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Why I Quit My Job to Spend a Week With The Refugees of Kos

Reece Pickering- 19/08/15

Swarms, pests, these were just some of the nouns the British government had laid down to describe the plight of the refugees.

I’m still unsure as to which interviews those short sighted cynics in the EU quoted these, but it’s harder to keep track when the crisis isn’t just on the Greek Island of Kos, but in Calais, Australia, Holland, Sweden, and the UK.

The plight of the refugee has became a global emergency.

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May 29th I’de been shown a copy of a British newspaper, sloppily quoted all over the front were the claims from tourists that the Greek Island of Kos had became a ‘hell-hole’.

Allegedly, the island was overturned with refugees taking shelter on iconic tourist spots on the bay; begging for money, filling up the streets whilst they waited for their papers.

Things couldn’t have been more wrong.  

Further research via amateur videos posted online, I found the ownership of those quotes belonged mainly to bloated, sun baked Brits; for a second I was ashamed of my own country for the comments made.

Summer had rolled in, and I hadn’t travelled for more than 5 months, preparation for shooting personal work had started; the timing for this project couldn’t have been more perfect.

There was just to small task of quitting my job.

The bullsh*t behind sellingFH040013 herbal pharmaceuticals had taken it’s toll anyway.

After serving 24 hours of my 7-day work notice that I elegantly scribbled onto a post-it,  I began researching the Greek island of Kos and the refugee crisis. Which brought me to booking the cheapest dive money could buy; and a budget airline ticket from Gatwick.

Before I could say the Ouzo, I was drenched in sweat; lugging the best part of 30kg worth of studio kit on my back; scouring the town of Kos for this ‘hell-hole’.

This was the first one of many instances when I had began to question the media altogether.

There wasn’t a migrant in sight.

On the off chance I’de been given a hint from a local at the scooter hire, stating that the refugees were being accommodated for; living in an abandoned hotel, ‘The Captain Elias’. The entire island was livid with the British newspaper; so much that they had began petitions and online groups ‘Kos is not the hell-hole’.

Friends had tried to deter me from making the trip in fear that I would hit a language barrier, or a fist.

So to counteract the issue, had written model releases for the whole group; along with one watermelon, and a crate of Buxton lodged into the seat of the scooter.

I travelled to the island with the intention of creating a series of portraits of the refugees, documenting each of their stories to accompany the photograph, and of course to give the middle-finger to the media for portraying them in such an inhumane way.

Following the directions of the dodgy salesman at the scooter joint, I arrived at the hotel at 3pm handing out water as I stepped through the masses of people; all were waiting for food. This was the one time in the day that the refugees were given food, which most surprisingly had been donated by restaurants across the island; despite the Greek debt crisis of course.

So stop whining Calais.

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Within minutes I learned my lesson in handling this kind of story, something a photographer who specialised in photographing gangs had told me just days before; the agreement between subject and photographer is that of mutual respect.

I was there to document a personal approach, not facts, or figures.

Basically No bullsh*t.

Translating these intentions onto the model release in Urdu and Arabic, piece by piece of broken English the refugees understood my intentions.

Right after someone had tried to smash my Gopro for filming whilst they were eating that is, although they had sincerely apologised after they knew why I was there.

The ‘Captain Elias Hotel’ may have looked post apocalyptic, but it’s smoke-strewn walls and tent-filled yards allowed me to add visual clues to the narrative that I was trying to tell with my images.

My visual language suited the aesthetic, being more inclined to take images with dramatic lighting; I began to utilise the almost war-torn carcass of the hotel. Room-by-room.

AMMAD_4This suited the sitters, as they wanted to keep their identities hidden, which you’ll see in the images.

Something I began to notice right away was the fear of their own government.

But as the days progressed, this faded away.

As the days progressed, I began to realise that the subjects were mostly young men, the same generation as myself.

So I began to build that narrative, documenting each of their stories, aspirations and struggles living the life they did; what had they risked to get there?

The narrative became so strong that I continued to photograph the younger refugees between the ages 18-30 for the remainder of the week.

Mainly because I felt that the youth had it so much worse during times of war, lives were halved, degrees dropped, and any concept of a future was put on hold.

Some were mechanics in past lives, some wanted to be scientists, studying chemical deployment. The latter being Wael (below left) the first refugee I had photographed. When the others saw this on the LCD they said “hey man you gotta make me look like this guy”. They wanted people to know their stories, they said that they just wanted to look like superheroes.

“…lives were halved, degrees dropped, and any concept of a future was put on hold.”

I wanted to flatter them despite their circumstances. They protested at the concept of being photographed next to tents. So I promised my friends that wouldn’t be the case.

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Tampi (centre) had told me of how he fought Isis, Mohammad (far right) told me the story of how his brother had been shot  times by the Syrian army, simply for leaving it to help his family during the war; he was deemed a traitor for it.

“They wanted people to know their stories, they said that they just wanted to look like superheroes.”

His brother had survived and made it to Turkey, Mohammad just wanted to get back to his side.

JAFFAR_Each person had trusted me not only with their stories and photographs, but also with their only points of contact to their family and friends.

The hotel had no electric, so each night I would take back 5 or 6 phones to charge and bring back the next day. This was fine even though their alarm to be called for prayer had woken me everyday at 5am.

But trust was built, photographs were taken and their stories were captured.

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The letter ‘A’ carved into Hammad’s arm represents the name of his girlfriend, killed by a Syrian sniper, 18-years old.

When I ask Hammad what happened to the sniper he says, “all you need to know is that he’s dead”.

I travelled to the island of Kos in the hopes that not only the UK would look further than the statistics, facts and figures provided by the media around the migrant crisis; but the rest of the world. That they’ll look further into those in the photographs, taking the stories with them.

If I can do this with my images, I hope that I’ve done my part in aiding the migrant crisis.

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For the more in-depth stories of each refugee and the rest of the series, catch them on Instagram: @reecepickering_

You can check out behind the scenes moving image piece on the series below.

https://vimeo.com/136666569

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