The Next Chapter: Seeking the Stories of Refugees in Europe

Photo Courtesy of Massimo Sestini

When Italian photographer Massimo Sestini captured an image during the Mare Nostrum rescue operation in 2014, he didn’t know it would go viral.

The image portrays a very specific moment for those forced into migration – a moment of safety. After realizing the impact the photo had on viewers, Sestini began the “Where Are You?” project to raise awareness and find out what became of the hopeful faces captured in the image.

Sestini agreed to a Q&A with InterAction Blog Editor Sarah Siguenza to explain how he captured the photo and what he has learned in the time since.

Please give a brief overview of your work, including how long have you been a photojournalist and how long have you covered the refugee crisis.

I founded Massimo Sestini News Pictures to cover local news, and started focusing on both major events and celebrities’ private life. This was the beginning of my career as paparazzo. Aerial pictures became a regular feature: the 2000 Jubilee, the G8 in Genoa, the funeral of Pope John Paul II. In 2012, I dove in the sunken Costa Concordia with the Italian Police, flew over the wreck a few days later, and worked with the Italian Navy on the project “Un Sogno lungo 100 giorni.”

In 2014, I was aboard the “Bergamini frigate,” to follow the Mare Nostrum rescue operation off the Libyan Coast. The picture of the boat full of migrants that I took from a helicopter won the 2015 Word Press Photo in General News Category.

In 2015 I covered the European Union military operation in the Southern Central Mediterranean (EUNAVFOR MED). The aim of this military operation is to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture, and dispose of vessels used – or suspected of being used – by migrant smugglers or traffickers in the Mediterranean Sea.

You’ve spoken about how you wanted to capture a “very specific moment” for refugees seeking safety. What is this moment you refer to, and what about it spoke so strongly to you?

I had been planning and – literally – dreaming of taking that specific photograph since 2013. I didn’t want simply take a picture of a boat full of migrants from above in a zenithal perspective. I wanted to capture the moment of relief and hope. On June 7, 2014, after many stormy days onboard of the Bergamini Frigate, we could spot an extremely crowded boat and flew over it with a helicopter. All the people on the boat looked up at the helicopter as they immediately understood that they were safe, at last. That was the moment and the photograph I meant to capture (it is actually the very first shot I took during that light).

What inspired you to follow up with the individuals in this image? Why do you feel it is important to tell their stories?

I wondered many times what happened to all those people, how their lives changed in Europe. Many others, after seeing my photograph exhibited in museums and other venues, asked the same question.

After a person from Switzerland informed us he recognized a relative of his in that photograph, we decided to start working on the project. Knowing that at least one out of the 500 migrants rescued from that tiny boat in 2014 had started a new life in Europe was truly inspiring news and gave me the idea of creating a photographic project: “Where Are You?”

With this project I’d like to finally give a face to what nowadays is often perceived as an undifferentiated herd. We would like to get to know the faces of this large group of people, to tell their individual stories, and describe and show each one of them. That’s the job of a photographer in these particular situations, because the macro-story – the news he or she captures – is the sum of hundreds of micro-stories.

Approximately How many individuals have you been able to locate so far? What stories have stood out to you?

My team and I were contacted by a group of people living in Italy, and so far we’ve found 25 people. During our time with them, we asked a few questions about their past, the journey, and their future.

When we asked “What do you fear the most?” one man said “Ebola.” When we asked another the reason why he left his country, he replied with another question: “How would you feel if you were born in a place where you are not welcome anymore? I had to leave people I’ve known my entire life. I had to leave my family behind. What we have in our country is not war, it is injustice.”

After years of covering this crisis, what is your biggest takeaway?

I’ve been covering the migrant crises since 2013, and I think people who decide to face that kind of journey – a “once in a lifetime journey” as one of them told me – will continue to arrive no matter what. Our duty, as human beings, is to save them, welcome them, and give them new opportunities.

If you could send a message to these refugees, what would it be?

Please do contact me, let’s talk about what your journey was like, what your hopes are. Please do share your stories, as they are a powerful mean against irrational fear.

All photos are property of Massimo Sestini News Pictures. Used with permission.