Picturing Refugees

How Photographing Lost Objects Revealed Another Lens on Migration

When Sicilian photographer Mario Badagliacca grew tired of ‘overexposing’ migrants arriving by sea, he searched for another way to document their experiences – through their lost belongings. We speak with Badagliacca about ‘picturing refugees.’

Written by Megan Alcantar Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Sicilian photographer Mario Badagliacca has been documenting migrants’ journeys as they land on the shores of the Italian island Lampedusa for many years.Mario Badagliacca

On the Italian island of Lampedusa, it is clear that Italy’s political crisis over migration has much deeper roots that any government furor.

In recent weeks, Italy has shuts its ports to several NGO boats carrying people rescued at sea. Italy’s new government projects a defiant stance to voters and to Europe that Italy will no long shoulder responsibility for sea arrivals to the continent.

Lampedusa, which is closer to the coast of North Africa than to mainland Europe, has been the first port of call for boats of people seeking shelter in Europe for almost two decades. Over the years – including the peak arrivals of recent years and the latest drop in numbers – people arriving on Lampedusa have been held in official facilities while they undergo expedited asylum procedures and face potential deportation.

For years, Sicilian photographer Mario Badagliacca has been documenting migrants’ journeys – as they land on the shores of Lampedusa or trek across Europe’s borders. His striking series “Frammenti” (Fragments) documents the personal belongings recovered from the so-called Cemetery of Boats on Lampedusa. Another series, “The Game,” explores the harsh environments and survival strategies along the Balkan route through Europe.

As part of our series “Picturing Refugees,” we talk to Badagliacca about the constraints of the photojournalism industry and his work documenting a broader scope of migrant experiences.

Refugees Deeply: What’s your personal connection – as a photographer from Sicily – to the subjects of migration and displacement?

Mario Badagliacca: I started to be interested in migration before I was a photographer. I was collaborating with several associations dealing with support for migrants around 2000–01. Then when I decided to be a professional photographer, for me it was normal to select migration as a main focus of my work. I am from Sicily, and you know Sicily is a land of immigration, but also emigration because a lot of Sicilians were abroad. Sicily is in the middle of Mediterranean Sea, so for me it has been natural to look at these issues as something personally connected to me. For this reason, I started work in Lampedusa, and then started to work along other European borders.

The series “Frammenti” (Fragments) documents the personal belongings recovered from the so-called Cemetery of Boats on Lampedusa. (Mario Badagliacca)

Refugees Deeply: You mention you started doing work around migration around 2000. What happened then that got you interested in this issue?

Badagliacca: We already had a lot of migrants in Italy. This is not a new issue for us. The diasporic community of migrants started to arrive here 20–30 years ago. At the beginning of the new millennium, migration in Italy was something hidden, and during this time it was forbidden to give [migrants] any kind of support, if they were considered illegal. There were a lot of political movements trying to push the government to change the laws. Then in the last five or six years these issues became the main issues in Italy, but we have now mass media [coverage] and politicians started to be interested in this kind of discourse. I was a member of a political association, and we started to support migrants and their civil rights.

Refugees Deeply: Many of your projects about refugees seem to focus not on portraits of people specifically, but more on their environments, like in ‘The Game,’ or their material belongings, like in ‘Frammenti.’ Could you elaborate on how you chose this approach and what you hope they communicate?

Badagliacca: Yes, I worked a lot with objects. My first work is this one – “Frammenti.” For me it was unbelievable, because while I was photographing I had in my hands these objects. There are pictures of broken shoes, clothes, cigarettes, crosses, personal letters, everything. I was feeling the subjectivity of their owners. Their faces, voices and their stories of life. Then I decided to apply this approach to my other work because I think objects have this kind of power. It could be just a simple object, but if you put this object in connection with other things, with context, it contains a lot of meaning.

Also, in my last project, “The Game,” I photographed people, of course, but also during my fieldwork I was looking for other things connected to the daily life of migrants along the European borders. This is the main focus of my work, to tell the daily life of thousands of people blocked in the European countries. I think it’s really enticing to connect portraits and objects.

Refugees Deeply: Can you describe how you got the idea for the ‘Frammenti’ project?

Badagliacca: I started this work in 2013, but I had been in Lampedusa one year before. I started to document the shipwrecks and the landings in Lampedusa, but after some time I was tired of overexposing the body of migrants and the landings in Lampedusa through mainstream journalism.

“I decided to apply this approach to my other work because I think objects have this kind of power. It could be just a simple object, but if you put this object in connection with other things, with context, it contains a lot of meaning.”

I was collaborating with an Italian association called Archive of Migrants’ Memories that was a partner of Askavusa, a local association based in Lampedusa that collected objects in past years. At the same time La Repubblica, the main Italian newspaper, wanted to dedicate a big article to the objects in its Sunday edition, so they asked me to photograph the objects. In these days it’s different, but during that time the Italian coast guard, after the rescue operations on the Mediterranean Sea, were driving the boats to Lampedusa. The migrants were brought to the First Aid Center and then distributed to other centers in Italy, and boats were abandoned in this big space called the Cemetery of Boats of Lampedusa, with all the items and objects inside. During the years, the volunteers of Askavusa were going to this cemetery of boats, and collecting the objects they found inside.

He photographed about 100 objects, as well as documents and other personal effects. (Mario Badagliacca)

So I went to Lampedusa. Over four to five days I photographed about 100 objects, and also headed a collaboration with the regional library of Palermo to source some paper documents or other personal objects.

Refugees Deeply: How does your work differ from the usual portrayal of refugees and migration in Italy?

“In Italy for now the only pictures you can see in the newspaper are pictures of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, but fewer photographers are telling us how thousands of migrants are living in Italy today or how the communities are organized.”

Badagliacca: I am also a photojournalist, so I started working for newspapers and magazines. Then I decided to find another perspective and I found my way. I started to collaborate with several universities. I think it’s really important that the work of a journalist is from an ethical point of view because we are a watchdog against politicians, telling of violations of human rights.

We also produce imagery. In Italy for now the only pictures you can see in the newspaper are pictures of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, but fewer photographers are telling us how thousands of migrants are living in Italy today or how the communities are organized. I think it’s important to find other ways. But journalism is a business, and to be a good business they need to sell stories. I think we have to find the right balance between marketing considerations and ethics.

Refugees Deeply: What practical advice do you have for other photographers in navigating the subjects of displacement and migration?

Badagliacca: My advice to other photographers is to try to go deep into the issues, to talk with people, listen to their stories and try to report the issues. We have to look for other perspectives compared to what mainstream journalism imposes on us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mario Badagliacca’s series ‘Frammenti’ was featured in“Mediterranean” a collection of fiction, poetry, photography and reportage, published by Warscapes Magazine and UpSet Press and available on Amazon.

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