Selfie Sticks and Detention Cages: Photos of Refugees Arriving in Tourist Destinations
In August 2015, photographer Jörg Brüggemann travelled to the Greek island of Kos to document the interactions between refugees and holidaymakers there.
In August 2015, just as the refugee crisis was really starting to command global news, photographer Jörg Brüggemann travelled to the Greek island of Kos to document the first of the interactions between Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani refugees with British, Swedish and German holidaymakers there.
His juxtapositions make light of a heavy and significant subject matter. Eastern desperation and western luxury are presented next to each other head on, with no middlemen in the form of politicians or the media for people to hide behind. As Greece is hit with a third bailout, repetitive Grexit scares, and a refugee crisis to deal with, the margarita-sipping northern Europeans look on, tucking into gyros and stepping over the washed-up life jackets of war survivors.
We caught up with Jörg to talk about the western adage that "ignorance is bliss" and how traditional forms of photojournalism are desensitising us and ruining everything.
VICE: Hi Jörg. You went to Kos to see the first interactions between refugees and tourists. How much communication did you see between the two groups?
JB: It was a very special situation. There isn't much tourism in the places where refugees land on Lesvos, where many of the refugees were arriving to, so Kos was fascinating. These two groups of people never collide so directly with each other. They shared a small space so there was definitely communication – not always verbal, but obviously people were looking at each other and trying to understand what the others were doing there.
Did many tourists try and help the refugees?
Some tourists were approaching refugees, offering water and giving toys to children, but most of the help was from the people that live on Kos; people that ran the hotels and restaurants, and Greek anarchist and leftist groups. There were also tourists who signed up voluntarily to help there. There's this one photo of a Dutch tourist holding up refugees standing in line, he's holding them back pretty forcefully. He signed up to help give out food and shampoo and whatever was needed.
Although there are heavy juxtapositions in the shots, I tried to show that the refugees and the tourists were sharing the same space and aren't actually all that different. You can see the refugees using the island in the same ways as the tourists; they have the same needs and behaviours – you see them lying in the sun and passing time together waiting for their registration. You see young refugees using their life vests because they can't swim, in the same way that you see young tourists using rubber rings. I even took photos of refugees taking selfies, just as the tourists were taking selfies on the beach. It's the same thing, they just grew up in a fucked-up place where there's war right now, but we're very much the same, and it was really important to me to show that.
The photographs seem to demonstrate a western ignorance – a lack of empathy comes across. Was this your intention?
That's definitely, totally it – and also who is to blame for this lack of empathy? If you just consume things through the mass media, you're obviously not directly exposed to them, so it's very different when you're presented with something like the refugee crisis head-on. It gets more emotional; you can relate to the people all of a sudden.
The tourists in Kos reacted to the refugees in different ways. A lot of tourists had booked their two-week holidays way in advance, they'd worked the whole year to save for it, they'd been looking forward to it, so when they got there and saw all the refugees... I mean a lot of these people had seen what was happening in Kos on the news beforehand, so a lot of them probably thought, 'I'm having this two weeks holiday and I don't want to be confronted with this.' Which I believe is perfectly fair. But if you didn't want to see the refugees you could book a hotel that was a half an hour's drive away on the other side of the island, so you wouldn't be exposed to it.
On the other hand, there were people who saw it on the news and were interested, so they came to Kos to have a look and to see what was going on. And then there were obviously these people that said, "I'm here and I want to do something", and volunteered. It was interesting; in a way it's a kind of a metaphor for how the world is responding to all this chaos.
Was there much competition with photojournalists capturing the refugee crisis for the news?
Yeah, it was actually really surprising to me. I got up very early one morning to wait on the beach for the boats to come in, and there were eight other photographers there. I stood alongside them and photographed the boat approaching, but there was so much more happening there than they all seemed to realise. So when the next boat came, I took a step back about 20 metres to photograph the whole scene. I wanted to show how the media is the third player in this whole thing. The photographers were actually a little angry at me for including them in the shot because they're very traditional in the sense that photojournalism shouldn't interfere in the scene. But it does and I think they're kind of lying to themselves when they say they're not. When there is a group of photographers shooting the arrival of these refugees, it obviously has an impact on these people coming over on the boat. Some refugees actually jumped off the boat and ran away because they thought that those people waiting on the beach were the police.
The type of crisis photography that has traditionally showed the screwing over of people – while I definitely think it's important and has to be done – is, I think, having less and less of an influence or impact on people. We've been exposed so much that it's just another photo of a suffering family or of a dying child, and you just click through it because it doesn't relate to your life.
How is your work different to this?
Tourists vs. Refugees is different because it's more relatable – you could be that tourist on the beach. It's lighter than the crisis photojournalism but it still grabs you at the neck and draws you in, and that was something that I found very interesting.