The photographer, the island, and half a billion life jackets

Tasos and Maria Markou were sitting on their couch, trying to avoid the summer heat in Greece, when they saw a video showing a man pushing a child in a wheelie-bin. The location looked familiar: A Mediterranean coastal village with a Greek street sign.

The clip showed a man climbing up a steep hill in the midday sunshine. The child was still alive. The child was alive.

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, refugees have been crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey, but now it is bigger. Tourists on Greek islands started sharing videos in the summer of 2015. They showed people walking into towns from mountain roads or landing on beaches. An internet news channel compiled the mobile footage.

Tasos Markou. Lois Simac.

Tasos put down his laptop and turned to Maria. He said, “I have to go there.”

In 2015, over 800,000 refugees crossed into Greece from the Aegean, an increase of 40,000 in the previous year. Images in the news showed discarded orange-fluorescent lifejackets and PVC boats being bulldozed on Lesvos. Tasos markou, a Greek freelance photographer, was the first to publish these dramatic photos. His photographs were published by major British newspapers and throughout Europe.

Signal for Help

Online, you can purchase a child’s lifejacket from the manufacturer for US $4.14 each. Most destinations offer free shipping. Some Turkish clothing shops now sell only lifejackets. Kebab vendors also saw the opportunity and began hanging them above their counters. Orange is a colour of help. It communicates courage and desperation to people who are on the move. Hopes are dashed on the border while we watch powerless.

The lifejackets allow us to consider global material and political circumstances. The desire to control fossil fuels led to colonial intervention, new borders, and conflict in the Middle East. The burning of these fuels increased climate volatility, which influenced the severity of the drought that preceded the uprising in Syria against Assad. Plastic lifejackets became affordable due to the industrial use of petrochemicals, and the globalised workforce. Thousands of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq used them in their sea crossings.

Refugee cemetery, Lesvos. Tasos Markou

Fear and anger among the populists are fueled by more than just economic and cultural anxieties. Experts have warned about the scarcity of resources and the disruptions caused by climate change for more than a decade. I would like to combine social and environmental concerns with our fears and anxieties, such as displacement and migration.

Anthropocene is a concept from the natural sciences that can bring all these threads together. Scientists claim that the human activities of deforestation and soil erosion, chemical pollutants, species extinctions, and greenhouse gas emission have changed Earth’s system so much that it has entered a new geological age. This concept encourages us to consider long-term issues and broadens the debate to include other environmental concerns.

The Anthropocene narrative, however, makes political claims which flatten the historical differences, and casts all people as being responsible for the problems created by the privileged. We can think about current conditions more deeply if we return the Anthropocene to its contingency.

On Lesvos

Last year, I asked permission to reproduce one of his photographs. After we began to correspond, I asked him to be interviewed when I learned that he continued to document the suffering of refugees in Greece. Over several months, we spoke on Skype regularly.

Tasos, a Greek man from Thessaloniki, flew to Lesvos in June 2015 with 500 Euros in his pocket. He saved the money and Maria for a vacation. Maria, a home care nurse, earned more in a single month than he did. She encouraged him to take his camera with him and leave. Tasos travelled north to the nearest point to Turkey.

Tasos took two hours to drive up the winding, mountainous roads of the island to Skala Sikamineas. This fishing settlement is located on the coast. The night was already falling.

Tasos was astonished by the wind and thought that he heard voices in the sea. The waves were all that was heard. When he was about to leave for the guesthouse, he saw that there were traces of people on the rocks and beach. Shoes, passports and backpacks. T-shirts. Plastic water bottles. Lifejackets. Lifejackets in the hundreds

The beach and rocks are covered with the traces of arriving ships. Tasos Markou

“I realized this wasn’t just trash,” said Tasos. “Each jacket represented a life of a person, a journey.”

Tasos drove along the rugged roads of the northern coast and then into the mountains the next morning. He saw people emerging from parks, fields and roadside. He saw people emerge from parks, fields and roadsides.

Some locals and journalists from Lesvos offered rides to the walkers. Tasos asked him if he was able to help. The police asked drivers to register their names, car makes, license plates, car-hire companies, pick-up points, and destinations. This was to stop smugglers from exploiting refugees.

Tasos said, “My car was full of people. They were on the roof and out the windows.”

When he reached Mytilene, it was 36 degrees. The public shower was crowded with men in underwear. Families sat beneath trees, statues or alongside walls. Some tourists rolled down their windows and took pictures before driving on. Some tourists gave food and water as a way to help the exhausted. Tasos then followed suit. He spent three days on Lesvos, buying water, taking pictures and interviewing people. The majority of refugees came from Syria, but many also came from Iraq and Afghanistan.

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