Their journey through their eyes


This review was first published on the Sunday Times of Malta’s Culture section. 

It’s all in the eyes. A cliche? Maybe, but it sure describes the essence of Darrin Zammit Lupi’s photography publication, Isle Landers. Eyes that look haunted, scared, relieved, excited… eyes that make us live a thousand lives. The lives of those who land on our island, more often than not unintentionally, after having crossed over from Africa on small boats, little more than dinghies really. The book has been released in conjunction with an exhibition that is currently showing at St James Cavalier in Valletta. The collection on show is majestic, dwarfing the viewer with both the size of the photos and the intensity of the emotions that flow through them. It is not often that exhibition-goers are given the opportunity of taking home with them a memento capable of stimulating the same intense feelings even after they leave the venue. In this case, they can, thanks to the 192-page, hardback publi-cation that continues to feed our imagination. The photographic collection depicted in Isle Landers, often with explanatory captions detailing the circumstances under which the photo was taken, is exquisite in terms of aesthetics and technical prowess. One would expect nothing less of the award-winning photojournalist. But, of course, the value of the book goes well beyond ability or style. Each photo takes us on a poignant journey that must surely soften the heart of those who voice their disapproval (and sometimes more) of these unfortunate souls under the disguise of ‘patriotism’. We live in cold-hearted times, when many think nothing of turning their shoulder on a fellow human being under the pretence of some misguided principle. Zammit Lupi’s book ought to go some way towards making these people pause and think. Because suddenly, with every photo that leaps out at you in starkly contrasting colour, these are no longer ‘those Africans’, but people like us.

One of the poignant entries under ‘Arriving’.One of the poignant entries under ‘Arriving’.

The book starts out with a heartfelt foreword by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres: “All my friends died,” he writes, recounting the story of 10-year-old Hamad, a Syrian/Palestinian boy who wound up in Malta. It continues with a chilling opening to the introduction by Zammit Lupi: “F**k the Blacks” – a statement that was left in the guest book of an earlier exhibition on the topic of migration that was held by the photographer. The two statements certainly set the tone for the visual journey that unfolds in the book’s chapters. The photos are divided into six sections, each covering the different stages of the migrants’ stay in Malta.

The first chapter, ‘At sea’, brings the horror up close from the get-go. Detailing the last part of the migrant’s journey across water, we are faced with emotions that range from shock to horror, anger and – touchingly – even relief and joy.

The latter are even more poignant, considering what many of these migrants will eventually have to go through in terms of detention and discrimination. The book continues with ‘Arriving’ – the photo on page 70 showing a child being passed from the refugees’ boat to the rescue vessel, Smurfs backpack in tow, is chilling. How can any parent not want to do everything in his power to help, when faced with such a powerful visual message? Just as shocking is the close-up on page 74 – a child, no more than eight years old, face all cracked and peeling, the sun, salty water and exhaust fumes evidently having taken their toll on the skin. You would think that it is difficult to beat this horror, but you would be wrong. The chapter titled ‘Detention’, somehow, is even worse, maybe because the horrors that await are of our own making. People crammed in miniscule dormitories, bored out of their wits, their eyes without emotion. It is within our power to make the lives of these migrants better, and yet we do not. I can barely let my eyes linger on the photo on page 102, captioned Killing time; two men sleep in a room barely big enough for one of them. The sense of claustrophobia is almost tangible. ‘Open centres’ and ‘Life outside’ contain a touch more optimism in their own way; we see in those who offer their help to these migrants that, after all, not everyone is cold of heart. It’s a short-lived comfort, however, as page 164, with the graffiti “Blacks Out”, juxtaposed against a shot from the funeral of a Sudanese who was allegedly attacked by a bouncer, rams the point home again. The book does close on a good note for those who manage to leave Malta behind to start a journey somewhere that, hope-fully, is kinder to them. Isle Landers may go some way towards achieving that which a thousand reports and myriad statistics never can. It makes us live the migrants’ plight, witness their ordeal up close, so that we should never again make the mistake of viewing them as anything but human beings who have the exact same needs and rights as us. The book was made possible with the support of the Malta Arts Fund and the UNHCR, among others. It is available from leading bookshops. The exhibition runs at St James Cavalier, Valletta, until January 4.