Hôtel de l’Industrie in Saint-Germain-des-Près is a particularly civilised setting in which to tell a particularly grim story. This autumn the Hôtel hosted Narciso Contreras’ Libya, A Human Marketplace, winner of the 2016 Carmignac Photojournalism Award. It is a powerful and deeply disturbing set of images, about a horrific – and ongoing – situation.
Having seen the exhibition a few weeks earlier, I went back during Paris Photo to hear Contreras talk about his work in Libya. As it happened, that Saturday morning two presentations had been scheduled, but only a couple of us turned up for the first one. Contreras politely offered to give us a private tour, but that seemed a bit self-indulgent, so we went off for coffee and rejoined the crowds later.
Soft-spoken and courteous, Contreras has a very deliberate manner. Though his English is perfect (he’s Mexican), he takes great care about what he says and how he says it. In 2013 Contreras won the Pulitzer prize for his photography documenting the war in Syria. But Google him and the stories that come up first are about a scandal: in 2014, Contreras edited one of his images, photoshopping a video camera out of the corner of a Syrian battle scene. Contreras himself told the agency about the retouching, and it was hardly akin to faking news that could sway a presidential election, but rules are rules (or at least they were back in 2014) and the photographer was dropped by Associated Press.
Contreras has been covering conflict in Southern Asia and the Middle East since 2010. As well as Syria, he has covered ethnic strife in Myanmar, the military coup in Egypt and the war in Yemen. The galleries on his website testify to his intense commitment to reporting human suffering.
In 2015 Contreras started a project to document migrants travelling through Libya to Europe.
Libya has the longest stretch of African coastline facing Europe – specifically, facing Italy and Greece – which makes it a natural departure point for travellers. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa all make their way through the country towards the Mediterranean. But post-Gaddafi Libya is, to put it mildly, a lawless place. Two governments fight for control. Warring militias and Islamic State supporters terrorise the country, and the detention centres where travellers end up. The detention centres themselves are filthy, overcrowded, and violent: there is no safety for women or the vulnerable. In the course of documenting all this, Contreras realised that refugees are being bought and sold by the militias.
“Who buys them?” I asked, dumbly.
“People in Europe.”
A section of the exhibition shows mentally ill women in Surman detention centre, near the coast. One particularly harrowing image is of a young woman who had been in detention for two years, “presumably a rape victim,” with an abortion scar on her stomach. It was not clear whether her pregnancy happened in the detention centre or earlier.
There are views inside a detention compound: a close-up of another young woman, wearing an Abercrombie & Fitch sweatshirt, her hands ravaged by scurvy.
Another section shows dead bodies washed up on the shore, their boats capsized. More pictures are taken from inside a boat, just above the water level. Contreras managed to get close, figuratively and literally, to the people smugglers and local militia members, resulting in shockingly intimate pictures.
Contreras has made three trips to Libya so far for this project. The exhibition is coming to London in 2017, he told me (Saatchi Gallery, May.)
The problem for the viewer with work like this is that it is a call to action – but what action? Faced with the scale of the horrors being carried out in Libya, and the fact that a 2015 UN-brokered political deal is having little or no effect, what can any individual do?
Well, stay informed, for a start. In September this year, Boris Johnson, talking about boat migration from Libya, said, “I think personally the boats should be turned back as close to the shore as possible so they don’t reach the Italian mainland and that there is more of a deterrent.” Human Rights Watch said his views were “uninformed and inhumane.” Boris Johnson needs to see this exhibition – spread the word.
© Fiona Hayes 2016
This article originally appeared on http://somethingimworkingon.tumblr.com