The recent crisis has generated countless images of refugees. Refugees as victims, heroes or survivors, refugees en masse and in close-up. We’ve seen refugees in boats, in camps and on the road, or sitting on second-hand sofas in the barely furnished living rooms of their new homes.
Giovanna del Sarto, 47, an Italian photographer who came to London in her late twenties, wanted to do something different. “Photographers usually only take,” she said. “I wanted to give as well.”
I met Giovanna in her first-floor East London flat on a November afternoon. The wintry afternoon sunlight was streaming into the living room, casting a warm glow on the shelves crammed with books and bits of art and illuminating the jumble of paintings and prints that covered the walls.
Rifling through her kitchen cupboards for a teabag – “I’m a coffee drinker,” Giovanna explained – she began telling me about her project.
It was last October when she first took leave from her job as a photo retoucher in a central London studio and travelled to Greece. “I was so frustrated with how the media was reporting the situation,” she said. “I had to do something.”
Told that Preservo was the place to be, she booked a flight to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, and took a bus to the camp. “I knew from the beginning that I didn’t just want to go and take pictures,” she said. “I wanted to understand, and for that I needed to volunteer.”
Within ten minutes of arriving at the camp, she had been given a sleeping bag, a tent and a job. She spent the next five days working at the info point, helping the refugees who were looking to get papers that would allow them to travel through Serbia.
After a few days, she took out her camera, a polaroid. Many of the adults queuing for their papers knew these cameras from their youth and were instantly fascinated, Giovanna told me. “And the kids loved it – for them, it was like magic.”
She took polaroid portraits of families, of groups of friends and of individuals. Each time, she took two photos – she gave the first to the person in the photo, writing her own contact details on the back, and kept the second for herself. The reaction was “really amazing”, Giovanna said, smiling at the recollection. “Everybody wanted a photo!”
Over the next few months, she visited Chios, Lesvos, Athens and Idomeni. Wherever she went, the reaction of the refugees to Giovanna and her polaroid camera was the same. Realising she was no ordinary photojournalist documenting their lives for the Western media, they gathered around her, smiling and clamouring for photos.
“I had this romantic idea about giving these people an picture they could keep,” said Giovanna, becoming ever more animated as she tried to explain her motivation. “We all like photo albums, don’t we? I wanted to give these people a photo that could help them to tell this part of their story.”
She has always been interested in refugees. In 2008, she visited Riace, a medieval village on the instep of Italy’s boot known as a haven for people fleeing conflict and persecution. In the late 1990s, Riace was a ghost town, many of its houses derelict or abandoned. The mayor Domenico Lucano began offering these empty homes to migrants and refugees, who now make up a quarter of the town’s population.
“The reality wasn’t quite as wonderful as media reports suggested,” Giovanna said. Always eager to experience a situation for herself, rather than accept second-hand narratives, Giovanna approached her current project with the same combination of cynicism and openness.
“I came to photography late,” she explained, “and the journey to where I am now was a painful one. It’s still not easy. I have to be really passionate about my subject – it has to get into my heart. Otherwise I take shit pictures.”
She is certainly passionate about the refugees she met in Riace and in Greece. Flicking through her stack of polaroids, her eyes lit up with almost every photo as she recalled the people in it and their stories.
Several have kept in touch. There’s Nadima and her six children who were staying in Idomeni. Despite the lack of a shared language, Nadima and Giovanna became friends and have kept in touch via WhatsApp. After a worrying period of silence, Giovanna heard that Nadima had arrived in Germany with her children and been reunited with her husband.
She was equally relieved to hear that Mahbub Pardis, a young Afghani man whom she met in Athens, had reached Switzerland and was studying German. He even travelled to Lugano in September to see Giovanna and her exhibition there, testament to the impression she has left on these people’s lives.
On Sunday 11th December, Giovanna is displaying some of her polaroid images at a private exhibition space in Archway, London. She also currently has an exhibition in Paris at La Commune, 3 Rue d’Aligre, and is exhibiting her work at a one day event in the city on 18th December. To raise money for Action from Switzerland, a charity that delivers aid to vulnerable refugees across Europe, she is selling embroidered versions of four of the images.
“This project is all about giving,” she said. “First I gave to the refugees. Now I want to give something to people here, to show them a different side to this crisis.”
Visit Giovanna’s Facebook page to find out more about her exhibitions and how to buy the embroidered cards.