The story of a capsizing
This is an extract from my project on African migrants living in Nouadhibou, Mauritania, waiting for their turn to set out to sea, risking their lives getting to Fort Europa (2008)
“We could hear the sirens night and day & day and night. After the third day, everything suddenly went quiet. Eleven of my friends jumped off the boat, they couldn’t handle the waiting, and they decided to swim for the shore. One by one we saw them disappear in the waves. They got eaten by the sea”. This tells Babacar Diops.
The up to 800 kilometers (500 miles) across the ocean takes place in small fishing boats packed with up to 90 migrants in each. The Spanish NGO “Organization for Human Rights in Andalusia” estimates that up to a thousand people died last year in their attempt to cross the sea.
Babacar Diops’s pale palms turn towards the sky. His eyes stands out like cracked china. Through the last year and a half, Babacar has seen fifteen of his friends die of hunger, deceases or drowning. First time was after four days in a small fishing boat riding a rough sea towards the Canary Islands. When the Spanish coastguard stopped the boat, Babacar couldn’t speak anymore.
“I was in the hospital for three days before I regained conscience. I was almost dead”. Four of the other 64 passengers never woke again.
For one week he was lying in a hospital bed, looking out of the window. Looking at Europe living it’s life, smelling the foreign country and listening to the sounds of another world. Then he was sent back home.
The police took him to the plane, the plane took him to Mauritania and Mauritania took him to jail. In his backpack he had €500, donated by the Spanish Red Cross. After 10 days in custody, he was given back to the streets. Both the backpack and the money had disappeared in the police storage.
One year after his first attempt, Babacar found himself mashed together with 73 other hopeful migrants in the bottom of a small wooden boat again trying for Europe. This time didn’t go as well as the first. They quickly lost their bearings and were left drifting the open sea for eight days in the hands of the North Atlantic currents before they by chance finally saw the coastline of Spain. But the coastguard were again blocking their way to the beaches of Las Palmas.
“The police threw us bundles of food and water, but they didn’t want to touch us. They only wanted to make sure we didn’t get any further”.
It took three days before desperation took over. Eleven of Babacar’s friends jumped overboard. They all drowned. After that the survivors where brought ashore. Two days later, they were back on a boat. This time they were going in the opposite direction. In Mauritania the police were waiting. The sentence was doubled, 20 days in the local internment camp nicknamed “Guantanamo”.
Today, only six months after he last looked death in the eyes, he’s again scouting the sea. Looking for the next boat that might take him to Europe.
I’ve been shooting a few newspaper assignments over the summer. Mostly it’s been portraits as it often is working for the dailies (around 90% of all assignments are portrait related when working in the newspaper industry). It’s always interesting meeting new people and trying to create something in a limited space as well as time with a few, simple remedies. Often the only thing you have available to create something special is light, and in that way it’s one of the purest forms of photography. Not that I’m particularly good at shooting portraits, but I do enjoy it!
Firstly I shot a series at the British Library of a Polish artist couple, Malgosia and Jakub. They showed me a secret garden at the top of the library which was amazing but I promised Malgosia not to tell anyone about it, so can’t say any more I’m afraid.
A week later I went to West London and met with Kasia and her daughter and did a series of them for an article about why immigrants (me included) chose to stay in London instead of going back home.
Finally I went on the hardest assignment so far this year. It was for a story about one of the so-called “transition towns” that are shooting up all over Britain. Smaller towns trying to prepare themselves for another recession by becoming economically self-proficient so they won’t be depending on outside resources for survival (no, we’re not talking doomsday preppers here, simply straight thinking ordinary folks trying to create a bit of balance in the system). This sounded like a dream assignment as there ought to be plenty to shoot, but unfortunately it was also one of those assignments that just didn’t work out because of timing. None of the projects were up and running when I arrived and many wouldn’t be for the next couple of years as it’s all about long-term investments. No matter, I’ll be back to shoot this again. This is what I got (and yeah, I am very pleased with the dog)…
Here’s an extract from my latest project from Syria that should be ready for publication within the next two months.
Broken Boy Soldiers
A dark, starless night wraps its arms around us. We are floating in its deep, black nothingness and only the white reflective lines on the asphalt road caught in the one surviving headlight reveals our movement. We are rapidly being absorbed into the Syrian night, removing our self with increasing speed from the relative normality that comes with the Turkish border.
It’s been a while since we last passed the burning oil drums marking the start and end of cities, all revealing bearded faces of city elders that peer out of the darkness, the red warmth of the fire reflecting in their eyes. They stop us: Who are we? Or more importantly, who are we not? The two people in the front seats are well known faces on these roads so we continue onwards.
Momen and Yahoo are members of the Tawheed Brigade and fights for the revolution. Yahoo is 21 years old and experienced. He used to be a fighter, but due to his technologic abilities, he is now in charge of media and communication. Yahoo is driving the car. Moomen is 16 and carrying the Kalasnikhow. They are best friends.
A few hours earlier, walking down the main street of the Turkish border town Reyhanli, I stopped at a street stall selling army fatigues and belts for ammunition. I had recognized a black nylon vest with pockets on the front and back large enough to hold AK47 magazines and grenades.
This type of vest is the highest fashion among the rebels along with the black headscarves that carry the Shahaada (Muslim declaration of faith) in white writing.
A couple of men come up and look at the headscarves. With their long white robes and full-grown beards they are as foreign as me. They smile and I smile back. They are here to join the rebels and crossing over the border today. They ask me to come with them, but to their disappointment I politely decline and explain that I already have made arrangements. We wish each other safe travels and as I turn the corner I find my Syrian contact waiting for me.
As we approach the border barrier on foot I see a sea of faces through the metal bars marking the end of Turkey. A policeman stands blocking a small opening in the gate, not letting anybody in. We sneak behind a truck and walk up to the guard with our heads down. My friend grabs my arm and starts to press through the opening. The officer barely notices us. He’s too busy keeping the many Syrians out of Turkey to notice anybody trying to get in. Why would he?
This is the first time I’ve been smuggled over a border and I can feel the adrenalin pumping. The contrast of this other territory hits me immediately when we enter…
Stay tuned for the publication of the full story shortly.
I’ve been back in Syria since Saturday, doing a so-called ‘NGO-run’ with a Danish charity. We’ve been at a few refugee camps and also visited a string of hospitals. Mostly we’ve been in meetings trying to arrange the next batch of emergency relief.
Now I’m back in the country, this time on my own. I am travelling the Idlib province with a group of rebels called the Tawheed Brigade. I am gathering photos as we go along and working on a range of different projects but as I’ve been feeling a little like a photojournalistic cliché lately (that not necessarily meant as a bad thing) I’ve decided to do an old school black and white series for the first blog.
Hope to have some more time soon to get the different pieces together, but right now it’s all loose strings tying them selves together here and there and not always in the right order, so bear with me while I find myself in this mess of a conflict…
I’ve been working with my good friend and talented photographer Esther Sabetpour on a few of her wedding jobs lately. Esther specializes in Asian weddings and has an amazing technique that especially comes out in her portraits.
These pictures are some of my contribution to the latest Sikh wedding that I helped with. Such a big experience!
I’m back in Turkey. Hotel. Bed. Facebook. A friend request pops up, name written in Arabic. It turns out it’s a captain in the Free Syrian Army that I met earlier in the day. He’s stationed in Aleppo but has one night off to see his wife and four kids that are in Gaziatep, a large city just 20 kilometers from Kilis, Turkey.
He tells me that I should get to the Syrian city of Azaz tomorrow by 8 a.m. as there should be a funeral for an FSA soldier.
At 6 a.m. I wake up the receptionist to check out of my hotel and at 7 I wake up the Turkish border official to check out of Turkey.
Inside Syria I decide to go straight through the border area and find a car that can take me to town. I negotiate a price of 10 Turkish Lira (£3) and am about to jump in the car as a man in army fatigues carrying a Kalashnikov stops me. I need permission to leave the area and there’s no way around the media center.
While we wait for the media center to wake up the soldiers manning the control post invite me in for breakfast consisting of flat bread with spicy pickles and hot Arab tea cooked on a large gas burner standing between the two beds and a television that frames the room. The sweet tea cheers us all up and I start feeling less grumpy about being withheld. They don’t speak any English and I’ve soon used up my one Arabic word saying “Shukran” (thank you) every time I can get away with it. We still have a good time though and after a while I start playing around with my camera to see what reaction that will bring. As I hoped it doesn’t take long before they are posing and I’m snapping away freely.
It starts to pour. Again. It has been raining almost every single day since I arrived at the border. I curse my suede shoes for the tenth time on this trip, and stop. Realizing that all my worries have a warm bed, a bankcard, wireless Internet and a Christmas full of food and presents waiting just a few hours away. In the meantime a large queue has gathered outside in the rain. Men, women and children are getting drenched as they wait for the weekly handout of diapers…
I meet with my media “escort” from the day before and he tells me that the body of the captain is still in Turkey. They don’t know when he’ll be buried as his mother is on her way to the hospital to say her final goodbyes. Not much to argue about there, so I fold out my umbrella and go exploring in the camp.
I spend the day organizing. First of all I need to change hotels. The one I’ve been staying in for the last two nights costs 90 Turkish Lira, about £30. My previous one was only £13. I’m here on my own budget so money matters every single step of the way.
People here are always offering to take me to Aleppo. I’m tempted but at a price of 300 American dollars each way for the 40km drive, it’s simply not possible for me. The steep price also indicates the level of danger. I met an Italian photographer that had been there. While I share a beer with Michele he tells me of his eight hours trip. The way that he grasps his head and looks down while he explains how a bomb landed just two blocks away says it all. It’s not worth going. From his eyes I can see that he is right.
After changing hotels I work for a few hours. The organizational side of things takes up a lot of my time and with the sun setting around four I have to be economical with the hours. When done I grab my camera and head out to locate a NGO run medical clinic for Syrians injured by the war.
On my way there I collect imagery not directly connected to the Syrian conflict. These pictures are meant for another project in my diary build on a scientific exploration of the so-called ‘Arab Felix’ that was sent by Danish king Frederick V in 1776 to explore the Arabian Peninsula.
I come across sheepherders and men blowing out the engines on their Yahama 4-gears. For these people this is just everyday life. But for me as a foreigner this is something absolutely stunning. It’s the power of looking, catching a glimpse and trying to comprehend.
A man in an impeccable suit stops on his motorbike. He talks to me in Turkish. I smile and say ‘hospital’ and he gestures me to get on. He speeds up and the wind in my face feels great.
We get to a three-storage house looking stranded. The wall is crumbling and Syrian number plates identify the cars parked outside. Inside is another world. Four small rooms are packed with hospital beds. In each bed lies someone wounded in one way or the other by the Syrian conflict. Some are FSA soldiers, some aren’t. Some are civilians and others are not. One thing that almost all of them share is that they’re just kids…
While I talk to patients that have lost arms and legs in the constant Aleppo bombing, a guy sees me and starts to yell. He’s angry and aggressive. I’m guessing that he is not Syrian, as he looks different from everybody else here. He shakes one of his crutches at me and I walk away.
“Don’t mind him, he’s just al-Qaeda” the other patients explains.
It’s clear that they don’t like him much. I ask if there are many al-Qaeda warriors in Syria and they tell me that there’s quite a few. Right now they are all fighting Bashar al-Assad, so it’s okay. But when the fighting is over and the winner has to be found they will become a problem.
“I’m Syrian and a Muslim and I am scared of them” one of the wounded tells me.
In five hours (6 am) I’ll be on my way to Gatwick Airport to catch a flight to Denmark. There I’ll be joining a group of Danes from the organization VIOMIS (Knowledge about Islam) that have managed to raise enough money to buy six ambulances and a bunch of medical equipment that they’ll be transporting down through Europe to the Syrian border in Turkey. Hereafter all the equipment will be donated to Syrian hospitals that are fighting a daily battle to safe as many lives as possible in what rapidly is turning in to one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the so called Arab Spring.
I will join them, document their efforts and blog about our travels here on the site (in English) and (in Danish) on Modkraft.dk
For now just a quick series of shots of what I’ll be bringing. I have chosen to leave most of my equipment at home and do this one as low key as possible as I don’t know what situations will arise on the way. All I know is that I have a ticket home from Jordan in mid December.
I will write more on this in the following days as I meet up with the volunteers.
Apologies for the poor image quality, but I should have been in bed by now. Also, I’m bringing my 5D MII, not planning to shoot the whole thing on the Polaroid.
Hope you’ll follow the progress here over the next couple of weeks…
The prints are back home and as you can see they are not receiving nearly the same amount of attention as earlier…
The Photographers’ Gallery was the first independent gallery in Britain devoted to photography and today it is the largest public gallery in London dedicated to photography.
I love the big rooms, natural light and the central location (right next to Oxford Circus) of the gallery. Furthermore they have a quite remarkable book, print and photo brick-a-brack shop in the basement with some real gems. I recently stumbled upon a book signing by Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2012 shortlist Rinko Kawauchi and acquired her book ‘ILLUMINANCE‘. Beautiful work!
It was a very strong group of photographers exhibited and genres going off in all directions. One of my favorites were Paula Gortázar’s ‘Common Space’ that ‘depicts the interiors of the European Parliament in
Brussels and Strasbourg, an institution which, despite being little understood
or liked by many citizens, is gaining a prominent role in legislating our
everyday European living circumstances.’ (From the website)
Another excellent piece of work was Nadège Mériau’s makro photography recreating cosmos. Wow!
My good friend and fellow photographer Steve Mepsted dropped by the gallery, snapped these two shots and later retold the whole scene to me…
‘There were a group of kids with their teacher and they were looking at the painted mural image and one boy was saying ‘I swear that’s Photoshop’. The teacher said they didn’t know as the artist wasn’t there. I was able to fill them in on details!! They were delighted and amazed at the image and the boy couldn’t believe it was a painting on such a scale – ‘Shows they’ve got power’ he said!’
Just amazing getting this kind of invaluable feedback!
This has been a great experience and I’m truly thankful that I’ve been a part of it. The staff at The Photographers Gallery have done a great job in pulling this together and especially curator Karen McQuaid for getting it all to run smoothly while having to deal with 22 photographers at the same time, not an easy job I would imagine!
I’m now in touch with a range of galleries, working on getting a solo show up and running while I’m preparing for the next leg of this story that includes a trip to Jordan in the near future. More on this next time.