OPINION: 'I photograph refugee rescues in the Mediterranean. It’s not the boat I remember'


In three years, partners Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and SOS Mediterranee have saved 30,000 lives on the deadly migration route between Africa and Europe. Their ship, the Ocean Viking, navigates the waters between Libya and Italy, despite an Italian led coalition banning all non-government rescue vessels from the Mediterranean.

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When we first approach the boats, I take photos of them. It is part of my job on board the Ocean Viking: to try and communicate what we do as a rescue ship in the Central Mediterranean sea – and why we do it.  

As we arrive on scene, I capture what a lot of the world probably picture in their mind when you say the words “refugee crisis”: an overcrowded boat -- typically a grey rubber dinghy, a black rubber dingy or a wooden boat – drifting low in the middle of a big blue sea. It has become an iconic image of migration.

Recently, I have started going back to the photos I take in the days following the rescue.  I have noticed that, when I do, I no longer see the boat at all. Instead, I recognise the people onboard and their stories.

Migrants talk to each other aboard the Ocean Viking in the Mediterranean Sea, 14 September 2019.
Migrants aboard the Ocean Viking in September.

Mohammed, from Darfur, stands out. Although he is a small guy, the oversized school blazer cloaking his skinny frame is distinct. One morning, he had asked me for a pen and something to write on. Later that day he handed me back five sheets of notepaper torn from the back of an exercise book with writing small enough to make a lifetime fit: “REFUGEE STORY”, the title reads. He grew up in a camp and has since been displaced. During the most challenging parts of his story, he uses diagrams, bullet points or numbering systems to organise his thoughts: 1. They raped my sister. 2. There was a fire and the soldiers came. And so on. He was in Tajoura Detention Centre the day it was bombed, running to escape as the guards opened fire amidst the panic, his friends falling around him. He told me he is afraid to close his eyes at night. His favourite colour is green.

Hannah Wallace Bowman is a field communications manger for MSF.

I can’t forget Abdul, the barber. He, like many of the people we rescue, had a trade or profession before he was taken from the streets of Tripoli and incarcerated. Gentle and softly-spoken, he is happiest when cutting hair, he tells me. When I interviewed him about his journey, I also took a portrait of him. Turning the screen of my camera to show him the picture, he shakes his head in disbelief. He is half laughing, but his eyes wide with dismay. “I don’t have a beard like that!” he exclaims. He tentatively runs his fingers over his cheekbones and the hair on his chin, still shaking his head. Tomorrow I will shave, he says, decisively. Held in captivity for over a year, it is so long since he saw himself in a mirror, he no longer knew what he looked like.

Photo credit: Hannah Wallace Bowman/ MSF

Clicking through to the next photo, I see Grace. Dignified and stoic, even after days drifting at sea. I recognise her immediately, face pale with the salt encrusted around her features. I would often find her standing on deck at night after everybody else was sleeping, looking up at the stars. She asked me time and time again to tell her it was real and they were safe on board a rescue ship. She even asked me to pinch her, so she would know she wasn’t dreaming. I did, and we laughed, but I don’t think she was convinced. Grace, her husband and four children had tried to make the crossing twice before. They had almost lost their daughter to sickness during their time held locked away after being intercepted by the Libyan Coastguard and forcibly returned to Libya. This was their third and last attempt, she told me. If they didn’t make it this time, she hoped they would die trying. At least then it would be over and they would be at peace.

This sentiment is one I heard repeated with a devastating frequency.

Almost without exception, people know the risks of crossing this treacherous stretch of water in an unseaworthy craft. They know others who have died. Or have seen people die during previous attempts. Or have friends or relatives who simply disappeared. The Central Mediterranean sea crossing is the deadliest migratory route in the world. 692 people have died in their attempt to reach Europe this year alone.

SOS Mediterranee's new ship, the Ocean Viking.
SOS Mediterranee's new ship, the Ocean Viking.

It takes just 60 seconds for someone to drown. For a child, it is considerably less. Yet, when I ask people why they try to make the journey if they know how dangerous it is, they say that if I am asking this question, I don’t understand what they are fleeing from. They would rather be dead than spend one more day in Libya.

If it were not for ships like ours, there would be no-one there to save them. In a context where the fragility of life is so brutally apparent, it seems obvious that saving lives at sea is vital. But there are people who disagree with the provision of a humanitarian response for those fleeing Libya across the water. To the extent that I usually advise our MSF team onboard not to read comments on newspaper articles or social media articles featuring our work. Indeed, looking at the headlines, finding ways to bridge the divide between public perception and what we do can feel insurmountable.

But we must find a way to reconcile the discrepancy between the politics of fear and the people we endeavour to save.

On board the Ocean Viking, we are privileged to gain a first-hand insight into the lives of those we rescue. I wish everyone could spend just one day in the presence of the humanity that characterises our mission: to meet the people Europe has condemned. Through following our work, please allow us to introduce you. Perhaps, then, the overcrowded boat would no longer exist.

Hannah Wallace Bowman is a Field Communications Manager for Medecins Sans Frontieres.