Exodus, an exhibition opening tonight at Cloud, offers a window into the European migration crisis through the perspectives of three photographers based in Lesbos, Greece, in 2015 during an influx of Syrian refugees. One of them, photojournalist César López Balan, also produced a short documentary, 53 Moons, with a fleeing Iraqi journalist. López sat down with Sarah Jane Bell to discuss the factors that lead people to leave their homes behind ahead of a screening of the documentary in Phnom Penh.
What does the exhibition showcase?
This exhibition has been shown around Spain and it’s not only my work, it’s [also] the work of another two photographers, French photographer Isabelle Serro and another Spanish photographer, Juan Carlos Mohr. We all met on the beach on Lesbos. the idea was to put together a storyline of what’s actually happening during the massive refugee crisis in Europe, from when the refugees first arrive in Greece to when they reach the places and peace they’re looking for.
Here we decided to just display twelve [photos], with the images mainly concentrated in Lesbos. You see all the characters involved in this horrible tragedy. Mothers, old people, children and the people that are trying to help them to safety. It’s three very honest perspectives and three completely different styles and techniques. but the pictures are more than the techniques; they represent the issue, the faces, and the people.
What was your technique, and which images have you selected from your own work?
I preferred to work during the night because very few reporters were there. The boats would start arriving from Turkey around two o’clock in the morning. I was following a Spanish rescue team who followed the boats to make sure they didn’t tip into the water. The critical part is when the passengers have to jump outside the boat. Because I don’t like to use flash, the pictures were very challenging. I used a lot of the light from the head torches of the rescue teams.
In this exhibition I have four pictures and one is of an eighty-six year old woman from Syria as she’s rescued. Eighty-six. How bad is the situation that an eighty-six year old decides to take that boat? one principle I always follow is to keep the dignity of the people. It was very easy to take pictures of people suffering: all you had to do was go to the beach. but the main point was, that even when these people were suffering, they still had dignity. I tried to keep that.
Why have you brought the exhibition to Cambodia?
In Cambodia I don’t think people really follow what is happening with the migrant situation and Europe, so at least this is opening the window. I hope these pictures give the issue a face, not just numbers. When people view these pictures I want them to understand these people are as you, as me, and they are just going through a bad time.
What’s different about the film, 53 Moons?
53 Moons follows the story of a very interesting couple that break the refugee stereotype. Aral Kakl was a journalist with Sky News in Iraq, which is one of the worst places to be a journalist, and even more challenging, he’s Kurdish. Aral and his wife Shevin make up the central characters of the documentary. They met working in a refugee camp. It’s a love story, too.
The footage comes from Aral’s second attempt to leave Iraq. He had nothing but a mobile [phone] and he didn’t have a proper idea of what would happen with all the footage, so I think this documentary is one of the first to show the true perspective from the people escaping.
I think the perspective of filming on a mobile phone is vital because all the refugees are carrying a mobile phone and it’s the only way they are able to connect with the world. You will see in the documentary how they have to deal with the smugglers, when they’re crossing – what calls they need to follow. It is dependent on a phone in the middle of an ocean trying to get signal – trying to send a message to the other side.
The Exodus exhibition opens tonight at 6:30pm at Cloud, #32EO Street 9, and will be on until November 2. 53 Moons screens at 7pm, following a Skype Q&A with some of its primary characters.