Exile is a photographer’s testimony to the humanitarian, and human, crisis that has been largely overshadowed by politics and cultural clashes in Europe.
Photos and text: Krystian Maj
I started photographing the “Balkan route” migration crisis in the summer of 2015, after I was struck by the hysteric, anti-immigrant tone of the news that had flooded the media in my home country. I wanted to go there and report on the missing parts of that picture.
Although I expected to see dramatic scenes, my first visit at the Greece – Macedonia border has deeply shaken me. I faced thousands of terribly tired people, very often whole, multi-generational families, walking with their belongings on their backs.
Standing there, I was so angry that so many journalists, instead of reporting this enormous humanitarian crisis, were readily pumping up the unreal, out of context narrative of the politicians.
Even back then I knew that photographing that subject would be a very difficult, years-long work, but I decided to proceed. I was also aware that convincing those who simply didn’t want to be convinced might not be possible. What drove me was an urge to produce a testimony protecting against those who in the future would like to say “we didn’t know” while asked why they did remain indifferent in face of such humanitarian disaster.
Since 2015 I have photographed the Balkan route exodus in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. Heading towards its source, I arrived at one of the front-lines of the fight against ISIS, in Iraqi Kurdistan. I have collected multiple stories of individuals who managed to get into the EU, those who got stuck at the infamous Hungarian border fence, as well as of those who stopped just outside the ISIS controlled areas, living in tents for years and trying to support themselves with what they could grow in the war-burnt Iraqi soil.
Despite the migrants not longer being on the front pages, their stories are not finished yet and so is my work.
Krystian Maj is an independent photojournalist based in Warsaw, Poland, specialized in covering a wide range of news and editorial stories in Europe. His photographs have appeared in numerous Polish and International media.
Krystian is the winner of the scholarship for our workshop with Christopher Morris in Krakow in June, to which he applied with the Exile project. We used that occasion to ask him a couple of questions about his work.
Q: Is it still possible to be a professional photographer at the end of the second decade of the 21st century?
A: Sure it is. I would even say that the need for photography is growing these days. In popular media no article would attract readers if not being accompanied by a photograph, and the Instagram’s popularity is hitting record highs. Everybody now wants to look at photos, and people, as visual consumers, become more and more demanding and educated. I take it as a good sign for the future, because while visual rubbish will always find its way to pollute the market, the growing number of the educated and demanding will keep pushing for quality even further.
Of course, how to live and survive within the current economic model, where prices and fees are constantly falling and intellectual property thefts are rampant is an another question. It is much harder to make living from photography now, but it’s still possible, I think.
Q: And a reliable one? One who keeps to the journalistic standards no matter what?
A: In the era of fake news, even more than ever. Today we simply need to hold journalists responsible for the quality of their reporting with their names and careers at stake, so I think it’s definitely time for high standards in photojournalism.
Q: In your scholarship application you wrote that you’re disappointed with the typical news photography and its main focus on politics, and that you’re looking for an alternative. What exactly did you mean?
A: During one of my reporting trips to the Balkan route, at the Serbia-Macedonia border, the situation was catastrophic. Thousands of fatigued people, who just crossed the marshlands in the middle of the night and then walked another couple of miles to the nearest aid center got stuck for days in the open field because the local authorities couldn’t cope with such influx. Men, women, young, old and disabled desperate alike. At some point I saw a family with a cerebral palsy boy. They were trying to push the wheelchair, but they were too exhausted. Together with my fellow photojournalist Filip Błażejowski, we couldn’t stand it any more. We turned off our cameras and drove the family straight to the medical center with our car. After that night we felt completely crushed.
Two days later I photographed a meeting of the Visegrad Group presidents at Lake Balaton in Hungary. When I heard the Czech president Milos Zeman saying that those people are not refugees and they need no help because they have mobile phones and wear branded sneakers, I barely constrained myself from entering the stage and shouting in protest. I guess it was my turning point. I realized that as a photojournalist I cannot focus on the meta-reality created by politicians. Only showing the consequences of their talk is important and my job is to expose the crude reality they are trying to manipulate.
Q: Did you plan and finance your work on the Exile completely on your own or was it a combination of different shorter commissions from agencies?
A: It was my own initiative from the very beginning, although the FORUM agency I work for distributed my photographs broadly what protected the financial side. It also mattered that I felt much more secure knowing they would support me in a crisis situation.
A: Facing the suffering of those people and my feeling of helplessness. After some time, you know that you can’t help everybody, so the only response is to do your work as good as possible and hopefully raise awareness among voters who may pressure the politicians for action. You simply have to believe that. It wasn’t like Kiev’s Maidan or the annexation of Crimea I photographed before; it was nothing like “the good” versus “the bad”. There were only people affected by a catastrophe that happened thousands of kilometers away and who needed and still desperately need help.
Q: Do you think your effort made a difference?
A: I just felt I didn’t have other choice but to do what I can do best. I couldn’t turn away my eyes and pretend that nothing happens. I know people who have changed the way they see refugees thanks to my photographs and I am very glad because of that. I am going to push forward with it.