The strangest thing was how quiet they were: 369 men, women, and children crammed into a forty-foot fishing boat as blue as the Mediterranean waters that surrounded them. They had set off from a Libyan port the night before, aiming for the Bouri oil field, a collection of deepwater wells some eighty miles off the coast, exactly as their smugglers had instructed. By midday, the boat began taking on water, and the hold, packed with passengers, was filling up.
Photographer Jason Florio was with the rescuers dispatched by the Phoenix to intercept the boat: It was the first rescue of a six-month mission for the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), an NGO dedicated to saving the lives of migrants at sea. “Coming from England,” Florio confessed, “I imagined search-and-rescue missions as crashing through waves to reach a vessel in distress in traumatic weather. But it isn’t like that on the Med. It’s clear-blue water, a beautiful blue sky. This gorgeous, blue boat is filled with people. And they’re just looking at us, wondering if we’d come to drag them back to Libya. And suddenly you’re confronted with it: On what should be a beautiful day, here they are, risking their lives on a boat that’s sinking.”
For two months, in the spring and summer of 2015, Florio documented MOAS’s rescue of thousands of people attempting to navigate what the UN has described as “the most lethal route in the world,” a maritime crossing that in recent years has claimed more than 7,000 lives as people have fled violence and economic instability in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. It is an exodus of historic proportions, with some 1 million migrants and refugees entering Europe last year alone.
In 2014, Christopher Catrambone, a Louisiana native who runs a war-zone insurance company for journalists and contractors, started MOAS with his wife, Regina, after experiencing a crisis of conscience during a family vacation. The Catrambones live in Malta, and were vacationing on the island of Lampedusa shortly after a shipwreck off the coast had killed more than 300 migrants. Amid the scenic leisure of their days on the island, says Catrambone, they were acutely aware of the horror that preceded their visit. “We were out there enjoying life, and yet in those same waters people were drowning trying to make it to safety. This dilemma—this duality—is what struck us.” The Catrambones, who are Catholic, were inspired by Pope Francis’s homily following the Lampedusa tragedy that warned against the “globalization of indifference.” They considered it a calling. “I realized: We’re a young couple,” Catrambone says. “We have resources. Let’s do something while we have the chance.”
Using his personal wealth, Catrambone built an infrastructure—bought the ships, leased the drones, hired the veteran sailors and divers—in order to create an organization that could be sustained by the public. “My thinking was that if I could prove this, people would fund it, that I could use crowdfunding as a way for people to save lives.” By all measures, MOAS has made an impact, having rescued nearly 12,000 people since operations began in 2014, and having raised close to $5 million through crowdfunding. (Operational costs for its Mediterranean mission were $3.6 million in 2015.)
Though Florio’s main purpose aboard the Phoenix was to document the process of the rescue, the portraits were an artistic priority. The challenge was trying to find a clear space to shoot on an intensely crowded deck. Eventually he claimed a bit of real estate against a wall near the stern—about four feet of clearance. “I had to carve a studio out of nothing,” he says. “I found myself stepping over people just so I could squeeze between this railing and a pipe in order to get the shot.”
In doing so, with more than 100 subjects, Florio has created a humanizing counterpoint to the images that have dominated the narrative of the migration crisis so far. “I know it sounds cliché, but I felt these portraits were an effective way to find the individual in the whole mess. All the images of migrants we’ve seen are of chaotic hordes. I thought it was important to give them a space to represent themselves.”
Part of the power of these portraits lies in context, in learning who the migrants are, and how, amid such wretched circumstances, a democratic mix of citizens emerges—a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities, of classes and educations. “It was surreal to see these women in their delicate scarves and fancy handbags,” Florio recalls. “With babes in arms—that type of thing. You had shoeless guys from West Africa and then Syrians who looked like they’d gone shopping for the day. Come as they are.”
Among them were nurses, soccer players, students, carpenters, midwives, chefs, teachers, and business owners. The vast majority of them had fled war-torn cities; many others—Oromo from Ethiopia, Christians from Nigeria—had fled persecution. Others had started out as economic migrants—traveling, say, from Bangladesh to Libya for work, only to find themselves displaced again by conflict.
And yet, despite such hardship, and such trauma, there is some levity in their expressions as they pose for the British photographer. Herein is the greater power of these pictures—“the surprise,” as Florio puts it, “of how robust people are.”
“Many of them had gone through hell just to get to Libya,” he explains, “whether they’d been held for ransom, beaten, raped, or seen others killed. Then they took to the sea, which was itself extremely frightening. So the relief in feeling that they were in a safe place—even if it was the deck of a strange ship—seemed to shine through.”