Addressing migration on the island of Lesbos, Something is happening puts the refugee experience into focus
Currently exhibiting at Belgium’s The Jewish Museum until mid-September, Mathieu Pernot’s series sheds light on a narrative from multiple bodies of images detailing the refugee experience in Lesbos.
- Jyni Ong
- 9 June 2021
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
Mathieu Pernot has always been curious about others, which sparked an interest in photography. “I think photography is the art of reality that allows you to go towards other people,” he tells us. “It is the means to access those places that interest me, that ask me questions, that sometimes fascinate me.” For the French photographer, the medium has provided a space to meet, discover and understand the world. It’s an approach expressed in Mathieu’s latest body of work, Something is happening.
Currently showing at the Jewish Museum of Belgium until mid-September, the exhibition acts as a unique retrospective, combining video, handwritten material and photography to tell the story of a unique time on the island of Lesbos. As the refugee crisis deepened across Europe, the small island located in the Aegean Sea, just a few kilometres from the Turkish coast, experienced a wave of new inhabitants seeking refuge. Since then, the island has become home to several refugee camps; a hopeful stopover for those escaping conflict and war zones.
For over ten years, Mathieu has confronted issues of migration in his practice, as well as documenting the presence of asylum seekers in Europe. He first journeyed to Lesbos in January 2020 where a refugee camp was occupied by more than 20,000 people. It was built to accommodate 2,000. He tells us: “Families were surviving as best they could among the olive trees of the Moria hills in makeshift camps.” On his first few days there, Mathieu got to know some of the families. They exchanged phone numbers and struck up a WhatsApp conversation which continued when the photographer returned to his home in Paris.
As he received “incredible and tragic documents” in the form of photos and videos from the people in the camps, Mathieu started to question his role in the crisis. “I came to understand that I was just a smuggler and that I ought to circulate them to a wider public.” Then, to make matters worse, when Mathieu returned to the camp the following September, a ravenous fire destroyed the camp. “This was the final of the three acts of a tragic year and it convinced me to produce a book and an exhibition to tell this story,” he says.
In Mathieu’s works, he crafts a narrative using found objects and photographs he’s taken, amongst other artefacts. In turn telling a story through different bodies of images, he champions an alternative way of seeing the world, channelling the lives of those whose stories are often shunned away from the camera. “In my opinion,” he adds, “the work of a photographer goes far beyond the simple act of recording an image with a camera.”
Mathieu tells us about two profound photographs from the series. The first shows a couple collecting their possessions from what’s left of their fire-ravaged shelter. The only surviving objects are the beads of a necklace. “In this tragic setting,” says the photographer, “I thought that this necklace was the only object that had survived from their previous life, the one they had fled, hoping to find in Europe the peace that was denied them at home. I imagined this man offering this jewel to this young woman in another place, at another time, and then watching them in the present moment as he gives her what’s left of it. Silent, concentrated and affected, the woman embodies the image of The Girl and the Burnt Pearls.
In another image, Mathieu points to an image documenting a dump in the north of Lesbos. This area is near the coast where boats of migrants cross from Turkey. The image shows the dump under a stormy sky, the most apparent objects contributing to the dump are life jackets strewn across the hillside in all colours and sizes. “This image,” Mathieu finally goes on to say, “evokes the mass graves or all the bodies of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean during the crossing.”
GalleryMathieu Pernot: Something is happening (Copyright © Mathieu Pernot, 2020)
Mathieu Pernot: Something is happening, Lesbos (Copyright © Mathieu Pernot, 2020)
About the Author
Jyni became a staff writer in March 2019 having previously joined the team as an editorial assistant in August 2018. She graduated from The Glasgow School of Art with a degree in Communication Design in 2017 and her previous roles include Glasgow Women’s Library designer in residence and The Glasgow School of Art’s Graduate Illustrator.