The Wave

Photos by Roger Lemoyne
Interview by Laurence Butet-Roch

The photograph of three-year old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach last September spurred a wave of international outrage. Back then, the UN Refugee Agency estimated that over 380 000 refugees had made their way to Europe within the past nine months. Since then, the number has grown to over a million. Many are coming from the war-torn nations of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Unable to watch the situation unfold from his living room, Canadian photographer Roger Lemoyne, known for his work covering the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars, spent two weeks in November 2015 between the island of Lesbos in Greece – where thousands of migrants arrive every day – and Macedonia, one of the many countries they cross on their journey towards the more fortunate nations of Western Europe. Below, he comments his photographs, and so do Dr. Jen Bagelman, who studies questions of asylum and citizenship, Christopher Tidey from UNICEF, and Sonja Kuiten, a volunteer.

Roger Lemoyne, photographer

“This exodus is so different from the other ones I’ve witnessed, whether in the Balkans in the mid-nineties, in the Horn of Africa, following the famines of 1991 and 2001, or more recently in Afghanistan. There’s a profound dissonance between the situation and the type of people who are refugees and who, as such, have come to embody the region’s instability. During the two weeks that I spent in Lesbos and traveling with migrants to the Macedonian border, I encountered members of an educated middle-class, graphic designers, doctors, entrepreneurs. I wondered: ‘How can someone who’s informed, who’s well-read, who has access to technology and who has some financial means be reduced to putting his life in peril crossing a sea on a dinghy, walking through inhospitable lands, waiting, like cattle, at border control centers and boarding trains that are reminiscent of another tragedy? And then, I thought of the role our governments – and by extension ourselves – play: ‘If we’re going to take the refugees in, why can’t we help them cross on-board a decent ferry?’ We’ve come to a point in time, where borders make less and less sense, yet we’re keeping up with this charade of making migrants jump through hoops to reach some semblance of safety and building physical barriers to reaffirm these flailing frontiers. There’s something very wrong with this picture.

I sought to translate visually something about the  geopolitical divides at the source of this crisis.  I kept going back to this vision of small people making their way through vast landscapes that are not their own. An image of ordinary people carrying their small bags, floating in a rubber dinghy, people who are waiting here and there, calling home on their cellphones, as ethereal as a cellphone signal themselves, and without ever arriving at a true destination.”

Christopher Tidey, Emergency Communication Specialist for UNICEF

“I’m not sure this particular movement of people is any different from other current or recent refugee crisis insofar as the motivations are largely the same – the vast majority of people are fleeing from their homes and communities because their lives are at risk. These are the same motivations, which have driven people to flee places like South Sudan, Burundi and the Central African Republic. There are more refugees and internally displaced people now than at any other time since World War II.

What seems to be different in the case of the crisis gripping Europe is its scale – more than 900,000 people arrived to Europe by sea in 2015. What this speaks to is the failure to bring peace and stability to countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Western countries are also not used to receiving large influxes of refugees and migrants, while countries in other parts of the world (Africa and the Middle East in particular) have been dealing with refugee crises for years or even decades.

People really need to understand that the overwhelming majority of refugees and migrants seeking asylum in Europe left their home countries because they felt they had no choice. I spoke with many parents who said they would never have put their children through the grueling journey to and through Europe unless there was no other way to ensure their safety. Photos can (do) prove just that. They can help to humanize people and undercut some of the harmful stereotypes. They also help show a range of emotion and personal narratives of children and families on the move, making them relatable to the global public. Take Roger Lemoyne’s work. I’ve always been impressed by the sensitivity and care which he takes when approaching people and situations on the ground. His images suggest that he has established a level of trust with the people he photographs – enabling him to capture authentic moments.”

Sonja Kuiten, volunteer

“You don’t put children on these kinds of boats unless the water is safer than the land. Photographs can help make the international audience relate to the refugees, understand that they are just normal human beings, doing what we all would – flee – if we found ourselves confronted with mass violence. Roger’s photographs tell that story, one that needs to be told all over the world since it’s not a crisis only affecting the Middle East, or Europe; it’s a problem we all need to address. Still, there were moments when I found the press annoying because some were standing in the way when we were trying to administer help to the newcomers, or would not respect their need for privacy. It’s a bit of a love-hate relationship.”

Dr. Jen Bagelman, Temporary Assistant Professor University of Victoria

“Global refugee crises are often described in terms of ‘flows.’ What does this word imply? A steady stream, perhaps. When we look at the numbers of people forced to flee their homes we certainly witness shockingly steady increases. But steady is not the word that hits me when I look at Roger Lemoyne’s photos of people crossing the choppy Mediterranean Sea by dinghy. I see precariousness. I see a journey that is erratic, tumultuous and one that is on the edge of death.

In these images I also see life. While the stark black and white pictures certainly speak to the horror of global refugee crises they do more than that. Photos like the one of the girl smiling coyly over her shoulder or the one of the man standing shirtless but strong on the beach capture something of the resilience and incredible spirit of people moving under precarious conditions.

For those pictured in this series fortunate enough to arrive in Europe we see that their journey does not end. Land provides no permanent reprieve from the uncertainty at sea. After setting foot on the Greek island of Lesbos, asylum seekers must keep moving. Carrying suitcases containing precious objects from home their trek continues. People are shuttled onto trains, buses. And then…they are forced to wait. We see in these photos the endless line-ups at reception and registration centers. Here people wait in vain for a right to remain. These bitter cold images puncture the illusory mainstream narrative of the warm ‘destination’, the ‘arrival home.’

More than a million asylum seekers have entered Europe since October 2015. The images here remind us that many have not and will not. For instance, the scene with the Iranian men protesting refused asylum in Macedonia exposes the intense selection processes being exercised. Media, especially in Canada, continues to focus attention on the Syrian refugees who, to a certain degree, are being welcomed in Western countries. We hear little of those asylum seekers from other places who are left on the outskirt of the barbed wire with only the option to suture their lips shut as if to shout ‘I have no voice!’

These photos show that even under incredible pressure, asylum seekers are still taking political voice. They are also taking selfies. We see here how technology is shifting the asylum landscape. Cellphones connect people in an unprecedented and immediate way. In addition to connecting loved ones, digital devices are linking those who are strangers by name, but united in struggle. Mapping tools are being tactically used to identify preferred routes of passage, to inform those who are still yet to come.

As much as these photos reveal, blind spots inevitably remain. Where are those profiting from these crossings – the smugglers, the private companies and governments ‘hosting’ refugees? And where are we: the consumer of these images? To turn the gaze towards culpability and complicity rather than victimhood: what would this look like? Would we be willing to see?”

Roger Lemoyne
Since the early 1990’s, Roger LeMoyne has been documenting the human condition in more than 40 countries worldwide. He is the recipient of many major awards including the World Press Photo, a Canada Council grant, CALQ grant, the Michener-Deacon fellowship and others. His book “Details Obscurs”, was published in 2005. He lives in Montreal with his wife and their two young children.
Laurence Butet-Roch
After falling in love with journalism through “Scoop”, a Quebec sitcom set inside a newsroom, Laurence Butet-Roch studied international relations at the University of British Columbia and photography at the School of Photographic Arts: Ottawa that led her to become a photographer with the Boreal Collective, a photo editor and a writer. Mindful of the evolving media ecology, she is currently pursuing a Master of Digital Media at Ryerson University.