Lesvos - Between Hope and Despair

Hope: Images from a Mediterranean Odyssey for our time

Margarita Mavromichalis

“Is he not sacred, even to the gods, the wandering man who comes in weariness?”
― Homer, The Iliad

Throughout my photographic journey, I’m constantly in pursuit of a moment that communicates something essential about the human experience.  As a Greek, I have a particular interest in documenting the challenges my country faces as it tries to shape its response to the latest wave of desperate people reaching its shores.  It is a journey that we have been on before, both as a nation and as a wider, European culture. 

The refugees in this series of images from the Greek island of Lesvos are each on their own journey, and every journey is about hope.  Once all hope is extinguished, we can only wait for the end.  But these people made a decision not to wait.  They struggled across the treacherous sea because they still have hope.  They found, along the path that so many have taken before them – and so many will undoubtedly take again in years to come – both love and betrayal; the kindness of strangers as well as the grief of incalculable loss. 

On my successive visits to Lesvos, these people from Syria, Afghanistan, sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond, whether fleeing armed conflicts or grinding poverty, have allowed me to record, etched into their faces; expressed in their body language and their every gesture, the signs of the trials that brought them to a small, uncomprehending island in the Aegean Sea.  Their brief moments of relief and celebration at reaching the hoped-for safety of Europe quickly turning to frustration and disappointment at finding themselves corralled and numbered in the crowded and under-resourced facilities that are typical of camps for the displaced the world over.   

I found myself repeatedly struck by the dignity people still retain amid the squalor of the camps, but also by the generosity of the local population of Lesvos some of whom, having their own memories of war and deprivation, come to offer what little they have to comfort and sustain their uninvited guests.  It is not so long since they themselves lived through the aftermath of two World Wars, the destruction of Smyrna – just across the strait – and the Suez crisis.      

Although among the new adult arrivals optimism seems often overwhelmed by daily deprivations and having to put dreams on hold, the flame of hope never quite dies.  Each tiny victory fans it back to life.  And the children improvise, invent and play in ways that show that their openness to the possibility of joy and new friendships remains undiminished.  I seek to capture such moments as they break free from the darker aspects of the refugee experience and reveal themselves to my lens.