Interview 2023 > César Dezfuli

European Region Open Format Award

César Dezfuli from Madrid is the winner of the World Press Photo in the Open Format category of the Europe region, in the 2023 edition of the most prestigious photography contest in the world and on November 9 he will inaugurate the World Press Photo 2023 exhibition in Barcelona.

Dezfuli has won the award with his multimedia project “Passengers”, carried out together with the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, where he recovers names, faces and personal stories of migrants who crossed the Mediterranean Sea.

The World Press Photo jury declared that they were “impressed by the phenomenal web presentation and strong photography, spanning from the arrival of the men in Italy to their settlement in different countries”. The ruling also pointed that the project “could have stopped at their powerful portraits, but instead, the photographer followed the participants across borders to recount their migration journey in a dignified and thoughtful way. He made excellent decisions about which parts of the story to follow in order to bring humanity to a number of people who are often discriminated against across Europe and in the mainstream media.”

He has been working in this project for seven years and the Photographic Foundation, organizer of the World Press Photo exhibition in Barcelona, ​​already had the pleasure of presenting it in a previous version within our DOCfield 2017 festival and that, in addition, He was a finalist in the first edition of our Beca Joana Biarnés, a Scholarship for Young Photojournalists.

The journalist and documentary photographer César Dezfuli was born in Madrid in 1991, in a context of miscegenation, given his Spanish-Iranian origin. In his work, he often explores themes related to migration, identity and human rights.

In this interview, he explains the origin and evolution of his award-winning project and what has happened to the migrants portrayed.

By Teresa Martelo and Carlos G. Vela

How did this project start?

In 2016 I had the opportunity to board the rescue ship Iuventa, from the German NGO Juggend Rettet, and it was on board that ship that I made the series of portraits that started the project.

Before embarking, it was clear to me that my objective was to tell what was happening on the Central Mediterranean Sea migratory route in a way that would dignify the visual representation of migrants and facilitate empathy in the society that received them.

It was during those three weeks on the ship, in which almost two thousand people were rescued, that I made the decision to focus on the passengers of a single vessel.

Every day the NGO had to inform the Italian authorities of the number of people rescued. These people became numbers without identity, under the umbrella of the migrant concept, which practically denies their uniqueness and their personal stories and simplifies the migration narrative. Moving away from mass photographs and focusing on the identity of the 118 passengers in that rubber boat rescued adrift on August 1, 2016, allowed me to start changing the narrative and talking about individual stories.

The fact that it was that day and that ship has to do with the fact that the rescue took place in safe and stable conditions that allowed me to carry it out. I started taking the portraits minutes after all the people were already on board the rescue boat, stabilized and having received the necessary assistance. Two people who were traveling in the boat helped me translate and I explained to everyone who I was and what my intentions were with these photos. I asked them to write their name, age and their country on a piece of paper before portraying them on the deck of the boat, with the sea in the background.

At that time I thought about the possibility of locating some of the passengers later and doing a follow-up, but as something specific, I never imagined that I would reach as many people as I have been able to locate so far, nor that I would embark on a project of these dimensions. Throughout these almost seven years of work, I have managed to locate 105 of the 118 passengers on the ship and have already reunited with 75 of them, who now live in different European countries.

How did you locate them?

Before locating any of the passengers on that ship, I met Malick, a young Gambian man who was traveling on another ship and now lives in Biella, Italy. I traveled there to visit him and there I devised another project that I called “From Banjul to Biella”, documenting in several trips over two years the daily life inside the refugee center in Italy where he lived. Italy in particular, but all of Europe, was immersed in a tense discourse on the reception of migrants, which required shedding light on the reception processes. There I understood the importance of continuing the narrative, since migratory routes do not end at sea.

In this process, at the end of 2017, I located the first of the ‘passengers’, Amadou Soumaila, from Mali. I found it through Facebook, since I had the full names of all of them, and I periodically searched the social network hoping for finding someone. At that time I lived in a town in Sicily (Italy). I traveled to see him at the refugee center where he lived and there I met Babacar, from Senegal, another of the passengers, who also lived in that refugee center. At that moment I realized that the possibility of finding the rest of the passengers was real and I started the second part of the project. Through them I was gradually rebuilding the net and locating the other passengers.

In this work process, the support I have been receiving has been fundamental, especially from the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, with whom I worked between 2019 and 2022 on this part of the project that is now awarded with the World Press Photo, but also from the French newspaper Le Monde, which financed a part of the project between 2018 and 2019, and the American Catchlight grant in 2020.

Image of the multimedia project “Passengers”, by César Dezfuli for De Volkskrant.

In general, how was the reception and subsequent experience in Europe of the people portrayed in the project?

Talking about it in general would go against the concept of the project. What is interesting about the approach of the project is that it follows the lives of 118 people who arrived in Europe on the same day and at the same time, but whose lives have gone in very different directions. Through the project I am trying to decipher which variables make one person more integrated than another, if it is a consequence of the diversity of reception systems in Europe, of the specific characteristics of the host society, or if it has to do with personal issues of each individual. I think it’s a combination of all of them, but I still don’t have a clear answer. What is certain is that today there are some of the passengers on the boat who continue to spend seasons living on the street, while there are people who perform highly-skilled jobs, there are people who have already formed families, and others who have been involved in activism and social awareness, creating their own organizations. Each story is unique.

I would like to highlight Saifoulaye Sow, a Guinean currently living in Paris. After disembarking in Italy, he quickly moved to France, where he arrived as a minor, a matter that did not free him from spending some time living on the streets before entering the reception system. A civil society organization, Paris d’Exil, helped him get ahead. Now he is fully integrated into society, and has created an association, Ecole pour Tous, which fights for the right of underage migrants to access the education system in France, and which has even obtained meetings with the Ministry of Education. He has also founded an NGO in Guinea that rescues orphan children from the streets, as Sow is an orphan himself and deeply understands what this has meant to his life. His story and his strength are very inspiring.

The project has been awarded in its current multimedia format. What advantages does this format bring to the project and what qualities of the still photography do you think it maintains?

The way in which contemporary societies relate to information, visual or non-visual, is very different from the way they did just ten years ago. Adapting as photographers to this process of change is essential if we want the messages we seek to convey to reach the greatest number of people. Therefore, it is important to explore these new formats, which, although they are based on still photography, introduce new narrative tools that improve the project and help to address issues that are unattainable from still photography.

I believe that still photography continues to offer a physical link with reality that allows us to connect the public with specific spaces-time, and that it continues to have enormous potential in terms of transmitting sensations and ideas. It is evident that the concepts of objectivity and truth are obsolete, and it would be a long debate, but I do believe that still photography maintains qualities that bring it closer to reality than other types of visual languages ​​or narrative tools, which make them still very close to the public today.

I must point out that the De Volkskrant design team did a fantastic job developing this website, and they managed to bring together and shape key issues from different formats to better understand the project. Interactive maps, videos, text and still photography are included, all encompassed in a careful use of fonts, colors and compositions that give body to the content, generating great dynamism and coherence between all those elements, on which I consider that it stands out in any case still photography.

How do you think the international visibility of being part of the World Press Photo 2023 exhibition can affect the protagonists of your photos?

When I located and meet the boat passengers again, I make sure they understand my work process and my objectives with the project, so they can decide if they want to continue being a part of it or not, and if so, in what way. In this process, in which I know their history and their degree of vulnerability better, we define the information that I can use about their lives and my access at a photographic level, so that their physical and legal security is not affected. Therefore, in that sense, I don’t think there will be any problem because of the increased visibility of their identity.

There are some of the people who are part of the project who have very interesting personal projects and for whom greater visibility would undoubtedly be positive, so I think I can contribute to their visibility.

At the same time, there are people who are still in a very vulnerable situation, and who knows if perhaps this could serve to create synergies with people or organizations that potentially want to get involved in helping them.

And what repercussion can the fact of having won a World Press Photo give your work?

The World Press Photo is one of the most internationally recognized awards, which is likely to imply a greater knowledge of my photographic career and new opportunities in terms of dissemination of this specific project and of other projects I am working too.

As far as Passengers is concerned, the fact that there are going to be more than a hundred exhibitions around the world will mean enormous visibility for the project that I trust will foster new opportunities for collaborations and dissemination. This project has branched out in multiple directions over the last few years as far as dissemination is concerned, and it is increasingly clear to me that I want to continue exploring the pedagogical and awareness-raising part that the project implies. Among other issues, I seek to contribute to the debate on the questioning of the visual representation of vulnerable and systematically stereotyped groups, as in this case the migrant group.

On the other hand, I am currently laying the foundations for a documentary on the project, which will focus on the lives of five or six of the passengers, and I am confident that this recognition will facilitate the obtaining of support, which will be necessary to move it forward.

The World Press Photo 2023 exhibition in Barcelona will be held from November 9 to December 17. Tickets will be on sale next October.

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