by Gisela Salim Peyer
Through Our Eyes is a photographic sequence that offers a glimpse into the day-to-day of teenage asylum-seekers in Samos, Greece. The images are of claustrophobia and institutional neglect: the camp houses more than 5000 migrants but was built for only 650. It is a space enclosed by gates with barbed wires, where bags of rubbish accumulate and breed rats so big that even cats are scared of them; where the lucky ones sleep in overcrowded containers and the unlucky ones dwell in tents for months or improvise houses out of carton and sticks. The bureaucracy is such that the only type of legal existence is undignified and the only type of living is waiting.
“When you arrive to the camp in Samos, you become an identification number”, insists Ottavia Brussino, a Bocconi alumna that, after volunteering in the camp, started collaborating with a resident photography teacher and organizing initiatives to circulate the images outside the island. She told me about two brothers that were separated when one was relocated overnight and, in one of the two chronicles she published in Libero Pensiero, she narrates that only after a co-founder of Still I Rise (an NGO providing free education) learned about them, started lengthy legal action, and gathered media coverage, were the siblings reunited. Perhaps, many more are the instances of bureaucratic ruthlessness that do not get noticed by a local celebrity and are buried in oblivion.
The case of Still I Rise as a challenger of the administration in the camp is not isolated. Just in July, this NGO became the first ever to raise a question to the European Commission; the subject: “Situation of children in the Samos hotspot”. From its experience in the reunion of two brothers, this organization seems to understand that indignation of the media is as crucial for success as legal procedures. And Ottavia Brussino has ensured that the Through Our Eyes project delivers in the first front, gathering attention from publications as renowned as The New Yorker, Internazionale, and The Guardian; and organizing exhibitions in Turin, Bologna, London, and Brussels (upcoming).
Whether this media coverage can spur changes in Samos remains a question. These pictures were born when one of the volunteers of Still I Rise gave teenagers disposable cameras and developed them to reveal something tragic and beautiful, in the same way “barbed wire is horrible, but its geometry is fascinating”. So far, the images have continued travelling while their makers are constrained to stay and wait. Nevertheless, I trust these pictures will improve the situation in the camp because they so eloquently expose the most powerful argument behind any enterprise based on compassion: the argument that, only because of circumstances of birth and luck, it is them living this reality and not us.