Looking Back at the Sea © Katie Barlow 2016
As these festive days at the end of December make one reflect on the most important things in life, in this column I’m sharing some images that made an indelible impression on me during the past year. At present the refugee crisis and the visual communication thereof continues to draw my attention, especially as the resolution of this crisis is not yet in sight.
This year, I had the privilege to be on the jury to select photographs for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (currently exhibiting at London’s National Portrait Gallery until 26 February 2016) where 57 images were selected for exhibition from more than 4,300 photographs submitted. In this exhibition two works by Katie Barlow made an enormous impact on all of the judges, in her sensitive portrayal of child refugees – something which we only had confirmed in the actual exhibition, when we were able to read the caption accompanying the images (uniquely, the Taylor Wessing Prize judges are shown physical photographs without any caption, text or author’s name, and judge these by image alone). These two photographs told a story that needed no words to communicate it, yet I wanted to know more. At a recent meeting with Katie, I had the pleasure to learn more about these images; below I am sharing her story with you.
Katia beach, Lesvos, Jan 2016
I travelled to Lesvos at the beginning of this year to bear witness to and document the refugee crisis. Unable fully to comprehend the scale of the crisis through the TV screen, I felt the need to go myself. The image of Aylan Kurdi had evoked upset and anger in me, as it had for millions. It had also been broadcast to the world on a day that I had been swimming in the English Channel, with a GoPro on my head, filming a woman doing the cross-channel swim. She was swimming to raise awareness of infertility, a story personal to her and which forms part of a documentary I am making about not being able to have children.
I had spent most of the summer training in Dover to be her support swimmer, looking over to Calais as news of the mass influx of refugees in the Jungle camp emerged. Most were hoping to make it across to England in the back of trucks, but some had tried to swim, and drowned. I started to question the validity of my professional and personal focus, unsure that my feelings about my own situation were justified in comparison to the global loss of life. It was jarring to have been immersed in the water, filming a “rites of passage” film about loss and longing for a child, in the channel that so many refugees were desperately trying to cross, risking their lives to do so.
A few hours after I had filmed Jessica’s elation as she reached the shore of Calais – a kind of rebirth and a new lease of life beyond childlessness – our screens were flooded with images of a dead child, washed up on a beach in Turkey after a failed attempt to cross the sea in a search for sanctuary. My response was to change focus and go to Calais, delivering aid, and then on to Lesvos where many of the boats from Turkey arrive. I knew I was strong enough to be helpful as a water rescuer if need be, and I was asked to take photos for the Refugee Council. I spent two weeks at Katia beach, helping with and documenting the arrival of thousands of refugees as their boats drifted to the Greek shore. Many photographers were waiting at the shoreline trying to capture the essence of what we were witnessing: a mass migration of historical proportions. Finding it hard to film and photograph people in distress and feeling the need to help the refugees off the boats and to change sodden clothes instead of document, I found myself waiting until people were safe and dry before taking portraits.
Away from the chaos of the beach, I became drawn to the UN transfer buses that were waiting to take the refugees to the registration camps. Although uncertain of what the immediate future held, their first perilous journey over the sea had been successfully accomplished and the UN bus became a temporary place a sanctuary, where families and individuals could get warm, shelter from the rain and freak snow storms. As the refugees took to their seats, some would look out of their windows, back at the ocean that had brought them to this point. Others would slump exhausted, others huddled in the warmth, some smiled with relief.
From where I was standing, each bus window served as a frame and presented a portrait. There was a calm, although it was harrowing. Away from the chaos of the beach, people were still and reflective.
Two of the portraits taken at Katia Beach are currently being exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition. I would like to think that they are helping to keep the issue in the public eye. But to give practical assistance to the thousands of refugees in desperate need this winter please donate generously to: http://www.helprefugees.org.uk
- Katie Barlow
Katie Barlow is an award winning film maker and documentary photographer whose most recent projects took her to Calais, Dunkirk and Lesvos refugee camps.