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.
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.
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.