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Friday essay: the photographer, the island and half a million lifejackets

An aerial shot of discarded life jackets on the Greek island of Lesvos. Tasos Markou

Friday essay: the photographer, the island and half a million lifejackets

Tasos Markou and his fiancé, Maria, were on their sofa avoiding Greece’s summer heat when a video of a man carting a toddler in a green wheelie bin turned up in their social media feeds. The place looked familiar: a Mediterranean coastal village, a street sign in Greek.

“Lesvos!” said Maria.

The clip showed the man climbing a steep road in the midday sun. The child was alive. More people were walking the roads, or slumped against buildings, or laying spread out on verges and shading themselves with jackets or thin cotton sheets.

Refugees had been making the sea crossing from Turkey since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but this was something bigger. In the summer of 2015, tourists on Greek islands began sharing videos of people landing on beaches or wandering into town from the mountain roads. An internet news channel compiled the mobile-phone footage.

Tasos Markou. Lois Simac.

Tasos put his laptop down and turned to Maria. “I need to go there,” he said.

In 2015, more than 800,000 refugees crossed the Aegean Sea to Greece, up from 40,000 the previous year. News media showed images of discarded fluoro-orange lifejackets and PVC boats bulldozed into massive piles on the island of Lesvos. Greek freelancer Tasos Markou was one of the first photographers to share those dramatic images with the world. His photos were published in major British papers and across Europe.

A signal for help

You can buy a factory-direct child’s lifejacket online for US $4.14 apiece. Shipping is free to most destinations. Some Turkish apparel shops have switched to selling lifejackets exclusively. Even kebab vendors saw an opportunity, and started hanging them above their counters. The orange colour is a signal for help; it communicates the courage and desperation of people on the move, hopes dashed at the borders while the rest of us watch on feeling powerless.

Lifejackets also allow us to think through global political and material circumstances. The strategic desire for control of fossil fuels in the Middle East gave rise to colonial interference, to new borders and conflicts; the burning of those fuels has increased the volatility of the climate, which influenced the severity of the drought preceding the uprising against Assad in Syria. The industrial use of petrochemicals and the globalised workforce made plastic lifejackets cheap enough to be used in sea crossings by hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.

Refugee cemetery, Lesvos. Tasos Markou

Populist fear and anger are fuelled by more than economic and cultural insecurities. For more than a decade, experts have issued warnings about resource scarcity and the disruptive consequences of climate change. I want to try to consider our anxieties and fears, displacement and migration, with the social and the environmental combined.

A concept in the natural sciences offers a way to bring these strands together: the Anthropocene. Some scientists argue that humankind’s activities – deforestation, soil erosion, chemical pollution, species extinctions and greenhouse gas emissions – have altered Earth’s systems so much that we have entered a new geological epoch. The concept pushes our imaginations to think in vast timescales and expands debate beyond climate change to include the many other environmental pressures we face.

However, the Anthropocene narrative makes political claims that flatten historical difference, casting all people as responsible for problems the privileged created. If we can return contingency to the Anthropocene it will be a richer concept for thinking about our current circumstances.

On Lesvos

I first emailed Tasos last year when I sought permission to reproduce one of his photos. We began corresponding, and when I learnt he was continuing to document the plight of refugees in Greece I asked to interview him. We spoke regularly on Skype over several months.

In June 2015, Tasos flew from Thessaloniki to Lesvos with 500 euros in his pocket. He and Maria had been saving the money for a holiday. It was more than Maria earned in a month as a home-care nurse, but she urged him take his camera and go. Tasos headed north to the closest point to Turkey.

It took Tasos two hours to drive the island’s winding and mountainous roads to Skala Sikamineas, a fishing settlement at the coast. By then night had fallen.

The wind blew hard and Tasos thought he could hear voices on the sea. It was only the waves. He was about to head for a guesthouse when he looked down and saw traces of arrivals on the beach and rocks. Shoes, passports, backpacks, T-shirts, plastic water bottles and lifejackets. Hundreds of lifejackets.

Traces of arrivals on the beach and rocks. Tasos Markou

“I realised this was not just rubbish,” said Tasos. “Each jacket meant a human life, a story of a crossing.”

The next morning, Tasos drove the rough roads along the northern coast and into the mountains. He saw people emerge from parks, fields and roadsides. Refugees and migrants had to walk 60 kilometres south to the port of Mytilene, where they could be assessed and issued with papers before boarding a ferry to mainland Greece and, from there, into northern Europe.

Some journalists and Lesvos locals were offering rides to the walkers. Tasos asked if he could help. Drivers were supposed to call the police and register their name, car make, licence plate, car-hire company, pick-up point and destination – a procedure designed to prevent smugglers exploiting refugees.

“My car was filled with people, against the roof, out the windows,” said Tasos.

By the time he made it to Mytilene it was 36 degrees. There were queues of men in their underwear at the public shower. Families sat under trees or statues or beside walls. Some tourists wound down their car windows, took a snap and drove on. Others handed food and water to exhausted people. Tasos followed the example. He spent the next three days buying water, interviewing and taking photos across Lesvos. Most of the refugees were from Syria; many were from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Men queuing for a shower in Mytilene. Tasos Markou

After three days Tasos’s money was gone. This was something you couldn’t understand in a single news article, thought Tasos. He was determined to follow the story.

Stripping social causes

The 15-year drought in the Levant that preceded the Syrian civil war was likely the worst in 900 years, according to NASA. Still, since the beginning of the conflict, some scientists and media have overstated the link. This has led to misguided conclusions about people, climate and migration.

In March 2017, ABC’s Four Corners aired an American documentary titled The Age of Consequences. It posed climate change and migration as risks to United States national security. The film warned of more terrorism and hordes of climate change refugees overwhelming countries and causing the collapse of states.

Refugees and migrants have often been represented as dangerous for wealthy nations and as “agents of chaos in the Middle East”, wrote Alex Randall of the UK Climate Change and Migration Coalition. The standard narrative for Syria is that the drought forced farmers off the land, food prices rose and competition for resources among rival groups led to violence. Some campaigners on climate change have used populist fears over refugees as a tactic to try to build support for action on emissions.

Randall pointed out that drought and social grievances in Syria didn’t cause people to turn on each other – it united them. Different groups began mingling in urban centres in a way that Assad’s regime had tried to prevent. This led to protests and co-operation, which Assad’s authoritarian government responded to with violence.

Some of Tasos’s portraits of refugees and volunteers. Tasos Markou

To avoid “reducing our future to climate”, in the words of Mike Hulme, professor of climate and culture at King’s College London, the concept of the Anthropocene could serve as a shorthand way for introducing broader ecological changes and historical timescales.

But the problem with the Anthropocene narrative is that it strips the social causes from ecological disruption. Not everyone is responsible for the Anthropocene and not everyone will experience it equally.

Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist who popularised the term, suggested the invention of the steam engine during the Industrial Revolution should be considered the start of the new epoch: the switch to fossil fuels “shattered” an energy bottleneck.

Humanities scholars approach this from a different angle: human ecologists Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg ask what the motivations were for investment in steam. Only the very wealthy could afford steam engines, and they “pointed steam power as a weapon” at colonies in Africa and the New World, extracting material resources and labour in plantations, mines and factories, completely reorganising ecological and social relationships.

The Anthropocene was founded on global inequity. Some have suggested “Capitalocene” as a more accurate moniker.

Moments of hospitality

On 20 August 2015, Tasos drove to Idomeni, a Greek town near the border with the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and a gateway to the “Balkans route”. It’s from here that refugees and migrants followed train tracks into Macedonia, northwards across the Balkan countries, and finally into Germany.

Tasos saw hundreds of people gathered on the rail lines. The Macedonian government had called a state of emergency and rolled barbed wire across the border. It wanted to slow the flow of people. Military and anti-terror troops stood at the border next to armoured vehicles. Tasos said they aimed guns and yelled, “Go back to Greece”.

People jumped with every new explosion and burst of gunfire. It began pouring rain and some sheltered under cardboard. Tasos was afraid. He hadn’t seen the crowds angry and confused before. He was covered in mud and his lens was destroyed. Stun grenades cracked in the distance.

A young man from Kashmir took Tasos’s arm and offered him shelter under a concrete railway culvert. The men gave him biscuits, water and cigarettes.

Men sheltering under a concrete railway culvert. Tasos Markou

The photos that agencies and newspapers wanted were of human drama in extreme moments: people falling from boats, pulling children from the sea, landing on the beach with tears of fear and joy. Tasos began to wonder if these images helped. He wondered how he could convey moments such as the hospitality under the culvert.

In October Tasos returned to Lesvos. The small island was now receiving 200,000 people per month. The cemetery in Mytilene was running out of space. Camps were over capacity.

“People slept in boxes, old fridges, whatever they could find,” said Tasos.

Remarkably, international and Greek volunteers, authorities, locals and refugees collaborated to hold it all together. Fishermen in the northern village of Skala Sikamineas spent every night in their boats, guiding refugees to the shore, diving into the water and rescuing people. Women handed out sandwiches and fruit. They washed clothes and looked after children. They hugged and kissed those who made the crossing.

A woman on Idomeni gives onions from her garden to a new arrival. Tasos Markou

Tasos drove volunteers from Skala Sikamineas to a cape at the northernmost point of the island. There, beneath the Korakas Lighthouse, the beach gave way to sharp rocks and cliffs. It was the most dangerous place to land on Lesvos from the sea. Many died in the attempt.

Tasos worked with two American volunteers who wore wetsuits and dragged lifejackets from the ocean and shoreline. The older one, Jeff, had holidayed on Lesvos with his parents in the 1980s. When he saw reports about the crisis he came over to help. The other American, Max, was trekking in Nepal in 2015 when the earthquake struck. He helped in the aftermath and it changed his life.

Korakas Lighthouse, on Lesvos (with Turkey in the background). Tasos Markou

“We spent the days collecting lifejackets, and the nights helping people arriving on the beaches,” said Tasos. He saw a man collapse with hypothermia. He saw a hand rise from the ocean, waving for help.

Jeff and Max told Tasos to stop feeding the daily news and follow his own path. Tasos began to question whether he could continue as a photojournalist. Previously, some papers had used his photos out of context. News stories appeared one day and were gone the next. He wanted to be able to provide more depth.

I decided it wasn’t enough to just be a good person. You have to act. Lesvos changed me. It would change anyone who comes here.

Thinking about the different reception these refugees and migrants would have received in Australia or the UK, I asked Tasos why Greece, suffering as it is from austerity measures, was so generous. He said, “In Greece, we all have a story.”

Tasos’s great-grandfather was injured fighting the Germans in World War II. When a Nazi officer was killed, the Germans began massacring whole villages in the north. They burned the hospital where Tasos’ great-grandfather was being treated. Tasos’s grandfather was left an orphan; a family took him in, and when he was older he worked in Germany illegally, saving enough to build a house back in Greece – the house in which Tasos’s father was raised.

“We know about displacement,” said Tasos.

‘First in my heart’

In March 2016 the European Union, alarmed by rising popularism and right-wing nationalism, signed a controversial deal with Turkey to prevent further refugee and migrant crossings to Greece. Anyone who arrived after that date would be sent back to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey would receive more assistance for the nearly three million refugees it was hosting. The Balkan route was closed permanently.

Tasos was in Idomeni volunteering. “When we told the guys that the border was closed they didn’t believe it. They refused to leave.”

More people arrived at the bottleneck, swelling the makeshift camp to 12 000. Portable toilets overflowed. The Greek military delivered firewood but couldn’t meet demand. Refugees burned whatever was at hand to keep warm. They searched fields for food. Children shivered in the wet. A UN spokesperson described the situation as “misery beyond imagination”. Fences went up in Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Hungary and Germany. Journalists dubbed it the “rise of the mesh curtain”.

“We weren’t the European Union anymore,” said Tasos.

A passport on the beach. Tasos Markou

Volunteers and NGOs set up a network of storage facilities in the area, paying cheap rent for empty farm buildings. Tasos packed boxes, distributed food and translated from Greek to English. Greek authorities began transferring people to better-equipped camps in the cities. Around 50 000 displaced people were stranded in Greece after the EU–Turkey deal.

On Lesvos, people continued to take selfies to let loved ones know they’d made it to Europe.

“They didn’t realise they hadn’t made it to Europe,” said Tasos. “They made it to Greece.” No one knew how long they would be stuck there.

The series of photos that Tasos did sell – the aerial shots of half a million lifejackets piled up on Lesvos – provided enough money for him to continue volunteering. He thought a photography workshop might help occupy people during the wait. French photographer Lois Simac had a similar idea, so they partnered to run a twelve-week course in Thessaloniki. The camp there was set up in an abandoned paper factory from which it derived its name, Softex. Petroleum fumes drifted from the nearby oil refinery.

Only Syrians could pitch their tents inside the Softex building while Moroccans, Algerians, Eritreans and others slept in nearby disused train carriages without power, water or heating. Just over a thousand people stayed at the site.

An abandoned rail carriage where people were sleeping near the Softex camp in Thessaloniki. Tasos Markou

Twelve participants signed up to the photography workshop. They named it Crossroads and decided to develop an exhibition. One of the keenest students was 20-year-old Mohammad from Syria. Tasos said that after each lesson Mohammad would be the first to email his assignments and results of experiments with the new techniques he’d learnt. Previously he’d spent a lot of time keeping to himself and drawing allegorical pictures about war. Now he was interacting. Tasos was impressed with his photographic work.

“I draw it first in my heart, and then I take the photo,” Mohammad told Tasos.

Mohammad was from a city in northern Syria that had expanded in the 1920s as a French military post. It was home to many Kurds, as well as Armenians who had fled the genocide, and Assyrians who fled Iraqi nationalists in the 1930s. Since the Syrian conflict began, the city had been the site of four major battles and control changed between Kurdish, ISIS and Assad-government fighters.

Tasos couldn’t help thinking about the people in Europe saying, “Why don’t they stay and fight?”

“Fight for what?” asked Tasos. “And for whom? There is no point dying for someone else’s war.”

‘They say you turn boats around’

The winter in Thessaloniki in 2016–17 was the most severe in 30 years. The pipes at Tasos’s apartment froze and burst. The city had to provide carted water. At the Softex camp, people warmed their hands around the building’s exterior vents. In the months since the closure of the Balkan route most of the Syrians at Softex had been relocated within Europe. Authorities allowed the Algerians and Moroccans to move from the abandoned trains into the Softex building.

I’d asked Tasos to question his workshop participants about Australia.

“First, I must ask you something,” he said to me, his face grave. “They say you turn boats around in the sea. Is this true?”

Tasos couldn’t believe it. Maybe it was because Greece is a seafaring country of many islands that this came as a shattering moral violation.

“They say Australia is a no-go zone,” said Tasos. “That it’s worse than Trump’s America.” Our political parties would be pleased this message made it to Syria.

Tasos said the refugees he spoke with have no intention of travelling to Australia. They want to stay closer to family in Europe. Most hope to return to Syria if the country still exists.

A rubbish dump full of lifejackets on Lesvos. Tasos Markou

A month later Tasos said he had bad news. “Mohammad was beaten. He’s been in hospital for days.”

The uncertainty was weighing on the migrants and refugees. Money had run out and there was no way of making more in Greece. It was unlikely that anyone who was not Syrian would be granted permission to stay in Europe. Some in the camps preyed on the vulnerable. There were reports women had been sexually assaulted at the Softex camp and elsewhere in Greece. Mohammad was bashed with an iron bar.

“He’s such a sensitive guy,” said Tasos. “He would never fight back.”

There were tensions within the workshop group over the future of the Crossroads project. They didn’t have enough money to hire a translator so had to rely on volunteers and friends. Tasos and Lois were spending their time writing exhibition proposals and seeking legal advice.

On Lesvos, members aligned with the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn threw a Molotov cocktail at a café helping refugees. Unlike many parts of Europe, the Greek people hadn’t turned against the refugees and migrants yet, but they had started to ask how the government could manage.

Photos crossing borders

In 2016, writer James Bradley gave a moving lecture on the role of the arts in an age of global ecological transformation. He said he is uncomfortable with the term Anthropocene because “its assertion of human primacy reiterates the blindness that got us here”. Whatever we call it, said Bradley, we must recognise that something is different and the world we are creating presents challenges to every aspect of our societies.

I think bright-orange lifejackets say a lot about our times. They are sold to desperate refugees fleeing conflict, poverty and ecological disorder for the security of Europe, the US and Australia. The refugees come from places that the wealthy countries are bombing in wars that are, in part, a legacy of Europe’s late-imperialist carve-up of territory, of forced migrations, Cold War geopolitics, exploitation of fossil fuels and the rise of the privatised corporate war economy under the auspices of the “War on Terror”.

If we saw the larger forces at play, it might be possible to treat migration as an adaptation to the challenges of the Anthropocene rather than as a security risk.

By April this year, about half of the Crossroads participants had been relocated within Europe. Some of them met up with former Softex camp volunteers in France, Finland and the Netherlands. People have asked Tasos why he is helping 12 refugees when there are thousands stranded in Greece.

The remaining Crossroads group at the Softex camp Skype with Vienna as the Crossroads exhibition opens there. Tasos Markou

“Ask those 12 people if their lives have changed,” said Tasos. “If everyone helped one person we’d all be happy.”

In May 2017, the Crossroads exhibition began to tour major cities, including Barcelona, Copenhagen, Izmir and Dubai. The first showing outside of Greece was in Vienna. Mohammad and the other refugees weren’t permitted to travel for the opening night so they used Skype to participate in a forum with the gallery audience. I asked Tasos if the group was excited.

“The guys had mixed feelings,” said Tasos. “They saw their photos travelling to places they can’t.” Their photos, they noted, moved faster than refugees.

POSTSCRIPT: The day before I submitted this essay Tasos, emailed with an update. Mohammad’s application had been decided, and he will be relocated to Norway.

This is an edited version of an essay republished with permission from Perils of Populism, the 57th edition of Griffith Review. You can read other essays from The Perils of Populism here.

For more information on Tasos Markou’s work visit http://www.tasosmarkou.net/