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RefugeeCameras project shows realities of migrant crisis

June 7, 2017

Documenting the refugee crisis authentically requires more than just a good eye. Photographer Kevin McElvaney gave cameras to migrants to take photos of their journeys to Europe. The images are now part of an exhibition.

Ausstellung "Refugee Cameras" in Hamburg
Image: Kevin McElvaney/ProjectRefugeeCameras

How do you document the most important event in contemporary European history and make sure that you do it justice? Is a neutral observer enough to truly capture the many faces of the refugee crisis, which had its peak in the summer of 2015 and still continues as thousands of people take on perilous journeys across the Mediterranean Sea on a daily basis?

German photographer Kevin McElvaney tried to find a way to portray this historic event more intimately and more authentically: by giving single-use cameras to refugees embarking on treks across nations, his RefugeeCameras initiative captured some of the most striking moments of this momentous migration wave.

"Let's try to see the individual behind the anonymous concept of a 'refugee,'" is the motto of his self-funded project.

From the refugees' perspective

McElvaney's premise was simple enough: in 2015, he would meet refugees at the major hotspots of the crisis in Turkey and Greece to get them to document their journeys using these cameras and have them send the cameras back in an envelope once they reached Germany. However, facing hunger, cold and even death on a daily basis many of them were reluctant.

In the end, Kevin McElvaney managed to recruit 15 refugees from diverse backgrounds to help him in his endeavor, with each of them getting one single-use camera. Three of those cameras, along with the refugees that accepted them, remain missing until today.

"The pursuit of happiness that may take your life," is how he describes the essence of the refugee experience.

RefugeeCameras in Bonn
The reality of the refugee crisis is often ignored in political debates, says McElvaneyImage: DW/S. Sanderson

Humanity on the move

With the material he collected, however, McElvaney put together a photographic journey that details the migrant crisis from the refugees' perspective - along with all its pitfalls, perils, and pressures.

The resulting exhibition has since travelled throughout Europe, sharing remarkable refugee stories in candid visual detail in such cities like Berlin, Edinburgh, Milan and Copenhagen.

Families stuck together and torn apart

At the most recent stop of the show at the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) in Bonn, McElvaney also held a talk, sharing detailed accounts about the experience of the people he encountered.

RefugeeCameras in Bonn
The opening of the RefugeeCameras exhibition in Bonn attracted people from all walks of lifeImage: DW/S. Sanderson

He spoke about Dyab, a math teacher from Syria who had fled the war in his country along with his wife and his young son, who is prominently featured in many of the pictures he took.

McElvaney commented that it would have been impossible for him to capture the tenderness of this father-and-son relationship as a photographer in the way that Dyab's photos depict their bond.

Throughout Dyab's images it appears as if his son feels like he is on a great adventure - not on a journey filed with risk and uncertainty; the pictures bring the Academy Award-winning movie "Life is Beautiful" to mind, which features a similar relationship between an innocent child and a father doing his utmost to protect that innocence.

Refugee Cameras in Bonn
Dyab tried to shelter his son from the realities of the painful journey across the Middle East and EuropeImage: Dyab/Project #RefugeeCameras

Other migrants, however, weren't as lucky with having such strong support behind them along their journey. Zakaria for instance, who hails from an unnamed location in Syria, had to leave his families behind. His images are much more lonely and isolated in nature, even though he is surrounded by people.

Now settled in Berlin, Zakaria wants to find a way to get his wife and two children to join him in Germany. But his photos chronicling the journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Chios on a small dinghy highlight just how hazardous the way to Europe is.

Firas' story

McElvaney also spoke in great detail about Firas, a Yazidi from the north of Iraq who recounts how the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) invaded his hometown, raping women and killing children. However, leaving Iraq came with its own set of challenges and dangers. In one of his images, Firas shows the open door of a train carriage as it is about to take off. With the doors of the overcrowded carriages unable to close properly, he once again had to risk life and limb along the way as the train journeyed through Macedonia.

Refugee Cameras in Bonn
Firas' journey to Europe remained dangerous throughout, which he wanted tp document in this pictureImage: Firas/Project #RefugeeCameras

In an earlier picture, Firas captured a small bonfire lit at a lay-by on a freeway in Greece. As the dilapidated buses took several stops along the journey to get the refugees to the Macedonian border, they would be forced to get off - even in bad weather conditions. In order to keep warm during these lengthy stopovers, the migrants would burn some of their clothes along with any waste they had accrued.

Firas proved himself to be quite a talented photographer, McElvaney says, even highlighting some aspects about picture composition that the migrant from Iraq seemed to intuitively know. Other refugees weren't as crafty with the single-use cameras; another participating refugee named Amr from Syria didn't manage to use the camera correctly, resulting in just very few usable images that were able to be featured in the exhibition.

Comic relief

But Firas also faced some hurdles of his own, which added some much-needed comic relief to the otherwise deeply touching narratives the refugees captured in their photos:

Without ever knowing a functional postal system at his home in Iraq, Firas was unaware of how exactly to go about sending the single-use camera back in the envelope that McElvaney had provided. Instead of depositing the envelope with the single-use camera in a mailbox (once he had reached Germany), he unwittingly left it in someone's private mailbox at their residence, thinking this was what a postal mailbox looked like. The pictures did, however, eventually find their way to McElvaney.

A voice for the voiceless

Now that more than a million refugees have come to call Germany their new home, the documentation of their stories perhaps matter more than before, with the images from the RefugeeCameras project serving as witnesses to a unique event that took place in our lifetimes. Their experiences could fade into oblivion if it wasn't for initiatives like this one and other photography projects - some of which are also highlighted at the RefugeeCameras exhibition.

"I want to give a voice to the voiceless," says Kevin McElvaney about his motivation for the project.

"With the refugees, I gave them a camera instead."


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Source: InfoMigrants2017

Sertan Sanderson Moderation
Sertan Sanderson DW journalist & human seeking to make sense of the world and understand what motivates other humansSertanSanderson