Their personal situations are so desperate that they risk everything, including their lives, to attempt a hellish sea crossing packed in overcrowded stinking boats, with hopes of a better life in Europe. These people, determined to leave unbearable conditions in their home countries in Africa, are at the center of this long-term documentary story by photojournalist Jason Florio.

While the migrant crisis ebbs and flows from view in the public eye, its issues continue to multiply and evolve. It goes on, and repeats itself — daily, weekly, monthly. As an established photojournalist, Florio has worked on documentary projects all over the world for a number of publications, but the photographs that make up his project Destination Europe were taken while embedded for 18 months with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, the first search-and-rescue NGO operating rescue ships in the wake of the migrant crisis.

He provides a riveting first-person account of the stories he encountered at sea in an exclusive video interview with LensCulture.

The images in Destination Europe are all in stark black and white, accentuating the contrast between the horizon’s shining light and the dark shadows below deck on each boat, where tons of fleeing refugees are packed away on their journey to shore. Recalling his first time stepping onto one of these vessels, Florio explains, “It had about 414 people on it, and these boats are designed for a crew of a maximum of 10. There was a patch and I peered into the darkness and realized the whole underbelly of the boat was completely packed with people. People were happy they were going to be rescued, but they were almost traumatized as well. They were shell-shocked.”

The project took almost two years to complete, from 2015-16, and offers a more immersive perspective on the trials of migration than we are used to seeing in visual documentation of these events. Through this immersion, Florio hopes that people better understand the trauma that comes with mass migration, rather than perceiving it as a series of abstract events without any sort of real visceral understanding. When speaking about the overarching goal of the project, he reflects, “I’d like people to break down that sense of otherness, because I think in our world right now, there’s a lot of division going on for political gain.”