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What It's Like to Photograph the Refugee Crisis

Warren Richardson, who won this year's World Press Photo Award for his haunting image of Syrian refugees on the Serbian-Hungarian border, told us what refugees have taught him about survival.

"Hope for a New Life" by Warren Richardson won this year's World Press Photo Award. Photo courtesy of Warren Richardson/World Press Photo Foundation

When a photo taken by Warren Richardson won the World Press Photo Award this year, no one was more surprised than Richardson. The 47-year-old Australian photographer had recently relocated to Hungary and was trying to reestablish himself as a photojournalist when Europe's migrant crisis seemed to unfold right on his doorstep. Richardson, who had mostly done paparazzi work up until that point, began following groups of refugees, listening to their stories, and documenting their painful journeys with his camera.


The winning photo was taken shortly after Hungary hardened its stance toward refugees, which included the construction of a four-meter-high fence along the Serbian border. (Later, when migrants redirected their passage through Croatia, Hungary would also erect a fence along the Croatian border.) Richardson embedded with a group of Syrian refugees, camping out for hours and hiding from the border police until they were able to locate a small gap in the fence. In the photo, a man passes off a baby through a hole in the barbed wire, his face wearing an expression of desperation, not knowing what will happen to him or his child next.

Now, Richardson is on his own pilgrimage, walking from Budapest to the Arctic Circle for a new photo project about what it means to survive. I spoke to Richardson during his stop in Berlin about what it's like to photograph the refugee crisis and what he's learned from them about survival.

This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and grammar.

Photo courtesy of Warren Richardson

VICE: When did you first start photographing the refugee crisis?
Warren Richardson: When I first moved to Hungary, I didn't have a very easy time. As a foreigner, without the language, one doesn't get too far. I couldn't find a job, apart from a few little projects and some paparazzi work, so I didn't do much and I didn't have many friends. I went into survival mode, and I started redesigning myself as a photojournalist. When the refugee crisis began in Budapest, I went out to the Keleti train station right away. At that point, only a few dozen people were sitting outside. With time the number grew to hundreds, then thousands—people waiting to move on toward Germany and Sweden. I knew there was history happening right there, and I wanted to be part of it. For the first couple of days, I was practically alone as a photographer, and I had amazing images. Then I decided to move toward the Serbian-Hungarian border.


That was around the time the border fence started going up, right?
Yes. I had decided to spend as much time and as closely with refugees as possible. I spent many days with them, roaming the camps, talking; I often spent the night out with them too. I wanted to see the circumstances they have to cope with. These people were so determined, dealing with so much fear. Their survival techniques are on another level.

I camped with a group of Syrians for five days. Most of them used to be engineers, spoke good English. One night, we hid in an old shed on the Serbian side of the border at Horgos-Röszke. We had to be very quiet and could use no lights at all in order to remain hidden from the police, who were patrolling the area. We found a gap in the fence and waited, then when the guards passed, started running, climbing underneath it. I went with them, photographing what I could. My camera was in silent mode, and the photos are lit only by the moonlight, because the flash would have given away our location. I just kept shooting the people passing through. At one point, this man grabs a child from under the fence, then swiftly runs away.

And that was the photo that won the World Press Award.
The first time I saw the picture, even I was surprised. It was in the middle of the night when I started editing, and after seeing this image, I just looked at my kid, Oliver, sleeping next to me. And I had to think, What would I do [in that situation]? It was a very emotional moment. Because all this man could do was to run on. I would have no other choice either in his situation. I always reflect on my pictures and stories and try to put myself into their position.


My son's mother, Ildiko Fülöp, saw it too and thought it was haunting. She works as a photo editor in Budapest. She chose this picture and sent it to World Press.

Was that day one of the toughest for you?
No, not even. There was a day when the Hungarian police at the border beat me up. It was in the middle of September already, so a couple of months after it'd all started and the Hungarian government decided to close the borders. Two other photographers and I were standing with the refugees in Horgos, Serbia, as they were about to break through the fences. There was smoke and fire everywhere; the police were tear-gassing from the other side. When the clashes started, I was pushed on the ground by the police and kicked several times in the chest and head—and I kept documenting from the ground. Then we were arrested. That was probably the toughest day, but they were really just tough months altogether.

You seem very emotionally involved in the refugee crisis. Why is that?
I become emotionally involved in most projects I work on, because I really am listening to people and I watch them. I think I've become so involved because I'm reading so much negativity in the media about refugees. And I want to see their side of it, too. Seeing both sides of the spectrum is very important.

What do you mean?
A lot of people create panic, hatred [toward the refugees]. These people are fleeing a war, leaving everything they had to come to Europe; they're dreaming about getting into these countries, and then they have to face right-wing people. The governments are making plans to solve the problem, and I want to see if they are doing what they said they would. I try to exchange contacts with as many of [the people I photograph] as possible and keep in touch—see them again if I can, hear from them every once in a while. These are not only moments and pictures to me but ongoing relationships.


Photo courtesy of the World Press Photo Foundation

You're working on a new project now, where you're walking hundreds of miles by yourself. Tell me about that.
I read this book, Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life by Neil Strauss, years ago when I was living in New York. I've been studying what he had to say and decided to put into practice. In other words, to try the five basic survival techniques he mentions in case of an apocalypse, but for real.

I've been walking since February with smaller breaks when I have to be at an opening somewhere. I already went from Budapest to Amsterdam on foot; now I will walk to Copenhagen, fly out to Edinburgh for the opening of the World Press Photo exhibition there, then back to Denmark and continue my way walking.

Have you learned anything about survival from the refugees you embedded with?
I learned a very important survival technique from them—it's smiling! They always have a smile on their faces. And yes, I've become more openhearted toward these people through my walking. I have understanding. I have empathy. I don't have an opinion about their religion or their transitions. I just respect them.

I spend plenty of time with refugees, but it's not the only reason I'm walking. I got very sick a couple of weeks into my journey, in Stuttgart, Germany, and I stayed with three men in the [refugee] camp. They invited me, took care of me. I keep having these incredible humbling experiences.

What's the hardest part?
I'd say the strangest thing about walking is that it's very reclusive. I've taken so many pictures, and I often meet interesting people—I stop to say "hi" to them and talk to them—but other than that I'm alone most of the time. I get to a junction, and I have to decide which road to take. If I take the wrong road, it can mean fifteen kilometers [about nine miles] extra for me. I don't use GPS. Now, I'm heading toward the most remote areas of Europe. It's going to be tough.

The other weird thing is that I don't hear the news. It's really bizarre to catch up later and be surprised all over again about things that people are already done with.

Based on what you've seen, where do you think the migrant conflict is headed?
I'm not sure. But what I would like to see is that we all start living together in a positive way. They have so much to give, and we have so much to give to them—we need to start the integration by talking about what the other side has to offer and getting to know one another. Because you know what? These people are not going away! Whether you call it a problem or a gift, these people are here to stay.

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