documentation of The Gambia. While many photographers have been documenting the historic European migrant crisis, Florio brings to it a wider perspective that stretches to the westernmost reaches of Africa.

Artist’s Statement

For two years (2015-16), I was embedded with the first search and rescue NGO, Migrant Offshore Aid Station, that began operating rescue ships in the wake of the migrant crisis. MOAS’s specific aim is to save the lives of migrants and refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean and Aegean seas.

Prior to working with MOAS, I was based in The Gambia, West Africa, from 2013-15. During that time, rarely a day went by without hearing about someone who had left or who had died at sea trying to take “the back way”—as the illegal route to Europe is colloquially called.

I was assigned to document MOAS’s lifesaving missions off the coast of Libya and in the Aegean. Initially, it was just an assignment, but quite soon we were rescuing not only Syrians, Somalis, and Nigerians fleeing conflict, but many Gambians escaping a dictatorship and grinding poverty. My work quickly began to take on an added dimension when, in the first group of Gambians that we rescued, I met 18-year-old Sana Colley, the son of a friend of mine from back in The Gambia. These close connections with rescued Gambians continued to appear. Whenever possible, I would call their relatives back in The Gambia from onboard the rescue ship to let them know their loved ones were now safe. My initial embed was for three weeks, but I was soon emotionally invested in the story, and I stayed on to make multiple sea missions over the next two years. I am now focusing my work on the effects of mass migration in source countries including The Gambia and other host countries.

—Jason Florio

Gambian and other West African migrants lay exhausted on the deck of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station ship after being rescued from a packed rubber boat that was starting to sink off the coast of Libya. © Jason Florio/MOAS

LensCulture: Could you tell us more about the time you spent in The Gambia before working with MOAS? Which projects did you work on while you were there?

Jason Florio: I first went to The Gambia in 1997 while I was studying photography and working as a photographer’s assistant in New York. I had a childhood friend from London who had moved to a forest called Makasutu in The Gambia to set up a conservation project, and he invited me to stay with him. I roamed the forest for two weeks with my 8x10 Deardorff camera making large-format portraits of people who lived and worked around the forest. The locals believe that the forest is sacred and protected by spirits and devils. Enamored by the forest and people, I continued to return to Makasutu yearly for the next thirteen years to continue this series of portraits. I also pursued a series called “Silafando,” created when my wife and I circumnavigated The Gambia by foot.

I spent nearly 20 years working on stories in The Gambia. During that time, the country was ruled over by one man: Yahya Jammeh, an authoritarian, brutal, and eccentric president. This past year, on January 21st, 2017, he was forced to flee the country after losing the recent election. Within days I started to work on photographing and documenting the abuses he had meted out on journalists, activists, opposition leaders, businessmen, students and all manner of civilians—a project I will return to in the years to come.

LC: How did you go from shooting in The Gambia to working onboard the MOAS boat? Did working in The Gambia inform your decision to pursue the work with MOAS?

JF: In 2015, while I was living in The Gambia, I got a call from Robert Young Pelton, a writer who I had worked with on a number of magazine assignments in Afghanistan, Somalia and Burma. Pelton had been hired by MOAS, and he asked me if I would be interested in spending a week taking photographs and videos on the MOAS ship.

I was told I would be at sea for one week, but in the end, there were so many rescues that we ended up staying for three. I then decided to stay on in order to create regular and in-depth content for MOAS and gather footage for their feature documentary, Fishers of Men.

Living in The Gambia, I was very aware of the exodus of the country’s young people—I regularly heard about people who had left the country to “take the back way.” I was at home in Banjul in 2014 when a Gambian friend came by to visit, and during that visit he got a call to say his brother-in-law had just died trying to cross the Mediterranean. The stories of dead and missing friends and relatives were part of the daily conversations for many Gambians. So when the assignment came up to embed with MOAS, I knew I would be able to document what so many Gambians were willing to put themselves through for a better life. Still, when I first set out to tell their stories, I didn’t know that I would be so personally connected to the results.

A Nigerian migrant pulled from a rubber boat prays onboard the MOAS rescue dingy. © Jason Florio/MOAS

LC: How do refugees from The Gambia react to tragic images of the crisis, and how does that affect their choices and feelings?

JF: Many Gambians have a fatalist outlook on life—they accept both good and bad outcomes as being ultimately out of human hands and determined by a higher power. They often say “inshallah,” or “if God wills it,” about the consequences of even the smallest actions. In The Gambia, boys will show you videos and pictures on their phones of horrific migrant deaths at sea and in the desert, or migrants relating stories on camera of abuse at the hands of Libyan smugglers. And yet, you still hear them say: “Oh, it’s terrible what is happening to our African brothers and sisters…but it’s God’s will if we live and die…maybe when I take the journey I will be luckier.” After I showed him my pictures, one young Gambian friend told me, “I know very well the dangers: I have seen the pictures, I have watched the videos…but I must see Europe with my own eyes.”

There are immense social (as well as personal) pressures by peers and family to escape the lack of opportunities in the country. These influences force many young Gambians to dismiss the horrific imagery and make the perilous journey.

LC: I would imagine that meeting your Gambian friend’s son must have been one of the most touching moments for you. How did you react? Did you call his family together?

JF: On a number of occasions, I met rescued Gambians on the MOAS ship and then quickly realized that we had friends and acquaintances in common back in The Gambia. But I was utterly floored when on two occasions I met young Gambian teenagers whose fathers I knew directly. I had photographed the father of one boy, Abdoulie, for an earlier project seventeen years prior.

As they pulled him from the deflating rubber boat, I could barely believe that I would have such a personal connection to this young boy. The world seemed to contract around me. My wife, Helen, was still in The Gambia when Abdoulie was rescued, so I sent her an email, as the internet from the ship was too weak to make clear calls. Helen then called his father. She said that he called her twice the next day just to make sure that he had heard her correctly—that Abdoulie was really safe—they had not heard from him for months, since he had been jailed in Libya along the way.

The second boy, Kebba, was standing with about twenty young boys on the deck of the boat just after they were rescued. I don’t know why I singled him out, but I simply asked him—as I had done for hundreds of other boys—”Where are you from?” Within thirty seconds, I realized that I knew his stepfather, Langbaba. It seemed too incredible. I gave Kebba a hug and said I would call his stepfather from the ship’s bridge. As soon as I heard Langbaba’s voice, I already had tears in my eyes knowing the good news I would be able to relay to him. His words were thick with emotion. “Kebba is with you? Really? Thank god, thank god…we thought he was dead.” Like many people in The Gambia, Langbaba had personally lost loved ones on the perilous journey to Europe, so he was overcome when he learned that Kebba was safe.

Rescued Nigerians. Nigerian women rescued by Migrant Offshore Aid Station are transported towards a German cargo ship that will carry them and hundreds of other rescued migrants to Sicily. © Jason Florio/MOAS

LC: How were you received by the refugees during your assignment with MOAS? How did they respond to you taking pictures of them?

JF: Refugees and migrants, no matter their reason for leaving their homes, face incredible abuse, racism and dehumanization at the hands of smugglers, militias, and state authorities along their routes. Admittedly, in the intense energy that surrounds the moment when they are rescued, I think the last thing on their minds is concern for someone photographing them—their focus is getting to safety. Once they were onboard, I would take the time to meet people individually, to record and listen to their stories. I think it was a cathartic experience for many of them; they welcomed the interest and personal attention after being treated like cargo for so long.

In addition to the reportage images represented here, I made nearly 150 formal portraits onboard the ship against a narrow piece of white wall. At first many people were shy, but then when they saw others having their portraits made, they too would come forward and ask to be photographed. I sensed at that moment that they felt they could shine again as individuals and maybe regain some of the dignity that had been stripped from them. I keep in contact with a number of the people MOAS rescued; I often get requests through Facebook and WhatsApp for images of their rescue and their time onboard the MOAS ship.

LC: What do you want your photographs to tell people about the refugee crisis?

JF: I would like my audience to remember that migrants and refugees are human beings first and foremost. Unbearable conditions—whether war or grinding poverty—have forced them into the “state” of being a migrant or refugee: that label does not define who they are as individuals. I hope my images will help humanize the people that I met. Most importantly, I hope the audience asks themselves to try and imagine a different scenario: if the tables were turned, and they were being forced to flee their homes, how would they want to be treated?

—Jason Florio, interviewed by Winifred Chiocchia

Florio’s series was selected as the Photojournalism series winner in the Magnum Photography Awards 2017. Discover more inspiring work from all 41 of the winners, finalists, and jurors’ picks.