Before the summer of 2015, the island of Lesvos was a quiet place, known by classicists for the poetry of Sappho, who lived there in the sixth century B.C.; by tourists for its beaches and rolling pine forests; and by Greeks for its salted sardines. The occasional boatload of refugees arrived on its shore from neighboring Turkey. Then, with wars in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan intensifying alongside other crises—drought, repression, terrorism—in Africa and Asia, more than a million people fled to Europe, and many of them to Lesvos. Suddenly, the news was inundated with images of refugees and migrants in hijabs, praying to Mecca, corralled behind barbed-wire fences, and Lesvos became a glyph for hardship in the modern world.
The photojournalists who documented the suffering of these refugees began their projects along traditional lines. Some of them, from the Times and from Reuters, won Pulitzer Prizes for images explicitly showing the dangers and humiliations people have endured in their search for a better life in Europe. As the crisis continued last year, the Belgian photographer Tomas van Houtryve embarked on a different kind of project. Supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, he followed the “digital breadcrumbs” left by refugees on social media as they passed through Turkey, Greece, and France. Van Houtryve, who has covered wars in Nepal and Afghanistan as a traditional photojournalist, became interested in the ways in which digital technology affects photography when, in 2013, he began working on a series of photographs of the United States taken from drones. For his current project, which he has called “Traces of Exile,” he shot video footage of sites along the migrant trail in Europe. Then, using an augmented-reality app called Layar, he overlaid his footage with screenshots of images posted by refugees on Instagram from those same sites.
In collecting these images, van Houtryve discovered that many refugees emphasized not the suffering of their journey but moments that were joyous, triumphant, and even amusing. From Turkey’s city of Izmir, where many refugees begin their dangerous treks, the Instagram user reza.hdz posted a selfie of himself making a funny face with a group of friends; another user, iq.y7, posed with a friend flexing his arm for the camera upon arriving in Athens’s port, Piraeus; in Idomeni, in northern Greece, user 3bdulk7der.krayem took a photo with his youngest brother Ayham, both wearing huge grins despite the fact that they had become stuck there after the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia closed its border a few weeks beforehand. In its highlighting of the idiosyncratic and personal side of the migrant experience, the resulting collection, “Traces of Exile,” recalls work by photographers such as Jim Lommasson, whose continuing, and very moving, “What We Carried” project showcases images and objects Iraqi and Syrian refugees brought with them as they fled their countries—wedding pictures, diaries, the glasses of a beloved relative—alongside captions written by the refugees themselves. But van Houtryve’s project, unlike Lommasson’s, is not about memory and longing for a homeland but about how his subjects, most of them young men, choose to present themselves to their friends and families. As van Houtryve puts it, the smartphone “is their mirror that they hold up to the world,” as well as their way to communicate that they are safe to people back home who may be worried.
All of this is not to diminish the horrors that many refugees face on their journeys. One man whose images van Houtryve used, who travelled from Iraq to the U.K., told me over Instagram, where he posts under the username peshraw_khaled, that he nearly died along the trail and was constantly terrified. “I was hungry, I was tired, I was scared,” he said. But the beauty of the Instagrams, van Houtryve said, is that they’re relatable, even at a time when refugees are being demonized by right-wing politicians across the world, from Marine Le Pen, in France, to Donald Trump. Van Houtryve said that young people, especially, related to the images. He recently gave a presentation of his work at Reynolds High School, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. At the beginning of his talk, he asked what pupils there thought of when they heard the word “refugee,” and they answered the way one might expect: people in tents wearing torn clothes. But when he showed the students the pictures that Iraqis, Syrians, and Afghans had posted of themselves, he told me, “they said, ‘They’re just like us.’ ”
Tomas van Houtryve’s work is on display at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, in Winston-Salem through February 19th, and at the International Center of Photography, in New York City, opening January 27th.
To see van Houtryve's full videos and images from this piece, click here.