Part II: Visualising Humanity in a Refugee Crisis

There is something deeply disturbing about images that are visually beautiful, while simultaneously telling the story of suffering, dread or sorrow (see Beautiful Suffering: Photography and the Traffic in Pain edited by Mark Reinhardt). When I first saw a photograph by Massimo Sestini, showing an overloaded boat carrying asylum seekers, I was struck by this tension. The photograph is stunning, with its vivid colours and symmetry. It is perfectly timed, snapped exactly as the boat is in the middle of the frame, with almost every passenger looking up. The mass of people in the arrow shaped vessel creates a compelling and somehow visually pleasing pattern. Yet, when one looks closer, the harsh realities behind the image become aparent. More than 200 people are crammed onto the drifting boat. There are no lifeboats, and no life vests. Upon reflection there is a realisation that the the mass of human bodies could make the boat sink. Many of the people on the boat would drown, just as thousands in similar boats have drowned in the recent past. In an interview the photographer, Massimo Sestini, explains that at the time of the photograph the people on the boat had been drifting, stranded at sea for two days. They were desperate, and feared for their lives; hence they are reaching up their arms and smiling because the helicopter means they will live. The photographer sailed for several days with one of six Italian navy vessels that on average each rescued 2000 asylum seekers a week. What makes the image stunning, is simultaneously what makes it so powerful: in visualising the vulnerability of this human mass confined to a primitive boat, the continuous media flow of refugee statistics becomes visual.

Boat Migrants Risk Everything for a New Life in Europe: African asylum seekers rescued off boats and taken aboard an Italy navy ship, June 8, 2014.
Asylum seekers rescued close to the Libyan coast by an Italian navy ship, June 8, 2014. © Massimo Sestini

Looking closer at each face, I become curious about their individual stories. What lead them to embark on this journey? What will become of them? Practical questions also arise: how do people survive, sleep, eat, drink, and defecate for days on end aboard such overcrowded vessels? Since the success of the image (it won second price in the prestigious World Press Photography competition) the photographer has been looking for the people photographed on the boat to find out more about their stories.

Moving from the macro (the mass) to the micro (the individual) these more personal questions are magnified in another image taken by Sestini. The photograph shows a Syrian girl lying covered in glistening gold coloured emergency blankets. She is one of 443 Syrian refugees rescued by the navy ship from a different fishing boat to the one pictured above. When first seeing the image I was unsure whether the girl was alive or dead. Her face still, her eyes staring into nothingness. Yet, the girl’s face is emanating a sense of archetypical beauty and serenity. Taken out of context the combination of the youthful classical face, surrounded by glittering gold fabric, could be mistaken for a stylised fashion photograph. However, the reality behind those eyes, speaks of untold suffering. A dusty backpack peaks out from a blanket next to the girl; perhaps her only possessions carried on a long journey, or perhaps that of a co-passenger. One cannot help wonder from what she has fled, what her future holds, and what thoughts lie behind her stare.

Italian navy rescue asylum seekers
Syrian girl attempting to sleep after being rescued by an Italian navy ship from a fishing vessel carrying 443 Syrian asylum seekers, June 5, 2014. © Massimo Sestini.

Another photograph taken on the same ship further highlights the shocking statistic that more than 50% of the worlds refugees are children. The mass of children and babies huddled together in this photograph accentuates the extreme vulnerability of the youngest refugees—those who would easily drown if a boat was faulty, as so many have been. Seeing these children rescued is a reminder of those who have died. The image is contrasting but deeply interconnected to the well-known image of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach (see previous blog post, Part I). The photograph becomes deeply human through the touch of a mother’s hand on her baby’s cheek. Again, one cannot help wonder about the practicalities of fleeing with such young children. How would you carry your child over the long distances many refugees have to walk? How would you access nappies, spare clothing, or baby food? How would you soothe your crying baby in the middle of the night as hundreds of people try to sleep on the bottom of a fishing boat?

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Syrian women and children on an Italian navy ship after being rescued from a fishing vessel carrying 443 Syrian asylum seekers, June 5, 2014. © Massimo Sestini.

Massimo Sestini is famous as a celebrity photographer. He has worked extensively as a paparazzo, catching celebrities in intimate moments, and revealing their vulnerabilities. Sestini himself says he learned determination from this type of work; a type of determination that aided him in his role as a photojournalist (see interview). In this case his persistence allowed him to capture refugee boats in a way no other photographer has; and his talent for showing intimate situations has lead to a series of deeply personal images of refugees, that are not only touching, but intensely beautiful at the same time. With recent events in Paris and elsewhere negatively influencing public opinion towards Syrian refugees, and causing countries such as the United States to re-examine their pledge to accommodate 10,000 Syrian asylum seekers, it is more than ever crucial that we be reminded of the humanity behind the numbers and statistics surrounding the refugee crisis. As the memory fades of the photograph that stirred the world in support of Syrian refugees (see previous blog post, Part I), we need in some way to re-connect on a personal level with the intimate stories of loss and suffering that continue to drive men, women, children, and infants en masse onto dangerous vessels in search of safety. At such a time it is worth revisiting Sestini’s photographs, and reconnecting emotionally with a large proportion of those looking for refuge: young children fleeing a devastating war (so far it is estimated that 200,000 have been killed in the war since 2011, and four million people have fled the country.