It was discarded by the side of the road in Austria – a poultry lorry seeping human decay. When the authorities entered in August 2015, they found 71 bodies collapsed in a heap of necrosis, among them children, one a baby. All had died of asphyxiation.
Beyond the horror, the discovery pointed to a complex global network of traffickers and asylum seekers. Some of the dead were confirmed as Syrian; others were harder to identify. The owner of the lorry, which had set off from Budapest, was a Bulgarian of Lebanese origin. Shortly after, the Hungarian police detained three East Europeans and an Afghan, all likely “low-ranking members of a Bulgarian- Hungarian human-trafficking gang”.
A week later, a photo of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a beach near Bodrum, went viral, putting an innocent human face on the migration crisis in Europe, which by now had become a deeply divisive political issue. The lorry in Austria was different. The victims remained invisible. The descriptions of the discovery forced you to make your own pictures, imagining the gruesome scenario further up the migrant route into Central Europe.
“Nobody wants to leave their homeland,” reflects Seba Kurtis of the current refugee crisis along the Mediterranean coastlines, arguably the biggest humanitarian crisis in a century. “Sometimes you just have no options.”
The Manchester-based photographer is in the unique position of being able to convey the migrant narrative from both perspectives – having left his native Argentina on a tourist visa shortly after the nation’s financial collapse in 2001, he made his way to Tenerife, where he found illegal work on construction sites. “You’re treated like a second-class citizen because you don’t have ‘the right’ to be there,” he says.
Unprecedented numbers of asylum seekers are currently on the move, hoping to arrive in an obliging nation that may, with any luck, grant them refuge. “But people trafficking into Europe is nothing new – it’s been happening for years,” points out Kurtis, reflecting on what is known as the ‘Dover Incident’, when in June 2000, 58 Chinese migrants were found dead in a Dutch lorry that had smuggled them from Zeebrugge into Kent.
Often drawing on his own experiences and encounters, Kurtis has dedicated much of his work as a photographer to the issue of migration, observing that the only thing that’s changed is the nationality of the refugees. “Ten years ago they were mostly from Senegal and Africa, then Afghanistan and now Syria,” he says.
“A decade ago, nobody was talking about how many dead bodies were floating in the Mediterranean. I was so shocked to hear African migrants’ [who he was working alongside in Tenerife] stories of family and friends who had died making their way to Morocco, paying thousands to traffickers and then drowning on their way to the Canaries.”
It’s what inspired his series Drowned, completed in 2008, for which he photographed the fenced-off coastline that greets survivors, throwing boxes of negatives into the ocean, then retrieving the bleached and battered images that floated back to shore and pairing them with family snaps that had survived a catastrophic flood back home in Argentina.
“I felt a strong impulse to ‘drown’ my boxes of film in the sea because at the time nobody was talking about the many thousands of illegal migrants from Africa who had died crossing the water,” he says.
One of the things that most surprised him was realising just how many people and organisations were making money off them. “The construction companies in Tenerife made all their money by hiring migrants,” he says. “Everyone knew about it – even the police were in on it.
“Sometimes the workers didn’t get paid for months. There’s one guy I will never forget – he had just come from Senegal. He didn’t speak Spanish and worked super-hard. At the end of the month the boss paid all the workers with photocopies of Euro notes. It broke my heart.”
Years later, while on an artists’ residency with Pôle Image Haute-Normandie in 2013, Kurtis heard of an incident where migrants had tried to smuggle their way into Britain in the back of a lorry tanker carrying a consignment of talcum powder. He soon confirmed the story when he went online and found pictures from CCTV footage showing four Afghan stowaways attempting to evade capture in Milton Keynes after they fled in a cloud of white powder.
“The residency was in Cherbourg, near a clandestine camp. At the time, The Jungle in Calais had been burnt down, and many of the migrants scattered to little port cities. It suddenly occurred to me that talcum has more value than human life.”
And so began Talcum, a work that attempts to convey the extent to which asylum seekers are dehumanised all over again by the cat-and-mouse of surveillance, detection and confinement. “I started taking portraits of the guys at the camps in Cherbourg during my residency at Pôle,” he says.
“I looked online for talcum minerals – the actual mineral before it becomes a compound. I photographed the mineral and tried to make it look ‘precious’ by oversaturating the colours, then I printed the picture on glass.” He then sandwiched the two together so the mineral obstructs the subject’s face.
Heartbeat, on the other hand, was inspired by his own experience with the Home Office in 2012. He had been commissioned by Fotografia Europea, Reggio Emilia to make a project about the refugee crisis in Italy and was en route via his home in Manchester. “I didn’t have a visa to travel so I was detained. The Home Office invited me to leave, basically – even though my wife is British and we have three kids.”
He contacted the curators at the photofestival suggesting a project in England instead, returning to an idea he had been working on, and they agreed. “One of the ways the police in Britain detect the illegal transportation of migrants is by using heartbeat detectors in lorries,” he says.
“It’s a really small apparatus that connects to a laptop and is so powerful it can even detect the heartbeat of a mouse. The migrants try to make themselves invisible by hiding among the cargo, but the heartbeat detector knows they’re there.”
He set out to replicate the process, using it as a metaphor to make their hidden journey obscurely visible. “I photographed some of the guys being held at detention centres using a really long exposure, so the film comes back completely blank. Then in Photoshop I pushed the levels up to reveal the information in the image, in the same way that the heartbeat detector reveals the information inside the tanker.”