At The Gate: Portraits Of Refugees Who Risked Their Lives To Cross The Aegean

Photo: Elliot Ross
To photographer Elliot Ross, the refugee crisis is "one of the defining human events of this century." His photo series, At the Gate, features striking portraits of those fleeing violence and war, taken at camps in the Greek islands and Athens. Ross' goal is that viewers of the photo series will come to see those escaping as humans, rather than just as "refugees."

The "gate" is the Aegean Sea, between Turkey and Greece, the corridor for tens of thousands of refugees, and where hundreds of people have drowned trying to reach Europe. Ross photographed refugees of all ages, religions, and socioeconomic backgrounds to convey the sentiment that no refugee is the same.

Ross, who is based in New York City, worked with Magna Carta, a New York-based design company, on the project, which will also include a Vimeo documentary. The At the Gate photo series was released on Ross's Instagram account, @elliotstudio, and he will also release the project's second chapter on the photo-sharing platform.

"One of the stories that I had been following obsessively was the Arab Spring, and then the outbreak of the Syrian civil war almost five years ago," Ross told Refinery29. "As the atrocities escalated, people began to move­, fleeing Assad's war crimes and the ensuing crossfire between Syrian factions, Kurdish forces, Daesh, and Western airstrikes. Over time, I became less interested in the war itself and further drawn towards the conditions that the civilians were forced to endure."

Ross used instant film to give the images the feeling of family artifacts. Click ahead to see photographs from At the Gate — of refugees moving toward Europe in the hopes of better lives — along with commentary from Ross about the project.

Editor's note: Some of the subjects photographed either declined to give their names or asked that their names not be shared.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"I see this crisis as one of the defining human events of this century. The fallout of this massive human migration will forever shape the sociopolitical and cultural landscape of Europe and other parts of the world."

Caption: Ahmed "John Misto," 21, at Kara Tepe Camp in Lesvos. Ahmed quickly distinguished himself from the others with his sharp, American-accented English that he says he picked up watching countless WWE fights, and from his general obsession with American culture. Though originally from Hama, Syria, Ahmed was living and working in Saudi Arabia for the last few years. He was outspoken about his political and ideological beliefs, which, ironically, were staunchly anti­-American.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"Creating this visual document on instant film allows the portrait to achieve the tangibility of an artifact. As a refugee crosses one border after another, documents, papers, and passport photos have an incredible amount of importance…By photographing each refugee using this process, I am creating a physical document paralleling their own state papers that illustrates their point of entry across the most symbolic border."

Caption: Reem, 21, Eleonas Camp in Athens. Reem's husband was imprisoned during their dash to Europe from Raqqa. Traveling ahead to find a doctor in Europe for his pregnant wife, he was arrested at the border of Denmark on false suspicion of human smuggling. He is now being held in Korydallos­, Athens' most infamous prison.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"These portraits were all taken in either the Greek islands or Athens. I'll tell you why­ — these otherwise small, quiet, and fairly isolated communities woke up to a deluge of humans in 2015. The Greek islands, in addition to Athens, serve as the European ground zero of the migrant crisis. At no other point are more people entering Europe. 856,723 people last year alone made the Aegean crossing. More likely than not, we'll see that number eclipsed this year."

Caption: Athens, Eleonas Camp. Those who are residents here are fortunate because they have a bed in the only properly designed camp in all of Athens, and unfortunate because something has delayed them from further travel into Europe. Some were too weak, others pregnant, or, most commonly, from the wrong country. When this photo was taken, only Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans were being allowed to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"My hope is that in these eyes, or the wrinkles in these hands herein, that you see a bit of yourself and recognize these individuals as human beings rather than another nameless refugee."

Caption: Mohamed, at an abandoned building in Leros. Mohamed takes a five-minute break between portraits. He chose not to disclose much information for fear of reprisals against his family in Syria.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"After reading countless articles from dozens of outlets, I became frustrated with the lack of humanity in the stories being covered. I wanted to hear about individuals, what they were feeling, what they were seeing, what they wanted for the future, what they missed most from home. I wanted to see the refugees as individual humans, not as another nameless statistic."

Caption: Sana Waled Gazmate Mardini and Mohammad Shaher Mardini in an abandoned building in Leros. This couple, married for 15 years, owned several lingerie factories in Damascus.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"There were some Syrians and Algerians who did not want to be photographed for fear of reprimand by their government against their family left behind. However, the overwhelming majority were eager to share their stories."

Caption: This Congolese man, who chose not to give his name, is waiting indefinitely at Eleonas Camp. Most likely, he will be deported back to the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the European Union generally considers those fleeing DRC economic migrants, not refugees.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"We quickly began to realize that, for some at least, sharing their stories was a form of therapy in a way. We were perhaps the first people to sit down and listen to everything that had built up inside them from the moment they left home."

Caption: Mohammed, 15, at Eleonas Camp, with his uncle on the right and father on the left. In their first attempt across the Aegean, the boat was repelled by the Turkish coast guard. On the second attempt (and after another $1,000 USD to the smugglers), the boat sank. Mohammed and his family were spotted by the Greek coast guard and all aboard were saved.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"[The migrants wish others knew] that they don't identify with the word 'refugee.' This was stressed to me more than anything else."

Caption: Saboor, 18, at an abandoned building in Leros. Saboor traveled alone from Kabul but says he misses his family home in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan. He hopes to settle in Germany until he can return home when the fighting ends.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"People from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even countries as far as [the] Congo told me over and over that they were educated, hardworking people from a proud culture. They didn't want to leave home."

Caption: Adam, 39, at a Syrian Christian Church in Athens. Adam and his brother were imprisoned for a year by Assad's forces for orchestrating a food smuggling operation into the besieged city of Hama. They were both tortured; his brother was killed early on. Eventually, he paid a guard $20,000 to help him escape.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"The message was, 'Stop fucking yourself' by letting these incremental incursions on human rights occur over time. Obviously, in a conservative Muslim and Christian community, people were quickly up in arms."

Caption: Rewan Kakil Ahmet, 20, at a Syrian Christian Church in Athens. Ahmet, a Kurdish photographer and human rights activist, was forced to flee northern Iraq when he posted a satirical photograph that depicts him, fully nude, having sex with himself. His desire is to live in a country where freedom of expression doesn’t have limitations.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"Essentially, [Mayor Georgios Kamini's] tone was, 'We are doing everything we can.' His frustration with the government lie with how slowly the bureaucratic process seemed to move and also with not arriving on solutions quickly because of infighting."

Caption: Georgios Kamini, the mayor of Athens, at his office.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"So many people shared the little things they missed most: the pomegranate tree on their walk home from work, the sound of kids playing in the school yard across the street, the smell of food cooking at sundown, how the birds flew in spirals above Kabul. It's these little details that bring them to tears, and [that] also allows us to relate."

Caption: An Afghan man sits alone at the entrance of the Eleonas Camp community tent, enjoying the last minutes of the late afternoon sun.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"I was impressed by (Mayor) Spyros (Galinos') tone and his approach to the crisis as a human — how delicate he could be with words and how quietly forceful with action. He is truly an advocate for his community and the long-term well-being of the refugees…He is planning on settling some of the refugees right in his hometown. Some of those who don't want to go on into Europe will have a permanent home in Lesvos."

Caption: Spyros Galinos, mayor of Mytilene (Lesvos), at his office. Galinos found himself thrust into the middle of an international crisis shortly after he took office in July of 2014, when his sleepy island became the main door to Europe. Speaking through a translator, he said, "I don't see myself acting as a leader. I see myself acting as a human."
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"My aim is that this series serves as a hook to interest people who haven't been following this story, and create a desire to keep reading."

Caption: UNHCR blankets at an abandoned building in Leros. A trail of blankets are left behind by refugees advancing further into Europe. Many are burned for warmth by the next wave of migrants, as the trees in the surrounding area have been stripped clean or cut down altogether.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"I want people to realize that the difference between 'us' and the refugees that I met is extraordinarily small. We are simply lucky to be born into peace and stability."

Caption: Sanaa Karom, 47, at an abandoned building in Leros. When members of the Islamic State terrorist group came to Karom's community in Syria and demanded to take all the women and girls, Karom said she and a group of women stood their ground, hitting and yelling at the jihadis until they left them alone. She received her EU papers moments before this portrait was taken, and now hopes to one day be reunited with her husband in northern Europe, as he was already in Germany.
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Photo: Elliot Ross
"It's easy to get lost in the barrage of news media coverage, to swim helplessly in a sea of statistics and forget that each number is a human being, with their own story, with a past and present. I want to have a small part in ensuring that there's also a future."

Caption: Mirwais Shafiqullah Dawlatzai, 18, at an abandoned building in Leros. Dawlatzai's parents spent their life savings to send him to Europe from Kabul, Afghanistan. He says he feels incredible pressure to be granted asylum and earn money so that he can bring his family over. One day he hopes to become a psychiatrist and live in Germany.