Jacob Ehrbahn spent five years traveling the roads of exile. From 2015 to 2020, the photographer followed migrants who came to Europe in search of the European dream. A combination of hope, misery and disillusion, the book A Dream of Europe is a powerful photographic and written account of that search.
In late July of this year, the ship Ocean Viking rescued more than 200 migrants from the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Libya. Each time, it's the same images. Our eyes have become accustomed to seeing those children emerging from the water, wrapped in orange life jackets that are too big for them, those makeshift boats, those bodies floating on the water or washed up on the sandy shore. In A Dream of Europe, Jacob Ehrbahn recounts these Stations of the Cross in pictures so that they will not be forgotten. The Danish photographer, twice a World Press winner and recently nominated, for the second time, photographer of the year in his native country, traveled alongside migrants on this route of hope, capturing a daily life where every hour is a question of survival. Men, women, children in a state of freefall, striving to achieve a dream. A dream of Europe. Which is sometimes nothing but a mirage.
Putting a human face on the numbers
This quest is a sacrifice. "A lot of people I've talked to have given up on having a good life for themselves. But they are prepared to go through hell and high water so that their children have one," says the photographer in his book. In the hell of the refugee camps of Lesbos, Greece, where unsanitary conditions and insecurity have plagued these families trying to escape them, Jacob Ehrbahn photographs survival, puts faces to the numbers and statistics. He puts the human back at the center of this global tragedy, showing us the dreams of faded children, like those of a young boy sitting on a makeshift swing, his eyes vacant and extinguished.
A Biblical exodus
Jacob Ehrbahn has seen the tears of joy of the refugees arriving on the shores of the Greek islands, flares in hand, flimsy lifejackets clinging to their bodies. He has also photographed hundreds of those familiar silhouettes piled up on inflatable rafts folded in half, as well as the lifeless bodies that float among lifejackets and debris from the wreckage of the boat. In the Dane's work, the lens comes in close. The scenes of life, full of movement, are sometimes composed like a painting, as with the photo of the newborn baby, carried at arm's length, like a second birth. Little three-month-old Ziad has just landed on Lesbos, after leaving Syria with his mother. The images of the exodus are almost biblical. The organisms are bruised, lacerated by months of flight to the Balkans where they had to hide in the fields and under seats on the trains, and slip through barbed wire fences. Jacob Ehrbahn followed this road of death and hope.
A dream of Europe gone up in smoke
Sometimes the lens moves away from the faces, takes a step back and paints a fresco out of the clusters of life jackets, which have grown into new orange hills. Tents piled up under bridges, on the Parisian banks. Shelters made of cardboard. The threat of COVID. Rows of law enforcement personnel, clashes, stones being thrown at shields and batons. Faces of despondency, of despair. The suffering can be seen in the eyes. In those of the young girl wrapped in a survival blanket. The distant gaze, in that silver dress, the serious, tired eyes. In these contact sheets of human suffering, Jacob Ehrbahn also captures relief efforts made by NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), as well as the help provided by more anonymous volunteers and locals. But the book ends with the fire in the Greek camp of Moria in September 2020, where 12,000 refugees were living in terrible conditions. Like a European dream gone up in smoke, like a destroyed life that must be rebuilt again, ever again, on the roads.
By Michaël Naulin
Michaël Naulin is a journalist. Having worked in regional and national newspapers, he is above all passionate about photography and more particularly reporting.
A Dream of Europe, Dewi Lewis Publishing, 296 pages, 164 color images and 4 B&W images, 295mm x 295mm, 47,95 €.
Read more: Jean-Michel André: The Migrants' Journey