Did you plan to develop this project while abroad, or did it unfold more organically?
I had been following the news in the year leading up to my time in Sicily. As it was unfolding we were witnessing the biggest ever influx of people trying to get into Europe. There was something about the scale of what was taking place that seemed like this enormous outcry, a cry for help on the part of all of those displaced, but also this massive global growing pain, a wake up call emanating from the flattened and entwined relationship between all of our worlds.
As I followed the developments I realized that it was something that I wanted to engage with. I wanted to understand it more intimately, without news outlets as the translators. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.
Although the migration through that Italian island had been increasing slowly over the months leading up to my arrival, as a migratory route it has existed for years. It's a passage not so much for those fleeing the hot zones of war and terror in countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, but rather for people from throughout Africa. For me this journey from South to North paralleled the migration that we see over here in the States. I saw similarities between Europe's long history of colonization in Africa and the U.S.'s long history of the same in the Americas. For me it was a movement of people across borders caused by the long tradition of racism, politics and economics. Understanding this connection to our stories over here further solidified my desire to go there.
What were the challenges in approaching subject matter concerning refugees, in a country that you were a visitor?
My whiteness and American-ness are the biggest factors in my making this work. The sheer privilege I have in being able to fly over to Sicily and talk with people who might have traveled for months to get to the same place, leaving everything behind and risking their own lives in the process, makes these encounters inherently imbalanced. Any reading of the work needs to consider this fact. One man I met named Michael called attention to this. We had been talking about his life back home in Nigeria and about his experience so far in Sicily, he was asking me questions about life over here, it went deep, we had both been really open, we broke bread together.
It was when I asked to make a portrait at the end that he became defensive and said that there were others before me who had done the same, came and left with photos and stories and nothing was ever different for him. He felt used, and I can't blame him, he was right to feel that way. It didn't dissuade me from wanting to connect and make the work I was making, but it was a strong reminder as to the role my identity plays in making work, no matter where I am, as well as to the limitations I had set for myself based on the parameters I laid out for making these photographs in particular (timeframe, etc.). I was a fly on a wall in a room where I should have tried to get a seat at the table.
Another big challenge was how actually to make this work. I had never approached a current event before, let alone a deeply entrenched and long form saga such as migration. Not fully knowing what or how I was doing presented me with a lot of insight into how I work. More time was necessary, but also making connections that could have given me access would have been prudent as well. For example petitioning the Italian government months in advance to try and have legitimate access to places where services were being provided would have been a game changer. I was asked to leave certain areas more than once because I wasn't allowed to be there.
What is one story from photographing this book that left a significant impact?
All of the men I spoke with were young, teenagers some of them, and all of the conversations were intense for what they revealed about personal sacrifice, bravery and luck. Each encounter left it's own impact; after talking with someone I would find someplace to sit and write down what had just occurred. This was important not only for saving the details and transcribing as best as I could our conversation, but also for letting it sink in; I kept contrasting the stories I was hearing to my own life, comparing where I had been, for example, at 18.
In sharing about an experience I'd prefer to return to that journal:
"Today was a roller coaster. To begin with, stumbling upon Godfrey, an 18 year old from Nigeria panhandling while I was walking towards my car, originally to head up to Augusta. He's been here 3 months. Leaving from Libya the Navy/(coast guard?) picked up his boat and brought them to Napoli, where he was then sent to Siracusa [where we met]. He was tired, not physically, but emotionally. I could feel his spirit weighed down from what he had seen. He was scared of what his prospects were. It had been 3 months, how much longer could it be. It got to where he was asking me what he should do, what his next steps should be. He asked me if I could help him get a visa to the U.S. He asked if you even needed paperwork to get on a plane. Whatever help he was getting from the center was limited in what they informed him about it seemed - the scope that they gave him. But he was burnt out. He talked about how all the clothes he had - that was it [what he was wearing] - his nicest clothes. How he felt racism from the Italians. He shared his frustration over seeing Italians living a normal life. Why couldn't he? He's seen miracles he said, in his church back at home. And he feels like they will happen to him. He talked about murder in Libya because you're black. People hiding during the day, hundreds of people in a home, because of persecution. He's a singer - he sang Christian hip hop back at home, lamented never having recorded in the studio. He would love someone to sponsor him to sing. He also helped his aunt farm casava. It sounds like he was the only person who helped her and now she is on her own and struggling to keep it up. I ended up telling him to stick with the center and process the paperwork that way. He seemed to agree that was the best course of action. I had been willing to help him get a ferry if needed, but asked him where he thinks it would be better for him to be, and he seemed to come to his own conclusion on that. He wouldn't have a place to stay in Napoli or Milano & getting work would be just as hard. You could see his gears turning however. He was so dismayed at having to be begging on the street. Anything must be better than this. Godfrey did praise god though. Thanked her for getting him this far."
Godfrey's story was not unique in what he had sacrificed and endured, but because of the time we spent together it was one encounter that left a particularly deep impact. I ended up giving him a ride back to the government run center where he was staying. It was a ways out, in the arid land inland from Siracusa. It normally would take him like 2 hours to do it by way of walking and bussing. The drive was about 25 minutes. What struck me was the isolation. He even said as we drove out there "we live in the bush." Even as a temporary foothold, the fact that this sanctioned spot was so isolated was like adding insult to injury; I think about the isolation he was already feeling as a migrant and as a young person forced to put life on hold. It also made me think of another conversation I had with someone older, who had migrated in 2009 and was still waiting for papers, and still unsure of when they would come through. Interview after interview, the level of politic involved is high, and thinking about the longevity of the process compared to his 3 months of being there was devastating. But he had his faith which was really powerful to see, and gave me a lot of perspective.
What's something you learned while photographing, and editing, for this work?
Establishing myself as a photographer and making my art will always rely on the world around me. Sometimes this reliance will put me in positions where I am piggy-backing off of someone else. The images in Upward are not possible without individuals who have had these extremely intense experiences. While in a limbo Italy is not legally allowed to deport migrants, but the naturalization process is a seemingly infinite bureaucracy and movement further into Europe relies upon more smugglers and more money.
There was nothing I could do in that moment except to look and to listen. And although I did so with compassion, doing my best to understand and connect, in the end I left with pictures and came back to my life. Some of us stayed in touch via whatsapp, but by and large I was gone. One thing that I see now is in a way how disconnected these images are from the people they show, from what brought them to that point and where it led to from there. A part of that has to do with the nature of the medium itself, but I do wish this work could move from beyond the sidelines.
I feel like this series is a small piece to a much larger puzzle. In that sense using allegory was practical because it allowed me to distill what I was hearing about and thinking about and make images that spoke to those greater depths. I do believe in this type of image making, it is a big part of how I photograph, but I learned the limitations to that approach and about some of the ways that I can go deeper with it. These images are documents of encounter, of my intention to understand with my own eyes the drive to find place and belonging; even in the face of extreme danger. The truth is that there is no one answer to this motivation and I didn't come away with a sound bite. I hold intense respect an admiration for everyone I met with and hope that in the least any viewer of this work can feel the same.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about the project?
I do want to add to that last question, with regards to what I learned. At this point with almost a year between me and the making of these images, I think a lot of my thoughts and lessons go into the experience itself and how the work stands my own test of time. I will say though that I did learn firsthand about what these young men went through during their journeys and what some of the motivators were that pushed them to take the chances they did. There will always be the disconnect of a story told versus the experienced lived, but hearing them, some of them extremely fresh, gave me a small but vivid window into what that was. And even through this most of those I spoke with were still optimistic, blessing god and luck, and believed that the future was bright. This immense power of the belief that something better lay ahead, of the ability to push forward in the face of grave circumstances and persevere, to grow onward and upward, this was truly awe inspiring. I don't think there are any other circumstances that could paint the power of this fact any brighter.
Also to add to an important memory of the trip...
It was during my final hours in Sicily, with the late summer light starting to paint its creamy gold, that I went to the huge municipal cemetery of Catania, before heading to the airport. I had read that there was a section there that had been dedicated to migrants who had died at sea and whose bodies had been recovered by the rescue missions. I walked around for about an hour before I found it, an empty clearing amidst a sea of elaborate tombs and chambers devoted to the deceased of the town. The graves were simple, mounds of dirt already growing with grass and weeds, and with only a simple plaque and a series of numbers to identify them. Death had loomed large over the trip. The amount of people who had died that year alone in the pursuit of Europe from Libya was already in the several of thousands while I was there. I took my time walking amongst the graves, thinking about who they had been and who they wanted to be. I took a photo of some birds flying overhead, and another of a grave marked with the number 30, my age at the time. I gave my prayers to those lost souls thinking how their place was not meant to be in the ground on a land they never got to see.