Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
December 20, 2015

Most Prominent Photo Objects of 2015: The Life Jacket

Daniel Etter for The New York Times. caption: Human face of a tragedy: A Syrian refugee from Deir Ezzor, holding his son and daughter in a life jacket, broke out in tears of joy last week after arriving on the shore of the Greek island of Kos using a flimsy inflatable boat crammed with about 15 men, women and children.

Because of all the year-end “best of” lists, I was half-joking the other day when I tweeted, why not “photo objects of the year”? Scanning innumerable migrant and year end photo galleries, though, the idea actually makes a lot of sense. So, we at Reading the Pictures have two “photo objects of the year” to recognize: the life jacket and the cell phone. In anticipation of our upcoming Reading The Pictures Salon on the migrant crisis (info and registration here), we’ll start with the life vests first.

Who knows how many powerful images were published this year of life jackets either worn or discarded by migrants, especially on those Greek islands? Shot for a NY Times story, Daniel Etter’s photo above lit up social media. The photo depicts an Iraqi refugee with his daughter and son arriving on Kos. Notable also, if we’re looking with that much attention, are the green and maroon colored vests. If the photo wasn’t powerful enough, I wonder if these more unique colors make us see this family even more distinctly.

Refugees arrive, some not wearing life jackets, after crossing the Aegean Sea. A volunteer encourages this group to remain calm as they arrive at the shore of Lesbos on Nov. 10.

This photo by Carolyn Cole is from this LAT slideshow. Like so many other photographers, she documented migrants coming ashore then followed groups from there. Her caption reads:

Refugees arrive, some not wearing life jackets, after crossing the Aegean Sea. A volunteer encourages this group to remain calm as they arrive at the shore of Lesbos on Nov. 10.

Specifically addressing the presence or absence of the life jacket leads us to think further about the calculations of flight.

Salal Hassan, 35, from Iraq, tossed his life jacket onto a pile after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Immediately after landing, the personal trainer changed into his Boston Celtics jersey, a gift from a friend. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff.

This picture was recorded by Boston.com’s Craig Walker in this photo-story. The casting off of the vest becomes a powerful symbol of passage and (at least, potential) liberation.

Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME. caption: A beach on the Greek island of Lesbos is festooned with orange life jackets and deflated rafts abandoned by migrants who are coming ashore near the village of Skala Sikamineas after navigating the 6-mile crossing from Turkey on inflatable rafts. Between 2,000 and 3,500 migrants now reach the island daily, riding on about 100 inflatable rafts. Sept., 2015.

That brings us to perhaps the most prominent category of the life jacket images — the cast offs. Like shed skin, this is Yuri Kozyrev’s version from TIME’s year end list.

A portrait of a teenage boy in dripping wet clothes is on the left, and a scene of the coast of Lésvos, Greece scattered with life jackets is on the right,

I included this juxtaposition from Nat Geo because of its earnest storytelling. The photo shows seventeen-year-old Omar who arrived on Lesbos from Syria. The point of the pairing, we can safely say, is to convey individuality amidst still more littered piles.

Carl Court / Getty. caption: A woman waves a life jacket to direct a migrant boat ashore as it makes the crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, on November 12, 2015, in Sikaminias, Greece. Rafts and boats continue to make the journey from Turkey to Lesbos each day as thousands flee conflict in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries. Over 500,000 migrants have entered Europe so far this year and approximately four-fifths of those have paid to be smuggled by sea to Greece from Turkey, the main transit route into the EU. Most of those entering Greece on a boat from Turkey are from the war zones of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

I was taken by this photo since I tweeted about it in early November. According to the caption, the jacket is being waved by a person to direct a migrant boat ashore. To the extent  the vest is used as a flag, it made me think about how many refugees have lost or given up their home countries.

Picture of a young man selling life jackets on the streets of Izmir, Turkey

If this is the last, this picture probably belongs at the beginning. (It’s also from National Georgrapic’s PROOf photo journal, and this must-see post by John Stanmeyer.)  This “life vest merchant” in Izmir, Turkey is hawking his wears to Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians — to people, Stanmeyer writes: “treading the city in fear, desperation pouring from their eyes.”

The body language makes me think of all the people who, even if they purchase the vest and make it safely to the continent, might still be considered “at sea.”

Update: The post originally identified the father in the leading photo as being from Syria. (Original caption below.) Photographer Daniel Etter contacted us however to say that the family is actually Iraqi. According to this Guardian follow up, the family identified itself as Syrian to avoid complication passing through Turkey.  

(photo 1: Daniel Etter for The New York Times. caption: Human face of a tragedy: A Syrian refugee from Deir Ezzor, holding his son and daughter in a life jacket, broke out in tears of joy last week after arriving on the shore of the Greek island of Kos using a flimsy inflatable boat crammed with about 15 men, women and children. The neighbouring country of Macedonia has declared a state of emergency and ordered its borders sealed to migrants, many of them refugees from war who have been streaming in from Greece en route to Europe’s borderless Schengen zone. Thousands of rain-soaked refugees stormed across Macedonia’s border on Saturday as the police lobbed stun grenades and beat them with batons. About 1,500 of them tore through muddy fields to Macedonian territory after spending days in the open without access to shelter, food or water. photo 2: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times. photo 3: Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff. caption: Salal Hassan, 35, from Iraq, tossed his life jacket onto a pile after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Immediately after landing, the personal trainer changed into his Boston Celtics jersey, a gift from a friend. photo 4: Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME. caption: A beach on the Greek island of Lesbos is festooned with orange life jackets and deflated rafts abandoned by migrants who are coming ashore near the village of Skala Sikamineas after navigating the 6-mile crossing from Turkey on inflatable rafts. Between 2,000 and 3,500 migrants now reach the island daily, riding on about 100 inflatable rafts. Sept., 2015. photos 5 and 6: dyptich; Loulou D’Aki. caption Left: Seventeen-year-old Omar, from Syria, arrived at Skala beach in Lésvos, Greece, with dripping wet clothes. “I came here because I have diabetes and need a doctor,” he says. Right: Discarded life jackets litter a beach in Lésvos, Greece. Most refugees who arrive in boats from Turkey shed their drenched clothes, bags, and life jackets once they disembark, before continuing toward the main port of the island for the Athens-bound ferry. photo 7: Carl Court / Getty. caption: A woman waves a life jacket to direct a migrant boat ashore as it makes the crossing from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, on November 12, 2015, in Sikaminias, Greece. Rafts and boats continue to make the journey from Turkey to Lesbos each day as thousands flee conflict in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and other countries. Over 500,000 migrants have entered Europe so far this year and approximately four-fifths of those have paid to be smuggled by sea to Greece from Turkey, the main transit route into the EU. Most of those entering Greece on a boat from Turkey are from the war zones of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. photo 8: John Stanmeyer. caption: A young man sells life jackets on the streets of Izmir, Turkey.)

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