A young greek man rushes towards a boat of refugees on the shore of Lesvos in Greece. He wants to steal the engine ahead of the 10 other engine thieves waiting on shore. © Copyright Rasmus Degnbol
Why do you want to document the refugee crisis in Europe?
My project intends to document those borders within Europe, where we have built fences over the past 10 years as a barrier against refugees and migrants. The project is important, because the fences, walls, and minefields we have created are precisely what makes it impossible for people to apply for asylum right at the border, although they a rightfully entitled to do so according to the Refugee Convention to which we are a signatory. Instead, they are forced to use unsafe and dangerous routes in order to reach Europe. I intend with my project to question this practice and making the physical border of Europe visible.
Have you planned your destinations yet?
I just returned home from the first part of my trip to Lesbos, Greece. Over the next 6-7 months, I will visit Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Morocco, Spain, and France.
What motivated you to take the leap into the project?
I noticed that most images from the refugee crisis looked the same. To a greater or lesser extent, the photographers use images of individual refugees to tell the same story as being the same for everyone, and therefore, we see very little diversity in the image material. Instead, I try to portray the story from above, so you suddenly have an idea how many 5000 refugees really are, and how a little boat stuffed with 60 refugees looks. This way, I can get behind the very direct feelings, which are usually what other photographers are after.
”We have already seen iconic images from the crisis, such as little Aylan lying dead on the beach in Turkey, the weeping father by the water, etc. The photograph can and must move people and create emotion and thoughtfulness.”
Do you believe documentary photos may contribute to changing people’s awareness about the refugee crisis?
I know they can. We have already seen iconic images from the crisis, such as little Aylan lying dead on the beach in Turkey, the weeping father by the water, etc. The photograph can and must move people and create emotion and thoughtfulness.
In your opinion, what can political photographic arts do?
Fundamentally, it’s about changing something in the viewer, which is extremely subjective. Personally, I don’t get involved in politics, I simply document what’s there in order to raise questions about it. Whether people go on to reach one solution or the other is all fine with me. I am motivated by the public debate being based on the wrong thing. We often speak about people being helped locally and staying there, but we forget that there are almost 4 million refugees in local communities who currently get no help. I would like to contribute to people making up their minds based on a reality, not based on political propaganda. The most important thing is taking a position on society and the decisions it makes.
Can you put into words what you would like to convey through your photographic art to people sitting at home?
Part of what I think is documented inadequately is the scale of this crisis. It is alarmingly difficult to understand the numbers of human lives involved with photos that are taken exclusively from the ground. Therefore, all photos in the project are recorded from the air through a drone.
What do you mean, when you say the refugee crisis is not a political, but a moral problem?
I mean that all research shows that immigration has a positive impact on the economy of a country (as long as it is controlled). It doesn’t hold water that EU should be having problems after 1-2 million refugees, because EU has enough money to solve this. What they lack is the will and the moral conviction. This is why it’s out of control, and today we see a Europe that is much more divided than the last many years. Unfortunately, refugees have been labeled as something problematic in the political discourse over the past 15 years, so today people think that 15,000 refugees in Denmark are a lot. However, I don’t think it’s rocket science that refugees mean nothing to our economy. Especially if we use them as positive resources instead of parking them for x number of years, before they can be part of society.
What is the most tragic thing about the conditions in “Fortress Europe”?
That they have chosen to make it as difficult as possible to get into Europe, so refugees and migrants die trying. And that they haven’t instead created reception centers at the borders, so you could sort refugees and migrants according to which asylum status they should get.
Yaman (front right) have just saved a fellow syrian refugee from drowning. He jumped off the boat and tried to swim, but without a lifevest began to sink. Yaman reversed the boat after dropping off the refugees on shore and went out to save him. He was second from drowning. Yaman has fled from Aleppo, Syria after all his family was killed by a bomb. © Copyright Rasmus Degnbol
What has made the biggest impression among the experiences you have had with refugees during the project?
How grateful the majority of them are. And how little they know about Europe, really. Both refugees and migrants often come without knowing more than a few lines about the land they hope to reach. The Syrian refugees are often well-educated and just interested in getting a normal life again with work, family, and living without fearing for their lives.
Do you have a limit on what pictures are okay to take?
Actually, I think most pictures are okay to take. The difference is in which ones are okay to share and how you do so. For example, the picture of the drowned Aylan in Turkey is photographed the proper way, as the image remains respectful of him and for the viewers. It’s not too gruesome, and in my opinion, he is not portrayed in an undignified manner. On the other hand, the images the week before of drowned children from the coast of Libya illustrate the exact opposite. Here, there was used a harsh flash at night, and they have been photographed as they lay with the body filling the entire image. It’s so “in-your-face” that people shut it out, and the debate dies. There is a limit to how much the average person can handle, before instead of engaging, they just shut it out by clicking to the next thing or turning to the next page in the paper. As a photographer, you settle the dilemma for yourself by asking the ethical question, is the story important enough for this image?
Two syrian kids have just landed on the beach on Lesvos, Greece. They shiver from the cold and completly wet clothes. © Copyright Rasmus Degnbol
Can you tell a little bit about the way you work to put faces to the individual refugees and tell their story?
I believe that much of the reason for all the hatred we see toward refugees right now is based in fear and ignorance. We are programmed to fear the unknown, and I believe that through my stories about the individual refugees, they become less unknown. Hopefully, people can start to recognize their own needs and feelings in the stories I share.
Where can people see and purchase your art from the trip?
First and foremost, the project will end up in a large American magazine. In addition, I imagine that at some point there’ll be an exhibit with the pictures. Generally, I try not to think too much about making it “art” and instead just focus on the story, and on the images letting people see the refugee crisis from above and showing the borders that are the reason why the refugees sometimes have to take ridiculous detours to reach their destination. Then, if anyone chooses to have it hanging as wall art, I’ll just be extra happy, but that’s not my purpose with the project – it’s just to have people take a stand on what’s going on right now.
Will you be having an exhibit at the end of the process?
Yes. Hopefully at the end of 2016.