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Portrait of a sub-Saharan migrant on Mount Gurugu, Nador, Morocco in 2012, where hundreds of African immigrants living in precarious conditions waited for the opportunity to cross the fence into Melilla, Spain. The enclave's border had heavy security, including a six-meter tall double fence with watchtowers.
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Portrait of a sub-Saharan migrant on Mount Gurugu, Nador, Morocco in 2012, where hundreds of African immigrants waited for the opportunity to cross the fence into Melilla, Spain. The enclave's border has heavy security, including a 19-foot-tall double fence with watchtowers.Alessandro Penso
Portrait of a sub-Saharan migrant on Mount Gurugu, Nador, Morocco in 2012, where hundreds of African immigrants living in precarious conditions waited for the opportunity to cross the fence into Melilla, Spain. The enclave's border had heavy security, including a six-meter tall double fence with watchtowers.
The border fence that divides the Moroccan city of Nador from the Spanish enclave of Melilla, in Northern Africa, 2012. The security fence which runs the full length of the border has heavy security, including a 19-foot-tall double fence with watchtowers, and is as a popular crossing for sub-Saharan migrants hoping to illegally reach Spain.
African migrants are rescued from their dinghy by MSF. The ship Bourbon Argos was patrolling the waters off Libya when it encountered a dinghy carrying 93 migrants of different nationalities, including 31 women.
A migrant aboard the Msf ship the Bourbon  Argos, looks toward the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he will be transferred.
A Syrian father carrying his two children arrives on the Greek island of Lesbos, Greece, Aug. 12, 2015.
A Syrian man is helped after collapsing on the beach in Lesbos, Greece. The boat he was on began to leak off the coast forcing him to swim to shore. His condition was critical, but later a local doctor managed to assist, saving his life, Aug. 5, 2015.
The husband (right) and relative of a 65-year old Iraqi refugee woman grieved as her body is covered with a towel on the Greek island of Lesbos, Greece, Oct. 16, 2015. A man who made the journey with them and a volunteer stood nearby. The woman reportedly drowned after smugglers violently forced the family to leave the Turkish coast in an inflatable boat, which immediately began to sink after they departed.
An extended family from the besieged city of Kobane, Syria, arrived at the Moria detention camp in Lesbos, Greece, July 30, 2015. They took shelter from the hot sun before embarking on a 4-mile walk to the port.
Two tourists photographed a Syrian family who arrived at Eftalou, on the northern coast of the Greek island of Lesbos, Greece, Aug. 12, 2015.
Syrian refugees awaited their temporary permits to stay in Greece. The 1-month temporary permits enable people to travel freely in Greece. Upon receiving the permit, migrants moved to Athens and then onwards to other European countries in search of a better life, July 30, 2015.
A garbage dump near the town of Molyvos on the Greek island of Lesbos, where thousands of life jackets used by migrants crossing to Greece from Turkey have been discarded, Oct. 3, 2015.
The interior of a tent set up for refugees in the courtyard of an abandoned hotel on the Greek island of Kos, June 8, 2015. Doctors Without Borders' staff worked inside the hotel to improve conditions and provide medical and psychological assistance for the arriving migrants.
An Afghan couple, 22-year-old Noor Jan and his wife, 19-year-old Parisa, who is seven months pregnant, at the Moria registration center on the Greek island of Lesbos, where migrants and refugees wait for their papers for several days. Oct. 20, 2015.
Refugees and migrants walk along a muddy path lined with debris as they wait to be registered at the Moria registration center on the Greek island of Lesbos, Oct. 24, 2015.
An Afghan refugee covered in a garbage bag at the Moria registration camp while he is waiting for his documents, Oct. 14, 2015.
An Afghan family wait to be registered at the Moria camp in Lesbos, Greece, during a rainstorm, Oct. 29, 2015.
A group of Syrian migrants spend the night on the north of the Greek island of Lesbos, near the beach of Eftalou, where they landed just a few hours earlier, Oct. 16, 2015.
Tahgi, 26, from Kabul, Afghanistan, with his wife and 1-year-old daughter walk during the night along the road that leads to the port of Mytilene, Lesbos, Greece, Aug. 14, 2015.
17-year-old Ali from Algeria dwelt at the old train station in Corinth, Greece, a small seaside town on the Peloponnese coast. A group of North Africans set up camp at the old station, where they lived without running water or electricity. At night, they often tried to board boats going to Italy, Feb. 2, 2012.
Syrian refugees, 38-year-old Ama Haider tends her 22-year-old son Khalid Hamed, who is handicapped. The family, including Haide's husband and two other children, made the arduous and risky journey from Turkey to Kos, Greece, by paying smugglers 10,000 euro, July 8, 2015.
Mohamed from Morocco and his friends hid behind rocks at the port in Corinth, Greece, waiting for the right moment to illegally board a ship to Italy from Greece, 2012. Many young migrants see other European countries as their only hope of a future, and attempt to leave Greece at the first possible moment.
Migrants of different nationalities inside the Safi Barracks Detention Center in the Maltese village of Safi, off the coast of Italy, Dec. 28, 2009.
A police officer at the Safi Barracks Detention Centerin the Maltese village of Safi, 2009.
At the Bulgarian-Turkish border, a group of four Syrians are found inside a Turkish goods truck during border controls, 2014. Trucks are one of the most frequently used means of entering the European Union illegally.
Mostafa El Mouzdahir, a 20-year-old from Morocco, was intentionally hit by a car and sustained multiple injuries, Corinth, Greece, 2012. Migrants are often the victims of vigilante violence by locals.
A group of young Afghans celebrating Ashura, a Muslim religious holiday. Some Shi'a Muslims beat and flog themselves to remember the martyrdom of Hussein, grandson of the Prophet. Patras, Greece, Nov. 16, 2013.
Portrait of a young Afghan in an abandoned house in Patras, Greece, 2014.
Omar from Sudan praying inside an abandoned Columbia records factory, where he lived with 50 other migrants of different nationalities. Athens, Greece, 2012.
Portrait of a 16-year-old boy from Afghanistan, who received refugee status in Patras, Greece, 2012.
Afghan boys throw stones into the sea. At night, they will try to sneak into the port hoping to illegally board a ship bound for Italy, 2012.
A group of Afghan boys, aged 14 to 18 years, trying to illegally board trucks which will be loaded onto cargo ships going to Italy from Patras, Greece, 2012. These young people make this desperate attempt every day. Only a small percentage manage to succeed, and over the years, many have lost their lives or have been stopped by the police. Numerous cargo ships bound for Italy leave from the port of Patras, Greece everyday.
21-year-old Mohamed downloads a GPS map in order to cross the Greek-Macedonian (FYROM) border without the help of a smuggler. Idomeni, Greece, Feb. 2015.
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants at the train station at the Croatian town of Tovarnik, near the border with Serbia, Sept. 18, 2015. After Hungary closed its border with Serbia on Sept. 15, 2015, the flow of refugees attempting to reach further north in Europe shifted to Croatia.
An exhausted Syrian woman carrying her child leans against the barrier separating Serbia and Hungary. On Sept. 15, 2015, Hungary completed construction of its border fence with Serbia, aimed at stopping the flow of refugees and migrants crossing the border.
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants attempt to board a train at the Croatian town of Tovarnik, near the border with Serbia. Some have been waiting for days to catch a train and families have been separated in the chaos. Tovarnik, Croatia, Sept. 20, 2015.
Refugees, asylum seekers and migrants attempt to board a train at the Croatian town of Tovarnik, near the border with Serbia. Some have been waiting for days to catch a train and families have been separated in the chaos. Tovarnik, Croatia, Sept. 20, 2015.
A group of more than a hundred of Syrian refugees sets off to cross the Greek border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), with the hope of being able to apply for refugee status in countries such as Germany or Sweden. Migrants travel in large groups so they can defend themselves from the threat by human traffickers who prey upon migrants. Idomeni, Greece. June, 6, 2015.
One of the buildings housing refugee families at the Harmanli refugee camp, an old military base which was converted into a refugee camp during the first massive influx of asylum seekers in 2013. Harmanli, Bulgaria. Sept. 19, 2014.
A camp for Syrian refugees in Harmanli, Bulgaria near the Turkish border, where approximately 1,000 asylum-seekers were housed on a former military base in tents, containers and a dilapidated building. The tents were not heated and the occupants slept either on thin mattresses or on old foldable beds, with four toilets serving the whole camp. Harmanli, Bulgaria, Nov. 19, 2013.
A young girl from Syria inside the Harmanli camp, the biggest refugee camp in Bulgaria, Sept. 19, 2013.
A 17-year-old Palestinian from Aleppo, Syria, wrapped himself in a Palestinian flag, in the Harmanli refugee camp. Bulgaria, May 14, 2014.
Nezarisa Sakhi, a 31-year-old Iraqi, who claimed he worked for the U.S. Army in Iraq, fled to Europe after being threatened. In Bulgaria, he was attacked by local vigilantes. He has resided at the Banya refugee center in Bulgaria, May 16, 2014.
A settlement for refugees called the “Jungle,” in Calais, France, 2014. Migrants of different nationalities arrived in Calais, a port city in the northern France, in the hopes of traveling to the United Kingdom. Calais, France, 2014.
Ahmed from Ethiopia and his girlfriend “Eva” from Eritrea, who met during the journey to France and were expecting a child, resting in their tent in the “Jungle,“ a camp for refugees in Calais, France, 2014. “We met during the journey and we haven’t parted since,” said Ahmed, who hoped their child would be born in England.
Three Eritrean adolescents inside the CPSA (Centro di primo soccorso ed accoglienza – First rRception Center) in Pozzallo, Italy, look at a map. Most of the young people here already have their final destination in mind, which in most cases is Norway, Germany or England. Doctors Without Borders operates inside the CPSA in Pozzallo, responding to the medical and humanitarian needs of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Pozzallo, Sicily, 2015.
Ayoub, 18, from Afghanistan at the FYROM border in Idomeni, Greece, June 5, 2015. Ayoub's family was killed when he was very young. He fled to Iran and claims to have walked thousands of kilometers to Europe with a sleeping bag and a few belongings.
A boy from Syria in Tovarnik, Croatia, near the border with Syria, Sept. 2015.
A Syrian boy at the border between Serbia and Hungary waits for his family before continuing his journey.
The border fence between Bulgaria and Turkey is approximately 18 miles long and 11 feet high. According to the Bulgarian government, there are plans to extend the wall for a further 80 miles, across an area where border controls are difficult, at a cost of approximately 20 million euros, Sept. 19, 2014.
Refugees from Syria cross the Serbian border into Croatia. Hungary closed its border with Serbia on Sept. 15, 2015, pushing refugees hoping to reach Europe to Croatia. Sept. 2015.
Portrait of a sub-Saharan migrant on Mount Gurugu, Nador, Morocco in 2012, where hundreds of African immigrants waited
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Alessandro Penso
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Alessandro Penso is TIME's Pick for Photo Story of the Year

Dec 15, 2015

The massive humanitarian migrant and refugee crisis that has jolted the Mediterranean region for several years now, reaching an unparalleled peak in past months, has prompted professional and amateur photographers alike to document the plight of migrants, with important repercussions on both European politics and public opinion.

A report published in December by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates over more than 900,000 people arrived by sea in 2015 as of late November – the majority of which reaching the peninsulas of Greece and Italy. Migrants of various national origins, including Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, and Sudan, constitute the larger exodus that Europe has witnessed since World War II.

Images of migrants and refugees climbing ashore in Lesbos, crammed together on arduous routes in Idomeni, Greece, or along train tracks in Tovarnik, have been seen by the vast public through the pages and websites of international publications and wire agencies. Without doubt, this was the most important story of the year, and when it came to select one photographer who have documented it outstandingly, one name rose above the fray: Alessandro Penso.

Penso wasn’t alone in documenting this situation. As he mentioned in an interview upon returning from his first trip aboard Doctors Without Borders’ rescues boat, the migrant crisis might easily be the most documented event ever: “I would be curious to see some data, but I believe that this is the event that has produced the highest number of photographs,” he says, considering that professional photographers were not the only one taking pictures; refugees themselves were also photographing their journey.

Yet, Penso’s remarkable coverage stands out because of its extent and depth. Penso stood on the shores of Kos and Lesbos, as migrants crossed the Aegean Sea in desperate conditions; he waited with them at a station in Corinth as they attempted illegally to board boats to Italy. He chronicled the dire journeys of refugees in Idomeni, and the hysterical situation in Tovarnik, Croatia, as migrants clogged train cars to reach Germany, Austria and Sweden. In Bulgaria, he entered refugee camps in the border towns of Harmanli and Banya, documenting the condition in which they lives without basic health services. He covered the crisis in Nador, Marocco, and Melilla, Spain, where migrants’ despair is met by wired fences. In Calais, he saw migrants sheltered in makeshift camps attempting to board trucks to reach England.

A boat carrying Syrians and people of other nationalities is dragged ashore by two local farmers. The boat had started to leak, forcing a small group of people to swim to the beach in Lesbos, Greece, Aug. 5, 2015.A boat carrying migrants is helped by locals on the Greek island of Lesbos. The boat started to leak, forcing the passengers to swim ashore, Aug. 5, 2015.  Alessandro Penso 

The extensiveness of Penso’s coverage, however, is not just geographic. Going beyond the striking events and the overwhelming numbers, he pursues quiet, subtle moments of stillness and solitude that offer a deeper level of comprehension. In Penso’s photographs, we feel their exhaustion and despair. We get the broader context we need to understand this story.

Penso began his career in photography relatively late. He studied clinical psychology at Rome's La Sapienza University — a field that fostered the gentle sensibility that he embraces when approaching and photographing civilians — then turned to photography at 27, nearly 10 years ago. In 2007, he received a scholarship to study photojournalism at the School of Photography and Cinema in Rome, initiating his formal training in the field.

His talent was soon recognized with a number of international awards and grants. The Project Launch Award in Santa Fe, Burn Emerging Photographer Fund, the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund, to name a few, encouraged his path while providing financial funding. The World Press Photo awarded him first prize singles in the 2014 General News category, further cementing his international career.

Penso started working on Europe's migration issue in 2010, focusing his effort on a different country each year. “I am intrigued by migration in its multiple nuances and points of views, in what is behind that word that ultimately encloses so many different realities,” he explains. What he tries to do is to go beyond the actual events to offer an analysis of what they mean and how they affect the people he's documenting as well as the wider community.

Penso has purposely focused his lens within Europe’s borders, a choice that often becomes a vocal criticism of the politics, or the “anti-politics” as he dubs them, introduced by European governments to address the crisis. Not only has the European Union showed an appalling lack of foresight, in his opinion, but it has also sacrificed its true nature by compromising the principles of unity and brotherhood that had long been vaunted as its bedrock. The concrete wall Hungary erected clearly speaks to such a degeneration, Penso admonishes. “I have always focused on what happens on our territory, meaning the people who arrive [in Europe], how they live, how they integrate here, what are the consequences of the laws we make,” he says.

A police officer screams at a man as he attempts to board a train in Tovarnik, Croatia, Sept. 20, 2015.A police officer screamed at a migrant as he attempted to board a train in Tovarnik, Croatia, Sept. 20, 2015.  Alessandro Penso 

His interest in migrations stems from factors that are both private and endemic to his country. His grandfather came to Italy from Corfu in Greece. “It always struck me how he had the possibility to start again and build what is also part of my life today,” he says. Entwined with his personal tale, Penso’s experience was boosted by an event broadly aired on Italian TV channels. In the summer of 1991, thousands of Albanians escaping the communist regime commandeered a sugar cargo ship to take them to Bari, an Italian port city on the Adriatic Sea. Penso remembers the despair he could see on these people's face.

The images he saw on television then continue to inform Penso’s approach now. In his work, he tries to restore humanity to the people he's photographing, he says, while creating images that, to some extent, the public is not accustomed to seeing. “It is my habit to go to people and introduce myself, feel the warmth of a handshake, exchange a smile and talk calmly,” he says. Most importantly, Penso needs to understand – and not just see – the pain and struggle of these people. “It might sounds commonplace, but in such desperate situations, people recognizes that and they need to feel the warmth.”

As his photographs potently unveil the piercing reality beyond the breaking news and wire coverage, his work also intends to shake public opinion and target politicians with bitter, at times provocative questions: “What do we expect from these people that [arrive and] live in these harsh conditions? If a 15-year-old boy risks his life to cross [the sea], to move from Greece to Italy in a truck, at the mercy of the smugglers, who spends the most important years of his life trying to reach the so-called El Dorado — what do we expect tomorrow from these people?” And for Penso, photographers and journalists have a role to play.

“Can we really leave out the background of these people – as we photographers have done for years – thinking that Europe has no responsibility in this situation? Is it really enough to just show a person that attempts a desperate journey in the desert to reach Italy, and then we are done with the story that we want to document?”

Penso, with his deeply personal and extensive work, is leading the way, and for that reason, his images are TIME's Pick for Story of the Year.

Alessandro Penso is a freelance photographer based in Italy. Deeply committed to social issues, his work focuses on the immigration crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, and has been published in numerous international publications.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.

Lucia De Stefani is a writer and contributor at TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Follow TIME LightBox on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

2012.Corinth. Greece. 17-year old Ali from Algeria lives in the old train station of Corinth. In Corinth, a small sea town on the Peloponnese, the boarding of boats directly is attempted by group of North Africans who have established themselves in an old train station.
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17-year old Ali from Algeria lives in the old train station of Corinth, Greece. He hopes to be able to board a boat to Western Europe.Alessandro Penso
2012.Corinth. Greece. 17-year old Ali from Algeria lives in the old train station of Corinth. In Corinth, a small sea town on the Peloponnese, the boarding of boats directly is attempted by group of North Africans who have established themselves in an old train station.
2012. Greece. Orestiada. A group of migrants spends the night in the railway station of Orestiada after crossing the border with Turkey. In 2011/2012, around 80% of migration towards Europe crossed through Greek territory.
2012. Patrass. Greece. A group of Afghans in abandoned factory in Patras. Patras is one of the main escape points from Greece, due to the numerous cargo ships that dock in the port and are bound for Italy. It is therefore one of the points where it is possible to attempt to escape from Greece.
2013. Patras. Greece. Three young Afghans spend the night in an abandoned place near the beach of Patras. Patras is one of the main escape points from Greece, due to the numerous cargo ships that dock in the port and are bound for Italy. It is therefore one of the pointswhere it is possible to attempt to escape from Greece.
2011. Athens. Greece. Mohammed from Algeria lives inside the old Columbia records factory. Columbia was once a leader in the music industry but today the factory has been completely abandoned and kids of various nationalities now take refuge there.
2012. Patras. Greece. Young Afghans cooking in an abandoned factory in Patras. Patras is one of the main escape points from Greece, due to the numerous cargo ships that dock in the port and are bound for Italy. It is therefore one of the points where it is possible to attempt to escape from Greece.
2012. Patras. Greece. View from the factory where illegal immigrants live, near the port of Patras. Patras is one of the main escape points from Greece, due to the numerous cargo ships that dock in the port and are bound for Italy. It is therefore one of the points where it is possible to attempt to escape from Greece.
2012. Patras. Greece. A group of adolescents trying to illegally board trucks going to Italy.A group of Afghan boys aged 14 to 18 years, on a traffic island. Every day, these kids try to illegally board trucks going towards Italy. One of the most common ways of illegally leaving Greece which is attempted is the illegal boarding of goods trucks which will subsequently be loaded onto cargo ships for Italy. Over the years, many young people have lost their lives attempting this, while others have been stopped by the police. Only a very small percentage manages to succeed in this desperate attempt. Patras is one of the main escape points from Greece, due to the numerous cargo ships that dock in the port and are bound for Italy. It is therefore one of the points where it is possible to attempt to escape from Greece.
2012. Corinth. Greece. Mohammed, Ahmed and Nabi from Morocco in the wagon wherethey live in the abandoned train station of Corinth. In Corinth, a small sea town on the Peloponnese, the boarding of boats directly is attempted by group of North Africans who have established themselves in an old train station.
Corinth, Greece, February 2012 - A group of North Africans was attacked by three locals. Mostafa El Mouzdahir, a 20-year old from Morocco, was hit by a car and sustained multiple injuries. I went to see him in hospital. With him, he had a police form which asked him to leave the country within 15 days because he was there illegally.
2012. Patras. Greece. Afghan boys throwing stones into the sea. They are waiting forevening, when they will try to sneak into the port, where they hope to illegally board a ship bound for Italy. Patras is one of the main escape points from Greece, due to the numerous cargo ships that dock in the port and are bound for Italy. It is therefore one of the points where it is possible to attempt to escape from Greece.
2012. Corinth. Greece. Mohamed from Morocco and his friends hiding behind the rocks at the port during the night, waiting for the right moment to illegally board a ship to Italy. In Greece, more than 99.5% of requests for political asylum are refused, and for this reason, these young people are forced to hide from the authorities, because having a Greek police record would mean the end of the dream of safe reception in Europe.This is the story of young, unaccompanied migrants in Greece: young people who, everyday, confront the difficulties of a country tormented by the economic crisis. Greece also refuses asylum requests more than any other country in Europe, reaching a 99.5% refusalrate in 2012. Many young migrants therefore see other European countries as their only hope of a future, and attempt to leave Greece at the first possible moment, often indesperate ways, tolerating desperate conditions.
17-year old Ali from Algeria lives in the old train station of Corinth, Greece. He hopes to be able to board a boat to W
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Alessandro Penso
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