Visual perspectives from the World Press Photo Contest archive

(Un)Settled - Migration stories in the 21st century

From 19 February to 20 March 2022, the World Press Photo Foundation and Novi Sad European Capital of Culture present a selection of stories of migration and forced displacement from the 21st century, awarded in the World Press Photo contests from 2000 to 2021.

In 2021, there were 281 million migrants in the world. That is 128 million more than in 1990, and over three times the estimated number in 1970, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Clearly, migration and forced displacement rank high among the most significant issues facing the world today.

The UNHCR defines 'forced displacement' as people displaced ‘as a result of persecution, conflict, generalized violence or human rights violations.’ People may also be driven from their homes by natural disasters and by poverty. (Un)Settled - Migration stories in the 21st century explores the different motivations people have for embarking on often dangerous journeys to seek safety or a better life.
The photographs selected as part of the exhibition show the power of visual storytelling as a way to create mutual understanding, and to shape or change our views. We need photographers to offer us these different perspectives, and it is our responsibility to form our own.

Presented here is a selection of the stories and photographs on display at the Liberty Square in Novi Sad, Serbia, until 20 March 2022. What photographs resonate with you, and why? Share your thoughts on social media #WPPhNoviSad

Nowhere Near by Alisa Martynova

A wave on the coast of Italy, at Livorno, taken in red light. The sea features strongly in migrants’ dreams and stories. Red, a primordial color in many African traditions, represents blood and danger, but also energy. 15 May 2020. Credit: Alisa Martynova.

Photographer Alisa Martynova compares African migrants in Italy to scattered stars: a constellation of people from different countries, who have come to Italy for different personal reasons. They are celebrated for their individual stories, in a way that tries to resist stereotyping. The photographs were taken in collaboration with the subjects, who felt excited and proud. The photographer asked them about home, dreams, and childhood memories, representing their dreams through metaphors and the use of color. Most migrant crossings occur at night, which led to the metaphors of stars, rain and darkness.

Left: Steve Kevin (who prefers to use the name Clayton) dances at the seaside in Castiglioncello, Tuscany, Italy. He came to Italy from Cameroon to study, and is setting up a dance school to teach traditional African dance. 2 November 2020. Right: Dora, from Gabon, came to Italy to study design and wants to go back to Africa once she's finished with her studies, because she likes living there more than in Europe. 31 May 2020. Credit: Alisa Martinova.

Crying Girl on the Border by John Moore

Honduran toddler Yanela Sanchez cries as she and her mother, Sandra Sanchez, are taken into custody by US border officials in McAllen, Texas, United States, after rafting across the Rio Grande from Mexico, on 12 June 2018. Credit: John Moore, Getty Images.
The Trump Administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy to migration meant that migrants caught entering the US could be criminally prosecuted. As a result, many apprehended parents were separated from their children, often sent to different detention facilities. The meaning of John Moore’s picture has been the subject of debate since it was first published. Time magazine ran it saying that Sandra and her daughter were separated, and that Yanela was ‘carried away screaming.’ Border control authorities then revealed that Sandra and Yanela were not among the thousands who had been separated by US officials. Nevertheless, Yanela’s evident distress made a direct personal impact, and the enormous public outcry resulted in President Trump reversing the controversial policy on 20 June 2018. The photographer says: “As a photojournalist, my job is to inform and report what is happening, but I also think it is important to humanize an issue that is often reported in statistics.”

Exodus by Nicolò Filippo Rosso

Venezuelan migrants follow a path to enter Colombia, near Villa del Rosario in North Santander, Colombia, one of the busiest regions for border crossings, on 9 October 2018. Credit: Nicolò Filippo Rosso.

Migrants crowd onto a truck near the Colombia-Venezuela border, in La Guajira, Colombia, on 6 July 2018. Credit: Nicolò Filippo Rosso.

A political and socio-economic crisis in Venezuela, from 2016 onwards, led to an exodus of migrants from the country. The UNHCR estimates that of the approximately 4.6 million people who left Venezuela, around 1.7 million remained in neighboring Colombia, initially without access to essential services. Early in 2021, the Colombian government granted the refugees a ten-year temporary protection status, giving them access to the national health service, the job market, and other forms of assistance. The story depicted in Nicolò Filippo Rosso images contributed to several NGOs setting up educational and medical facilities in camps they had previously not known about. The photographer says: “Photographs can drive actions, and II photograph with that intention.” 

Black Birds by Heba Khamis

Jochen (71) and Mohamed (21; not their real names) sit in the Tiergarten, Berlin, on 17 August 2018. Jochen fell in love after meeting Mohamed, then a sex worker in the park, and they started dating. Credit: Heba Khamis.
Whilst waiting for their documents, asylum-seekers in Germany are generally not allowed to work. German aid charities have reported a marked increase in the number of young migrants turning to sex work. After meeting Jochen, Mohamed gave up sex work for a job in a gay bar. Mohamed is not gay, and Jochen knows that, but being with Jochen was one of the less harmful options he had in life.

Hope for a New Life by Warren Richardson

A baby is handed through a hole in a razor wire barrier, to a Syrian refugee who has already managed to cross the border from Serbia into Hungary, near Röszke, on 28 August 2015. Credit: Warren Richardson.

This photograph by Warren Richardson was awarded World Press Photo of the Year in the 2016 Photo Contest. In response to a sharp peak of migrants attempting to enter the country in 2015, Hungary began construction of a four-meter-high barrier fence along the entire length of its frontier with Serbia. People attempted to find ways through before the fence was completed on 14 September 2015. The barrier, now electrified, remains in place, despite a 2020 ruling by the European Court of Justice that Hungary’s treatment of migrants and refugees is breaking EU law. 

Massimo Sestini

Migrants crowd on board a boat some 25 kilometers from the Libyan coast, before being rescued as part of Operation Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue operation put in place by the Italian government, on 7 July 2014. Credit: Massimo Sestini.

Europe’s Mediterranean border is by far the world’s deadliest. Between 2000 and 2021, more than 40,000 migrants died making the crossing. Operation Mare Nostrum (OMN) arose in response to the drowning of hundreds of migrants off the island of Lampedusa at the end of 2013. In 2014, OMN brought 330 smugglers to justice, and saved more than 150,000 people, at least a quarter of whom were refugees from Syria. This photograph made a powerful public impact, and was voted public’s choice at the World Press Photo flagship exhibition in 2015.

Signal by John Stanmeyer

African migrants on the shore of Djibouti City at night raise their phones in an attempt to catch an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad, on 26 February 2013. Credit: John Stanmeyer, VII for National Geographic.
Djibouti, at the narrow southern entrance to the Red Sea, has become a gateway for migrants from the Horn of Africa heading to the Gulf States and beyond. Since 2020, COVID-19 and adverse working conditions in the Gulf States have led many to return, becoming stranded in Djibouti. This photo was taken as part of a project to ‘walk the world’ following the ancient paths of human migration, from Africa to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. When the image became World Press Photo of the Year in 2014, it sparked surprise because it was different from previous winners, which often show conflict or historic moments. Instead, it is nuanced, poetic yet instilled with meaning. Kim Hubbard, who commissioned the story for National Geographic, said: “John managed to distill our entire story into one beautiful, moonlit image: modern day migration meets the universal desire for connection.”

Alessandro Digaetano

A young man poses in the ruins of his former home, in Shanghai, China, on 10 October 2004. A migrant worker, he was living in the building that it was his job to demolish. Credit: Alessandro Digaetano, Polaris Images. 

This photograph by Alessandro Digaetano was awarded in the 2005 World Press Photo Contest. As the manufacturing sector in China burgeoned, the plan for the first quarter of the 21st century was to move as many as 400 million people from rural areas to the cities. In Shanghai, traditional shikumen houses from the 19th century, as well as a variety of early 20th century colonial-period buildings, were flattened to make way for new high-rises as the city expanded. Internal migration in China remains one of the most extensive in the world.

Stephanie Sinclair

Families from a Lebanese border town flee along the dangerous coastal road between Tyre and Sidon, during an Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon, on 27 July 2006. Travel became unsafe as Israeli bombs also hit roads. Credit: Stephanie Sinclair, NPR.
For five weeks in 2006, Israel conducted an offensive against Hezbollah militants in southern Lebanon. Israel said it was targeting fighters and missile-launching sites hidden in residential areas, but was accused of disproportionate reaction and bombing of civilians. Both sides were accused of manipulating the media for propaganda purposes. More than 900,000 people in Lebanon and up to 500,000 in Israel were displaced by the conflict. In 2021, Israel again traded fire with Hezbollah militants in Lebanon, after a tense 15-year ‘peace’. 

Adam Nadel

Left: Isma and Medina, both internally displaced by conflict in Darfur, make their way to school near the border between Chad and Sudan, on 1 September 2004. Right: Muktar Hakhdeem sits in his tent at Oure Cassoni refugee camp in Chad, beside a sword he says is the only object he possesses that belonged to his father, the King of Ambaru, on 1 September 2004. Credit: Adam Nadel, Polaris Images.
Conflict between government forces, rebel groups and Arab militia in the Darfur area of Sudan led to the displacement of some two million people in 2003. Many sought safety in neighboring Chad. Since then, nearly a million more people have fled the region. A long, painful and often unsuccessful peace process finally led to an agreement in 2020, but for decades refugees from Darfur have made up a large proportion of migrants seeking safety in other countries.

Lara Jo Reagan

The Sanchez family at home in a Texas colonia on 3 December 2000. Ms Sanchez, an immigrant from Mexico, makes papier-mâché piñatas (decorative candy containers) to help support herself and her children. Credit: Lara Jo Regan, Life.

Colonias are informal settlements along the US border with Mexico. The highest concentration is in Texas, with others in New Mexico, Arizona and California. People living in colonias lack access to basic services such as clean drinking water, electricity and waste management, and often live in extreme poverty. Partly because of this photo raising awareness of her story, Ms Sanchez has now been able to become a US citizen.

Visual Storytelling and Migration

Over the past 20 years, images of migration and forced displacement have become increasingly present in the media. This has shaped how society, as well as individuals, view migrants. Both the images and our reactions to them can be very subjective. Photographers choose what to show, and how to portray it. And as individual viewers we make connections with our own backgrounds, and have the power (and responsibility) to look actively: to give meaning to the image.

What photographs resonate with you, and why? Share your thoughts on social media #WPPhNoviSad