Fixing the camera with an unwavering gaze, 23-year-old Amadou Sumaila stands on deck, his backdrop the Mediterranean Sea. He is one of 118 men and boys who have just been pulled from an overcrowded rubber boat found drifting 20 nautical miles from the Libyan coast – all of whom were photographed moments after their rescue.
It’s August 2016, a year in which more than 360,000 migrants will make such a crossing to reach Europe. It will also become the deadliest year on record, with 5,098 people reported dead or missing on the Mediterranean. Determined to tell the stories of the people behind the statistics, Spanish-Iranian photojournalist César Dezfuli spent three weeks witnessing imperilled migrants being picked up by a rescue vessel.
His series, Passengers, makes a stark catalogue of the faces of the migrant crisis. Shooting on a Canon 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 35mm f/2 lens, César was forced to act quickly, as he had just two hours to photograph the entire group before they were transferred to another boat to Italy, giving him less than two minutes per person.
“I photographed all of the people who travelled on board the same boat, minutes after their rescue, in an attempt to put a name and a face to this reality – to humanise this tragedy,” says César. “Their faces, their look, their clothes – or the absence of them – reflect the mood and physical state in which they are in, in a moment that has already marked their lives forever. Documenting this can serve to bring the reality of migration closer to those who only observe it from a distance.”
Photographing each passenger individually was important to César, both to give them a distinct identity and to try and create a unique body of work. “When you photograph people in groups, it is difficult to really say who they are,” he says. “I also felt that society was starting to get used to those images of rescues, and starting to lose the connection, their empathy. So I felt I had to do something different if I wanted the message to get through.”
Society was starting to get used to images of rescues, so I felt I had to do something different to get the message through.
Even so, César frustratingly found himself unable to get the story published in the press. Instead, he entered just one image, his portrait of Amadou, into the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 – and beat 5,716 photographs to secure first prize. The prestigious win has breathed new life into his series, giving it the global exposure he always believed the story deserved. “No media was interested in publishing these photographs, and now many outlets are publishing them, which is kind of funny. I’m very happy because I want to keep telling this story, to keep telling people that this is happening. I am glad that the message has arrived.”
Facebook has allowed César to make contact with Amadou who, more than 15 months after rescue, remains in a migration centre in Sicily, Italy, awaiting news on his asylum application. Amadou, who fled war in his home country of Mali, Africa, gave his age as 16 at the time of the meeting, but later admitted he was seven years older – he had been told he might progress through the system faster as a child.
“I think Amadou’s portrait stands out because of the emotions it transmits,’ says César on his decision to choose one face to represent 118. “He is standing so frontally that it creates a perfect balance in the composition. At the same time there is his look – that direct confrontation with the camera – which makes the photo very expressive. The feelings of that moment, and his personality are reflected in it, so this picture perfectly summarises what the whole series means.”
This emotional weight connected with the judges too. “His gaze was really captivating, the intensity of it, the emotion,” says Sabina Jaskot-Gill, Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 judge and Associate Curator, Photographs, at London's National Portrait Gallery. “You have this kind of fear, determination, almost uncertainty, a bit of mistrust. This incredible idea that this man has been dragged out of the sea to safety, and is posing for this portrait and manages to have this presence, was really quite incredible. You can submit up to six portraits in this competition but César only submitted one – which is quite brave.”
César, who also uses Canon EF 24mm f/2.8, EF 24-105mm f/3.5-5.6 and EF 50mm f/1.4 lenses, has been working as a photojournalist for three years but also writes. He has already covered stories as diverse as the rescinding of China’s one-child policy, the Kenyan elections and the 2015 Paris attacks. Migration has become a core theme, with César finding himself in the right place at the right time to cover the emergence of the recent mass migration across Europe. “I was covering another story about ex-Yugoslavian countries in 2015 and, while I was there, the migrant crisis began – I was there when it started,” he says. “I covered the migratory route in the Balkans and had an interview with one of the smugglers who was smuggling migrants to Europe at that time, which was a big story.”
Journalism is something that you live with every day, it’s not something that you do for eight hours a day and then go home.
Currently based out of Madrid, César has his eye on global narratives that matter. For him, strong photojournalism stems from an innate passion for stories and a curiosity about the world. “You need to be very creative and you need to have a journalistic way of thinking. I think it’s something that just comes from you, it’s the way you are. Journalism is something that you live with every day, it’s not something that you do for eight hours a day and then go home. So you need to have this curiosity, this connection with society and with people in general.”
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition runs at the National Portrait Gallery until 8 February 2018.