Since 2015, the refugee crisis has dominated headlines across the world. Every day, we are presented with a flood of images; journalists seem to have documented the crisis from every angle. However, German photographer Kevin McElvaney felt one perspective was missing—one that no journalist or photographer could possibly take on.
It all started when Kevin McElvaney talked to several refugees at events in his hometown Hamburg and asked them to show him some photos of their journey taken with their phones. However, they didn’t have any. That’s when McElvaney realised that “they often just use their phones to communicate and navigate and just rarely to tell stories. I thought it would be different if they have a single-use camera.” So he decided to fly to Izmir with a bag full of disposable cameras and join those who still had their journey to Europe ahead of them, giving some of them a means to document their struggles from their own perspective.
When McElvaney started talking to refugees in Izmir and listening to their stories, many of them agreed to the proposal. He handed out 15 disposable cameras, each with 27 shots and a stamped, tear-proof envelope with his address written on it to return the camera.
From Izmir, many refugees continue their journey to Lesbos, Athens and Idomeni, relying on smugglers who transport them on dinghies across the sea to Europe. While the refugees had to take the illegal, extremely dangerous and often life-threatening route, McElvaney drove to Ayvalık, took the ferry to Lesbos and continued by ferry and bus to Idomeni. “[That’s where I] had one of my saddest moments: After talking to refugees who plan their journey on a dinghy, I was on a big and safe ferry with just me and two other people on board. Sometimes I thought I see a dinghy in the waters. It was very frustrating and at that moment, the whole journey of the refugees seemed to me like some kind of stupid challenge. It is sad that they have to take this illegal way while I just have the right passport and pay a fraction of their price.”
Talking about the biggest challenges of the project, McElvaney recalls a few slightly dangerous moments. Lack of sleep and the harshness of reality also made it difficult for him to keep his focus on the project. Often after only two to three hours of rest, he and some volunteers waited for the boats to reach the coast of Lesbos. “Everyone was waiting to see a black dot on the horizon. When a dinghy came closer, everyone got nervous. Sometimes the people on the dinghies were fine, sometimes hypothermic and exhausted. After they stranded I was helping people to get off the boat safely and just took a few images.”
Seven out of fifteen cameras made their way back to Germany. One was lost along the way, two got confiscated by border control, and two never made it out of Izmir as the Turkish authorities caught their owners. The remaining three cameras—as well as the refugees—are missing.
So far, he mostly received positive reactions for his project, says the photographer. “It seems that people were really missing this perspective. They get very emotional. It does something to you when you realise that this photo is from a refugee, not from a photographer. More questions arise and the low quality forces you to look closely. Some things are just visible on second sight.”
The photographs taken by the refugees will be exhibited in Hamburg, alongside images of photographers like Jacobia Dahm, Souvid Datta, Daniel Etter, Jan Grarup, Ciril Jazbec, Kai Löffelbein, Alessandro Penso, Espen Rasmussen, Lior Sperandeo, Nicole Tung and Patrick Witty. Visitors will be able to see two different perspectives side by side, allowing them to reflect on differences and similarities.
McElvaney is also planning on extending the project. He wants to let refugees document their lives in Germany. “Once again, I will have no influence on what comes back to the project.”
RefugeeCameras will open on April 1, 2016 at 6pm at Warnholtzstrasse 4, 22767 Hamburg (S-Altona). The exhibition will be open on April 2 and 3 from 2pm to 8pm. Free admission.