In 2016-2017, I was commissioned by streetfootballworld, a non-profit organisation that uses football as a platform for positive social change, to travel across Europe and document The Refugee Support Programme; a football-based initiative in refugee camps.
Streetfootballworld had received funding from the UEFA Foundation for Children, a philanthropic arm of the Union of European Football Associations, for their work in refugee camps. As part of the program, there were more than 20 different football-based community projects in refugee camps. I visited camps in Germany, Ireland and Greece, photographing young people from all over the world playing the sport they loved.
For me, the project was a profound experience and an emotional and challenging journey. Meeting these men, women and children whose lives have changed more dramatically than we can imagine is an experience I will never forget. Playing football gives them a brief moment’s respite from an impossible reality and an unknown future that the rest of us can only try to understand.
From a photography point of view, my background is in sports advertising. Working with brands for so many years can leave you dissatisfied after a while, and I wanted to produce a project that had a more personal motivation. My commercial work has not made a difference to anybody. You reach a certain age where you want to show images that make an impact.
Primarily, I was keen to capture a lot of portrait imagery, but it was harder than expected. For instance, in Kara Tepe camp, near Lesbos, I met a young girl who agreed to be photographed but wanted to wait until the following day. The next day, I went to see where she was staying, only to find out her father had sent her to Athens because she might be able to find some work there. At first, I was disappointed because I’d lost my portrait. Then I realised a father had just sent away his 14-year old daughter. It was very emotional.
It is the everyday, unnoticeable things that illustrate the catastrophic ordeal these people are forced to go through. For instance, I had planned to record short videos on my phone to keep track of the names and faces of the people that I spoke to, so I could keep a record of them and tell their story. It seemed like a practical solution. But very quickly it became clear I had to let go of that idea because it reminded them of painful interrogations and questioning they had been subjected to, the scars from which still ran deep. This seemingly innocuous idea that seems so normal to you and me is something that simply hurts too much for them.
Many of the children in the camps are unaccompanied, and it’s almost impossible to imagine what their life feels like. And yet, something so simple as playing football is as joyful to them as to any other child. Often, I would let them borrow the camera and take pictures or look at my photos. Somehow it was like it made them felt seen; subverting their anonymous name tag and giving them a voice, a face, a humanity.
It really resonates when you are free to leave a camp and come back home, hug your kids and give them a kiss before you send them off to school for the day, knowing you will see them again at the end of the day. From that privileged vantage point, you realise that the camps and the lives of the people within them is nearly invisible to the rest of us.