The global award in photography and sustainability

Sergey Ponomarev

Our world is rapidly changing before our eyes and we aren’t always able to appreciate the scale of these historic changes in the confines of the environments in which we find ourselves.

Europe is currently experiencing one of the most significant influxes of migrants and refugees in its history. Hundreds of thousands of civilians from the Middle East and from Africa have been forced to abandon their homes. War, violence and terror have invaded the peaceful, habitual space of these people and have left it in ruins. Hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan and Eritrea, have been forced onto a long and dangerous path – at the end of which they hope to find a safe home for themselves and their families.

On reaching the shores of Turkey, these people see Europe on the horizon – The Promised Land. Many of them set eyes on the sea for the first time in their lives, but the horror of perishing in the depths of the ocean is easier than the danger that lies at home. In these flotillas of frail rubber rafts, the migrants make their way towards the Greek islands. In these rafts were women, children, babies, as well as elderly and disabled people. Shaking with fear, they found strength in the promise of a better life, in the hope that a protected, safe space awaited them.

But for many refugees that perilous journey would be their last.

“We have to go!”

I must have heard that phrase a thousand times: sometimes as a slogan that the crowd would scream at the closed Hungarian-Serbian border, or a mantra the migrants would chant at the fences of Macedonia. They shouted these words with such pleas and prayers because they simply had nothing more to lose.

Their pasts were no more than a memory, immortalized in the bright, family photographs they’d saved on their smartphones. Their whole lives encapsulated in the few, scattered possessions they’d managed to bring along in their rucksacks. These fragments of a broken, far off land, which each migrant carried with them, are now scattered across Europe.

The refugees continued forwards, entering into a strange, unknown, but sheltered space. Sometimes, they didn’t really know where they were or where exactly they were headed. Forwards, they stumbled along rail tracks and highways, walked along village streets and city avenues. Forwards, they continued on ferries, buses and trains. Sometimes this flood of people were stuck in what we call, bottlenecks. These places were the Croatian city of Tovarnik or Dobova in Slovenia, Roszke in Hungary, Gevgelija in Macedonia, and the Serbian city of Presevo. Here, I witnessed how thousands of people would huddle together in tiny spaces: in train or bus stations; thousands waiting on the roadside to board trains or buses to take them onwards to their unknown destination.

The early stages of this transition into the unknown were chaotic, the refugees’ path often dictated by the riot police and the army who were trained to deal with civil unrest of football hooligans. Cordons and borders separated families. And the police remained oblivious to their pleas, cynical and arrogant in their power over the powerless, betraying the hope of the desperate who had made it that far – against all odds – only to suffer the cruelest fate of all.

On the ground, I was constantly recalling the short story “The Overcoat”, written in the 19th century by the Russian-Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol. The story focuses on the plight of the “little man”: a story of a poor government clerk constantly at odds with an unfair system, grappling with the challenges of rigid bureaucracy and the oppressive, hierarchical social structure of St Peterbsurg. The plight of the little man has always been an anchor for my work: suffering broadens our perception and experience of what it means to be human; when these people tell their own, little stories – their personal stories of injustice and oppression – a bigger story is told along the way.

Most of the refugees reached Europe. They began to conjure up and build new living spaces for themselves, forever changing the face of Europe itself.

We Europeans now face a choice: to naively try and reorder things that no longer exist, or begin to create our shared, peaceful living space.