In December of 2015, photographer Kevin McElvaney was in Izmir, a Turkish coastal city separated from Greece by the Aegean Sea. It's become a popular spot for migrants and refugees to find people smugglers who'll take them across the water toward Western Europe—so popular, in fact, that some of the local shoe shops now sell lifejackets, and kids wander around flogging waterproof cases for smartphones.
Hanging around in Basmane Square, in the center of Izmir, McElvaney decided to hand out disposable cameras to a number of refugees he met, asking them to record their journeys across the continent before sending the cameras back to him in pre-paid envelopes. The pictures that have arrived in his mailbox portray an intimately human side of the journey across Europe that's rarely seen in mainstream coverage of the migrant crisis—almost like looking in on a family photo album.
I spoke to McElvaney about the project, "RefugeeCameras," and how the people who took the photographs are doing now. (The interview has been edited for clarity and length).
VICE: What inspired you to undertake this project?
Kevin McElvaney: I was inspired by the stories I was told by refugees here in Germany. I assumed they had documented their journeys, but they had mostly just taken selfies on their smartphones. I thought it would be different if they had a single-use camera in their pocket. Besides that, I was searching for ways to visualize this well-documented, historic event in another way, and realized that we always photograph and talk about refugees, but don't give them much of a voice.
You say it's well documented, but do you think it's well represented? Are we seeing accurate images of people's experiences?
Well, look at a picture like this—I'd say there's an extremely fine line between "reporting" on issues that are essential for us to be informed about, and exploiting vulnerable people in tragic—yet extremely photogenic—situations. Some photographers in Lesbos gave me the impression that they were just there to get some pictures for their portfolio; it wasn't about telling a deep story. So I tried to avoid that kind of behavior.
How many cameras did you hand out, and which routes were they taken on?
I spread some waterproof cameras around in Izmir, Turkey, and then moved on to Lesbos, Athens, and Idomeni, and did the same thing. All cameras started from a different point, and right now, I have full documentation from Turkey to Germany. I gave out fifteen cameras and seven came back to me in their prepared envelopes. One was lost, the border authorities confiscated two, and two others are still in Izmir because the refugees were caught by the Turkish coast guard while they tried to reach the shores of a Greek island. Three other cameras and refugees are missing.
Were many people open to the idea?
Yes. Almost everyone was fascinated by the idea; I think you can see that in the high percentage [of cameras] that came back to me. Just two fathers turned me down: They had a tough job trying to hold their families together as it was. It was inspiring to see how well they've handled the situation. I spoke with them for at least an hour—often via Google Translate—before I gave them the camera and an envelope to send it back to me. So there was a good initial connection, and I'm still in touch with most of them.
What's struck you most about the pictures you've gotten back so far?
Every time I've found a camera in my post box I've remembered the person, looked at the images, and realized they all had a different focus. It was lovely to see the pictures taken by a man called Dyab, who only photographed his son and wife. I met them in a bus toward Idomeni, and it was obvious how much he cared for his family. You can see that in the images; they're often taken in happy moments. One camera documented the situation on a dinghy, and another one the landing of a dinghy on the shores of a Greek island. These images still give me goosebumps.
You mentioned Dyab only photographed the happy moments; I have to admit, I was struck by the amount of smiles in the photos. So many images from the refugee crisis are so sad and heart-wrenching that it can be easy to forget that there will, of course, be moments of happiness and laughter along people's journeys.
I think it's human that people search for positive moments and want to share them. They all experienced so many horrible things and now want to move on. If you were just looking back, sad all the time, you couldn't handle this journey. I can still feel this vibe from them when they text me from their camps here in Germany. The situation isn't always good, but they understand that Germany—and Europe—has a big task on its hands.
What's the general feeling among those you've worked with about Europe accepting migrants and refugees?
In Izmir, I met a Syrian couple who live as artists. They said they were "shocked" when they heard Angela Merkel saying "come to us." There was a lot of hope among everyone I spoke to, and Mohammad, a guy from Syria, wrote in my notebook that he hopes there will be support for refugees along their way.
The people you're still in contact with—how are they doing now? What are their plans?
Many of them are fine. They have to handle long official procedures and sometimes become frustrated, but they're OK. All of them show a wonderful development in their language skills. They send me messages like "Schlaf schön, gute Nacht" [Have a nice sleep, good night] and share their development frequently. But living in a refugee camp often restricts your privacy and can create a maddening situation. I hope they'll find a normal place to live.
What are your thoughts on how the project has turned out?
I feel honored that so many refugees took part. I was so afraid that the project wouldn't end up telling a real story, but what I've seen is fascinating.
Do you hope that viewers take away anything specific from the project?
I hope it just gives this whole "crisis" a human face, and I hope it can create a more positive attitude towards what's going on right now. We should open our hearts again and think in a long-term perspective. The exhibition itself has a very special element: The most prestigious photographers involved in this crisis gave me permission to show their work here in Hamburg, right next to images taken by refugees. Visitors will be able to compare these images and get a feeling for the whole situation in an absolutely new way.
See more images from "RefugeeCameras" below.
To read more about Kevin's project, visit his website. The "RefugeeCameras" exhibition opens at 6 PM on the April 1, at Warnholtzstrasse 4, 22767 Hamburg (S-Altona).