This important and compelling documentary series was selected as a finalist in the Photojournalism category of the Magnum Photography Awards 2016. Discover more inspiring work from all 44 of the winners, finalists, jurors’ picks and student spotlight award winners.
Europe is experiencing one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its recent history. Pushed by civil war and terror and pulled by the promise of a better life, hundreds of thousands of people have fled the Middle East and Africa, risking their lives along the way.
The scale of the crisis has put huge pressures on some destination countries, particularly Germany, Greece, Austria, and Hungary. The 28 member states of the European Union registered around 627,000 asylum claims in 2014; in 2015, that number increased dramatically to 1.3 million.
People undertake such a dangerous journey for varying reasons, including the conflicts raging in Syria and Afghanistan and the human rights abuses in Eritrea. 54% of the refugees in 2015 came from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. There are also people setting out from Libya, Sudan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kosovo, Iraq, Iran, Darfur, Eritrea and beyond hoping to find a new lives somewhere in Germany, France or the UK.
The most direct routes are fraught with danger. Most of those heading for Greece take the relatively short voyage from Turkey to the islands of Kos, Chios, Lesbos and Samos—often in flimsy rubber dinghies or small wooden boats.
There is virtually no infrastructure on these small Greek islands to cope with the thousands of people arriving; this means that local volunteers provide vital assistance.
Many refugees attempting to reach Germany and other northern EU countries travel via the perilous Western Balkans route, where they run the risk of encountering brutal human traffickers and robbers. Faced with a huge influx of people, Hungary has built a controversial 175km (110-mile) razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia. It has also urged EU partners not to send back migrants who have travelled through Hungary.
Under an EU rule known as the “Dublin Regulation,” refugees are required to claim asylum in the member state in which they first arrive. But some EU countries—such as Greece, Italy and Croatia—have been allowing migrants to pass through without registering.
Sergey Ponomarev has had a very productive stretch recently: thanks to his work on “The Exodus” (shot in large part for The New York Times), Ponomarev received prizes ranging from the Magnum Photography Awards to the Pulitzer Prize as well as a First Prize from World Press Photo.
The photographer’s strongest image in the series has been compared to the celebrated 19th century painting “The Raft of the Medusa” by the French Romantic painter Théodore Géricault—high praise, and well deserved.
Ponomarev is no romantic. He is a working conflict photographer, and as such he travels to areas that are experiencing significant upheaval and unrest. LensCulture contributor Anna Akage spoke with him at length. Below, Akage and Ponomarev speak about topics ranging from the ambiguities of modern-day warfare to the new censorship that photography faces in our changing media environment.
LC: Can you tell us about what it was like to be on the ground with the refugees? How close did you get to the conflict?
SP: I started shooting on the island of Lesbos at the beginning of August 2015. We spent our first three days waiting to see just one boat. But by October, the trickle turned into a stream of fifty boats a day. We watched the sea from the hills, and we moved quickly from one beach to another to photograph. After that, I went with the refugees to continental Greece, and from there we took the so-called “Balkan Pass”: Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and then into the rest of Western Europe.
Most of the time, I traveled with them—I took the same roads and used the same methods of transportation. I even shared water and food with the refugees.
But there were always enough volunteers there as well, so I can’t say I helped them much with the basics. More often it was about communication—I could tell them what lay ahead, what kind of camps to expect, what kind of transport would work best. So I was with them and not with them at the same time. After all, there was one key difference between us—I was able to cross the borders officially…
LC: How were you welcomed by your subjects?
SP: At first, the refugees didn’t trust us photographers: they covered their faces and told us that they didn’t want to be photographed. Even so, many of them did understand that they are a part of a key historical event, and that we were only trying to publicize their story—maybe even generate some help. So, over time, the refugees became used to our presence and started to act more friendly (except in those moments when they were simply too tired to be photographed).
But even with our good intentions, there were many hard moments: children crying, wanting to eat or sleep or go to the toilet. Women carrying heavy things and understanding nothing; men exhausted because of the travel and pressure and uncertainty. And through it all, nobody really knows what they’re doing or where they’re going. All of these circumstances had to be taken into consideration as we—the photographers—tried to keep our relationship with them friendly and open.
LC: What was your attitude on the subject? Did it change over time?
SP: I pitied them. I also understand that the European Union has to shoulder a lot of responsibility as a result of the turmoil in the Middle East. Though it’s impossible to generalize completely—we met so many refugees—almost all of my interactions were with very civilized and educated people.
But there’s another side to the story: social media. I learned that for some refugees, the process of seeking a better life turned into an internet phenomenon in their homeland. Thanks to the ubiquitousness of cell phones, the refugees were constantly sharing their daily travel experiences on social networks. This likely encouraged others to follow in their footsteps.
Remember, Facebook is very different in Russia, England, America, or any Arab-speaking country. When I saw my Arab colleague’s Facebook timeline, it was packed with stories from refugees. There were even advertisements published by smugglers.
All of that is to say that in order to do my job effectively and remain objective, I had to keep both sides in mind.
LC: What makes it difficult to communicate with people who are in conflict situations?
SP: Propaganda. The longer the conflict exists, the harder it is to find people thinking critically and clearly. In the early stages of any conflict, the media environment is more diversified, and communication is much easier. People are less aggressive towards the ideas that break official lines and thus are able to empathize with the other side. Later, the positions harden beyond all hope. This happens even with independent photojournalists who have spent too much time in a specific conflict zone; I’ve met professionals in Ukraine, Israel and Syria who became too attached to one of the sides and lost their professional objectivity.
LC: What did you find most challenging about this project?
SP: Technically there were no problems at all. As I am a minimalist in my working methods—I never carry a battery of lenses, I work with natural light, etc.—I had few problems. Still, it was physically difficult to walk that much and emotionally draining to see so many people venturing out into the darkness.
More than that, I carried with me the knowledge of what lay ahead—the resentment of locals when refugees entered their towns, or countries in the EU maintaining that they couldn’t accept more people.
There were moments while I was following the stream of humanity when I felt, truly, that these people weren’t moving towards a better life.
Things seemed especially grim when officials started to close the borders and the first camps appeared. By that point, it was the middle of the winter, and there were people trying to survive in the cold mud and driving rain. To watch all of that was very challenging.
LC: You worked in the Gaza Strip before this and took no particular interest in Palestinian refugees; later, you became interested in the European refugee crisis. Why?
SP: What happened to the Palestinians began long, long before I arrived. Meanwhile, in Europe, I was witnessing the most active phase of the crisis. While it had been clear for some time that Europe was going to face some pressure from migrants—there were already paths from Morocco and Libya—when the new path opened through Greece, it reached a tipping point. That’s what I wanted to capture.
Now that I’ve become so involved with the story I want to follow it further. I recently received a grant from Getty, and I plan to cover the second stage of the refugee story, namely the temporary settlements in the EU.
LC: But it’s worth noting that Europe, compared to Africa and the Middle East, is facing a much smaller stream of refugees—just about 7% according to the UNHCR. Yet it’s claiming all of the media attention…
SP: Absolutely. Lebanon is making hardly any noise about hosting well over one million refugees, and their total population is only around four million. In my opinion, this goes back to the immense cultural differences between the Middle East and Europe; the differences in lifestyles, laws, family structures and traditions are vast. This distinction is visible in everything from the fashion, to the court system, to the way the refugees are being welcomed or turned away.
LC: This refugee series has received numerous awards. Despite your career in the field, however, you often discuss war with a certain disdain—why?
SP: For me, war is something grand like “The Great Patriotic War” [Editors’ note: this is the Russian term for World War II] or even the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (at the beginning, anyways). There, you have two sides openly and officially in a state of war with one another: each side takes responsibility for its actions. But what is happening nowadays, just about everywhere in the world, is more “conflict” than war.
For example, in many conflict zones, you can’t sit on the front line waiting for news because the front line is 60 kilometers [around 37 miles] wide. Furthermore, there won’t be any actual contact—just artillery firing indiscriminately. In some places, there is no defined front line or organized opposition. You can see this in Gaza. On the Strip, you’re standing next to soldiers and civilians, but you can’t tell the difference between the two.
In short: there is no singular combat—there is only omnipresent conflict. To shoot this new reality, we have to work differently: we run alongside the rebels, mingle with the targeted crowd, and go where things are hot and chaotic. Being a conflict photographer now is more dangerous than ever before.
LC: So the production has become more dangerous, and meanwhile the distribution is under cataclysmic shifts. What is your view on the modern media landscape vis-a-vis conflict photography?
SP: Photography used to have an effect and a serious impact on public opinion. Photographs used to help stop wars—just think of what happened with Vietnam. Images of Africans starving in the 80s had a similar effect. But now we have internet users who randomly scroll across endless pages and occasionally come across a photo from a war that shows dead bodies or drowned children or bombed houses. Instead of being distressed and enraged by the imagery, these users are more likely to get worked up because the scenes are ruining their morning coffee.
In terms of distribution, so many media outlets have started warning viewers of *graphic content*. This stops many people from ever seeing the images. For those who do click, it usually goes something like this: they click, exhale, press “watch,” and scan the screen as quickly as possible before jumping to another page and another distraction. All of this pushes people into their isolated bubbles. Suffering and injustices from around the world simply disappear. We war and conflict photographers are still producing work, but we’re creating images that most people block out of their lives.
Perhaps crueler images would have a greater chance of making an impact. Maybe they could halt the conflicts or cause combatants to act with more humanity. Instead it is likely that these harder pictures just won’t show up on anyone’s newsfeed—they won’t generate enough likes in the algorithm to make it to the surface. Recently, Facebook tried to censor the image of the Vietnamese girl made by Nick Ut before relenting. This is a disturbing sign of things to come.
—Sergey Ponomarev, interviewed by Anna Akage
Anna Akage is freelance writer from Kiev, Ukraine. More of her work can be found on her writing portfolio website.