Covering the refugee crisis: Rules of engagement

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By Harry van Versendaal

As soaked asylum seekers in the mud-choked tent city at Idomeni marched through the sprawling camp to protest the border shutdown by authorities in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), a rain-drenched Giorgos Moutafis followed them with his camera. Reports the following day said three Afghans were found dead, believed to have drowned when a group of about 20 refugees attempted to cross the Suha Reka river on the other side of the border.

Three days later, sitting inside a cozy and dry theater in the port city of Thessaloniki, about a one-and-a-half hour drive from the makeshift camp, Moutafis discussed the journalistic, moral but also psychological challenges of documenting the ongoing crisis.

“I often take photos and cry at the same time. It is impossible to remain uninvolved emotionally,” he said during a panel discussion on the sidelines of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which this year returned with a tribute to migration. Having repeatedly highlighted the subject in previous years, one got the impression that the 2016 TDF was saying, “Told you so.”

As the refugee crisis deepens and the death toll rises, professional reporters often find themselves putting the stringent non-engagement code of principle on the back burner. A photo published by AFP in November showed Moutafis assisting an injured woman lying on the seashore after arriving on Lesvos island.

“You have to tell the story. But you can only go as far as your limits. You have to live with your conscience,” he said.

Since entering the field in 2007, the 38-year-old photographer has covered several conflicts and humanitarian disasters in more than 20 countries for a number of respected international publications including Newsweek, Time, The Guardian and The New Yorker. Recent developments sent him closer to home. He has spent the past year shunting between Idomeni, Lesvos and Kos, the latter two being the eastern Aegean islands on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis.

Moutafis has taken thousands of photos and shot many hours of video footage which he plans to use for a future documentary project. His pictures include dozens of bodies of drowned people that were found on Greek shores, often by him first. He is not apologetic about these images. Instead, he believes that disturbing shots can have a consciousness-shifting potential, or what is commonly called “shock value.”

“I believe in the power of the image. It’s time to shock people. It could be a way to prompt people into action,” he said, adding that pictures can and should be taken in a way that shows respect for the subject as well as the audience.

Since January 2014, some 1,161 people have died on the Aegean crossing, according to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

“We must not allow ourselves to get used to the idea of people dying, we must not allow ourselves to grow immune to this spectacle,” he said.

The debate on the use of graphic images gained fresh intensity last year following the publication of a photograph depicting the tiny body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, face down in the waves. Most newspapers chose to publish the image, although in some cases pixelated. The impact, at least in the short term, was evident as charities supporting migrants and refugees reported a significant increase in donations in the following days.

The iconic photograph was last month recreated by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who lay face down on a pebbled beach on Lesvos. Several critics found the gesture to be in bad taste. In another controversial stunt staged at Idomeni last week, the famous artist set up a white piano in the middle of a muddy field before inviting an aspiring Syrian pianist to play for the first time in years. A tent filled with an actual refugee family and a small campfire was set up next to the piano. Ai said that the act was more than a performance. It was “life itself” and showed that “art will overcome the war.” The artist held a plastic tarp over the pianist to protect her from the pouring rain as she played a rather basic melody. A small group of refugees watched in wonder. One witness criticized the stunt as “cheap and superficial.”

Although art can serve a very real purpose using its own idiosyncratic vocabulary, it is rarely held accountable for its effectiveness or historical accuracy. The media, on the other hand, have an obligation to stick to a more literal language.

“Pompous as it may sound, this is history in the making. As photographers we have a responsibility toward the historians of the future,” Moutafis said.

Dozens of journalists working for the world’s leading news agencies, including Reuters, The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Al Jazeera, have in recent weeks flocked to the frontier to cover developments with the help of computers, satellite vans and the latest trend in refugee coverage: drones. When not on duty, you will usually find the pack drying their feet and cleaning their equipment at Asimenia’s, a taverna-turned-media-hub – complete with brand-new Wi-Fi and plug extensions – in the nearby village of Plagia.

Back in the camp, refugees dogged by a shortage of food, medicine and drinking water await the outcome of a key European Union summit with Turkey in Brussels on Thursday. This is unlikely to go in their favor, at least in terms of lifting border restrictions for the more than 45,000 people now stranded in Greece.

In a desperate attempt earlier this week, about 2,000 refugees tried to find a way around the border fence in order to cross into FYROM. Up to 80 reporters, aid workers and volunteers were arrested by FYROM police during the attempt.

As he continues to document their fate, Moutafis remains sober about his part in all of this.

“Let’s not overestimate the photographers’ role here,” he said. “We are not doing anything special. The real heroes are the people living in the mud-bogged tents.”

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