In the early fall of 1922, the third year of the Greco-Turkish War, the Turkish Army entered the city of Smyrna, on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, after routing the Greek Army. A day later, much of the city was burned to the ground, and the Turks began massacring ethnic Greeks and Armenians. Hundreds of thousands fled, desperately trying to secure seats in small, overcrowded boats that sputtered away from the Turkish mainland. Many sailed to the northwest, to the Greek island of Lesvos. The young nation was changed forever by the arrival of these prosfyges, as they were known; Greece’s music, cooking, and urban landscapes would never be the same.
In 2015, the straits between Turkey and Lesvos are again traversed by refugees—this time from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia. They number half a million so far this year. The summer brought increasingly helpless scenes as the island filled with refugees, and the local government, already straining under the pressure of Greece’s debt crisis, was unable to help them. Alex Majoli’s stark black-and-white photographs show the refugees’ continuing struggle to register with the authorities when they arrive on the island’s rocky northern beaches. Majoli, a longtime member of Magnum Photos, was on Lesvos two weeks ago. He told me that many journalists had left the island, but the number of refugee boats arriving tripled in the days he was there. On Wednesday, the International Rescue Committee noted, sixteen thousand refugees were stuck on Lesvos, unable to move on.
Majoli’s photographs are shot digitally, with a strong flash, to create “theatre out of reality,” as he puts it. Drawing influence from the Italian absurdist Luigi Pirandello, Majoli uses his lens to capture the increasingly surreal geopolitical landscape of Europe today. Scenes of children being carried from a flimsy dinghy through the spray of the Aegean and onto the island take on the moral weight of a carefully constructed tale. An improvised cardboard sunshade, held above the head of an Afghan man who is stuck in a two-day-long line for his transit visa, evokes the masks of ancient Greek tragedy.
Greeks today still talk of the sailors on French, British, and U.S. warships who sat in the harbor watching refugees as they died on the quai at Smyrna. Majoli, who is Italian, criticizes Western Europeans for similar paralysis. “To be an individual, you need boundaries,” he said. “If you open the boundary, you lose your identity, maybe in a good way, but it changes what it means to be German, what it means to be Greek.” Just as the 1922 catastrophe transformed Greece, the 2015 influx is acting as a “detonator for a greater crisis in Europe,” where questions of identity become more fluid daily. Majoli describes the turmoil using an Italian adage that echoes an English one about chickens coming home to roost: Tutti i nodi vengono al pettine—“The knots are becoming caught in the comb.”
The New Yorker