For­mer refugee’s pho­tos help him do some­thing about a cri­sis he knows

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - PHO­TOS BY SINAWI ME­DINE TEXT BY NICK KIRK­PATRICK nick.kirk­patrick@wash­

It was like look­ing into a mir­ror. Years ago, he had taken the same long and painful jour­ney. He fled his coun­try, leav­ing his home and fam­ily. He crossed a desert and a sea, only to ar­rive on the streets of Europe with noth­ing.

Now, years later, with a cam­era in his hand and on a boat in the mid­dle of that same sea, he looked into the eyes of the des­per­ate peo­ple in front of him and saw him­self.

“When I pho­to­graph the peo­ple, it’s the same as like I pho­to­graph my­self,” Sinawi Me­dine told The Wash­ing­ton Post, speak­ing of his time work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­pher aboard res­cue boats in the Mediter­ranean. “It’s been my sit­u­a­tion ex­actly.”

More than 1 mil­lion asy­lum seek­ers ar­rived in Europe in 2015, many of them Syr­i­ans flee­ing war. Al­though fewer peo­ple reached the con­ti­nent last year, a record 4,500 died at sea. Last month 247 peo­ple died or dis­ap­peared in the Mediter­ranean, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. refugee agency.

Me­dine, a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher based in Nice, France, started his work on refugees while shoot­ing for a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion aboard an aid ves­sel in the Mediter­ranean. “These peo­ple who I pho­tographed, they never done noth­ing that make them suf­fer like this,” he said. “They leave their coun­try be­cause there is a war . . . . They are the vic­tims of in­jus­tice.”

Me­dine found pho­tog­ra­phy while in Eritrea. As a young man who had just grad­u­ated from high school, he had re­fused his com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice, which many say is in­def­i­nite and can stretch into decades. “I can’t imag­ine to be all my life as a sol­dier,” he said. “So in Eritrea, there is no more choice.”

He got a job work­ing in a por­trait stu­dio. He pho­tographed weddings and other events. But Me­dine also worked for the po­lice and found him­self at the scene of crimes, crashes and sui­cides.

“I de­vel­oped the neg­a­tives, and then I printed them,” he said, but he never looked at the pic­tures again “be­cause it was ter­ri­ble.”

Me­dine fled Eritrea in the early 2000s and lived in Su­dan for three years. “Af­ter that I de­cided to come to Europe,” he said.

Me­dine re­called his jour­ney across sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa to the coast of Libya, where he paid a smug­gler to take him across the Mediter­ranean to Italy in 2009.

“When I was in Libya, I got a lit­tle cam­era,” he said. “I started to take pic­tures.” But when he was in the boat, a smug­gler took his cam­era and threw it away.

“So I ar­rived with­out noth­ing in Europe,” he said. “That means with­out photographs. This al­ways makes me sad. I never doc­u­mented what I lived be­fore. That’s why when I go back in the ship to work . . . that gives me the op­por­tu­nity to doc­u­ment [what I could not] . . . be­fore.”

Af­ter years of work­ing and study­ing in France, Me­dine be­gan do­ing free­lance pho­tog­ra­phy and started to doc­u­ment a cri­sis that he knows in­ti­mately.

His lat­est work con­tin­ues along the path taken by East Africans through Italy and on to France.

“I like this job be­cause I feel as though I am do­ing some­thing,” he said. “Yes, there is a lot of peo­ple who can do it, but I have an obli­ga­tion to this job in some way.”

“When I pho­to­graph the peo­ple, it’s the same as like I pho­to­graph my­self. It’s been my sit­u­a­tion ex­actly.” Sinawi Me­dine

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