César Dezfuli on his Taylor Wessing-winning portrait of Amadou

Images of rescued refugees, submerged boats and trafficking victims have become commonplace as thousands continue to flee from protracted conflicts and dictatorships in both Africa and the Middle East. In 2016 over 5000 migrants died or have been declared missing on the Mediterranean Sea crossing, making it the deadliest year for refugees on record. With the scale of the tragedy so overwhelming, one photographer set about bringing a personal element back to the statistics.
A runner up in this year’s Breakthrough Awards in the graduate single image category, César Dezfuli took hundreds of portraits of rescued migrants, minutes after they were pulled from the sea, creating a series that he named Passenger. “Behind all these numbers are names, human beings, single stories,” he says. “What I could at least do was to photograph people inside of one boat, as a way to allow the public to connect with this subject in a more emotional way and, perhaps, to let them empathise more with this reality.”
Previously working on migration along the Balkan route into Germany, Dezfuli says the sea crossing was very different, involving a whole new level of danger. While shooting the portraits he found himself learning more about the difficulties his subjects had faced, and which pushed them to embark on “that most risky journey”.
For Dezfuli, the photograph of Amadou captures the emotions of so many in a single shot. “This image documents a transcendental fact in the life of the person portrayed: Amadou had just been rescued from the sea by a European vessel,” says Dezfuli. “Apparently his dream is fulfilled. However, fear, mistrust and uncertainty are present, as well as determination and strength. The way his look and attitude are captured allows you to understand his feelings at that key moment.”
Dezfuli worked on board an NGO rescue ship, the Iuventa, for three weeks, taking pictures. The vessel has been integral in rescuing refugees to the north of Libya in recent months, but has become embroiled in allegations that volunteers were in contact with the smugglers. For Dezfuli, the important thing to remember is the people behind the pictures.
“Documenting it can serve to bring this migration reality closer to those who only observe it from a distance,” he says. “My main purpose is to put face and name to a reality that usually is approached in a very general and impersonal way. But of course migration, conflict or human rights are topics which are intrinsic here.”
César Dezfuli is a Spanish/Iranian photographer currently based in Madrid. www.cesardezfuli.com The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 is on show at the National Portrait Gallery until 08 February https://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/twppp-2017/exhibition/