We are too used to seeing tragedies on the news; so used to it that it doesn’t disturbs our peaceful sleep and we are even able to eat dinner while seeing that, again, some refugees have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. In this context of dehumanization of migrants who we wrongly perceive are nothing at all like us, the work of photographers such as the Catalan Sergi Cámara, who is committed to denouncing social injustice, particularly towards immigrants, is essential.
At the moment, Cámara is working on a project he has called Refugees Not Welcome in order to show the cruel treatment they meet once in Europe. Some of the pictures are displayed in the gardens of the Palau Robert in Barcelona until the 31st of March, in a travelling exhibition that will move around Catalonia. Its name is “Refugees: Odyssey to Europe” and it has been organised by the Working Committee for Refugees, an organisation created last year by the Catalan Government to facilitate the refugees’ reception. This photo exhibition aims to raise public awareness of the refugees’ issue, now that a group of them is arriving in Catalonia.
This is not the first time Sergi Cámara has photographed immigrants: since 2004 he’s been taking pictures of human rights violations at Melilla’s border fence, an uncomfortable job which got him and a colleague fined. Yet, it didn’t deter him from his mission. To do so, he works as a freelancer, but also occasionally for organisations and institutions. Having the independence of a freelancer is essential, as he believes that to do good documentary work you have to be independent and unpressured. He isn’t interested in quick projects: he digs deeply into the subject, without rush, dedicating the necessary time to achieve a global and complete vision.
It’s important to highlight that he doesn’t consider himself an artist but a documentary photographer, meaning that instead of focusing on the aesthetic of his pictures, he focuses on their stories. I would say that most of the pictures of the exhibit are not beautiful, but that doesn’t undermine them: their importance goes beyond beauty, and there are some powerful images and metaphors as well. Like a picture of some refugees making their way to a reception centre walking on a road whose end is impossible to see, which made me think about the uncertainty of the refugees’ future.
“A good picture has to tell a story”, says Cámara, and his photographs surely do. Not only do we see people immortalized in a photo, but we also learn about their dreams and fears. We meet people from different countries such as Syria, Afghanistan or Iran, that wish to reach Switzerland, Germany or Finland, among others. The story of a fifteen year old Afghanis who is travelling by himself and who wants to go to Austria to study is especially disturbing.
There are some sentimental pictures, such as tender familiar scenes – a father wrapping his children up warm, a mother kissing her daughter and a father helping his child out of the boat –, but only few tears. The main reason is that Sergi Cámara wanted to differ from the other photographers: he tried to find something new, not what most of his fellows sought, as he “didn’t want to go there to do what others were doing”, he “wanted to show the problem without resorting to sensationalism”.
Nevertheless, the exhibit is like a punch in the stomach: very painful. We are aware of what is happening with the refugee crisis, but it is easier to live peacefully with ourselves pretending not to know the tragedies that other people have to suffer. Cámara’s pictures are able to take us out of our comfort zone and make us acknowledge the affliction of people like us; we sympathise with them and they are no longer just ‘refugees’or a statistic, but they become human beings with a face and a particular story. They are not dehumanized anymore and when we read that “We could all be refugees someday”, we realise how true this affirmation is.
However, the impact and strength of the exhibition is not only the real heart-breaking stories that accompany the realistic pictures; it is also a matter of the contrast between colours. The whiteness of the light colours of the sky and sea provoke a feeling of calmness and quietness that is altered with the orange lifejackets and the warmth of people’s faces and kids’ clothes. Nonetheless, the location of the display – a peaceful garden full of trees and with some birds singing- also contrasts with its difficult and serious topic.
Still, these pictures cannot change you if you don’t pay attention to them. In a cruel parallelism with what happens in European politics, people walk through the palace’s gardens with indifference, without bothering to spend a few minutes looking at the pictures.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Ulysses has to face many trials on his attempt to return Ithaca, his home. He has to beat a one-eyed giant, the magician Circe, and he even has to enter the realm of the dead. In spite of all these difficulties, he manages to reach home, where his faithful wife is still waiting for her loved one.
Sadly, there is not always a happy ending for the refugees who live their own Odyssey to escape the misery of war and trying to reach a brighter future: in 2015 more than 3000 people drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean, and 30% of them were children. And those who reach the coast safe and sound don’t find a welcoming Penelope, but a Europe who systematically closes her doors. Turkey built a wall to seal its border with Syria, and Austria announced that it will reintroduce controls on its southern border. But for Sergi Cámera, the obligation to help the refugees is very simple: “If we don’t do it, we die as a society and as people”.
*Article published in the website of Solomon, a Greek- based nonprofit organisation that “uses media for social inclusion“.