It was like looking in a mirror. Years ago, he had taken the same long and painful journey. He fled his country, leaving his home and family. He crossed a desert and a sea only to arrive on the streets of Europe with nothing.
Now, years later, with a camera in his hand and on a boat in the middle of that same sea, he looked into the eyes of the desperate people in front of him and saw himself.
“When I photograph the people, it’s the same as like I photograph myself,” photographer Sinawi Medine told The Washington Post, speaking of his time working as a photographer aboard rescue boats in the Mediterranean. “It’s been my situation exactly.”
More than a million asylum seekers arrived in Europe in 2015, many of them Syrians fleeing war. Although fewer people reached the continent last year, a record 4,500 died en route at sea. In January, 247 people died or disappeared in the Mediterranean, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Medine, a freelance photographer based in Nice, France, started his work on refugees while shooting for a nonprofit organization aboard an aid vessel in the Mediterranean. “These people who I photographed, they never done nothing that make them suffer like this,” he said. “They leave their country because there is a war. … They are the victims of injustice.”
Medine found photography while back in Eritrea. As a young man who had just graduated high school, he had refused his compulsory military service, which many say is indefinite and can last for decades. “I can’t imagine to be all my life as a soldier,” he said. “So in Eritrea, there is no more choice.”
He got a job working in a portrait studio. He photographed weddings and other events. But Medine also worked for the police and found himself at the scene of crimes, accidents and suicides.
“I developed the negatives, and then I printed them,” he said. But never looked at the pictures again, “because it was terrible.”
Medine fled Eritrea in the early 2000s and lived in Sudan for three years. “After that I decided to come to Europe,” he said.
Medine recalled his journey across sub-Saharan Africa to the coast of Libya, where he paid a smuggler to take him across the Mediterranean to Italy in 2009.
“When I was in Libya, I got a little camera,” he said. “I started to take pictures.” But when he was in the boat, a smuggler took his camera and threw it away.
“So I arrived without nothing in Europe,” he said. “That means without photographs. This always makes me sad. I never documented what I lived before. That’s why when I go back in the ship to work … that gives me the opportunity document [what I could not] … before.”
After a number of years of working and studying in France, Medine began working as a freelance photographer and started to document a crisis that he knows intimately.
His latest work continues along the path taken by East Africans through Italy and on to France.
“I like this job because I feel as though I am doing something,” he said. “Yes, there is a lot of people who can do it, but I have an obligation to this job in some way.”