Refugee portraits selected for Taylor Wessing Photography Prize

Images of UNHCR buses in Greece selected for prestigious exhibit at London's National Portrait Gallery

"Looking back at the sea". Barlow's images capture the relief of refugees upon reaching the safety and warmth of a UNHCR transfer bus after completing their perilous journey across the Mediterranean.  © Katie Barlow

This year’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize at London’s National Portrait Gallery includes two striking images by British photographer Katie Barlow. Sitting alongside more formal portraits, the photographs capture the moment that refugees board a UNHCR bus after disembarking from a fraught and highly risky journey in smugglers’ dinghies across the Aegean Sea from Turkey.

‘Looking Back at the Sea’ shows two children with their faces pressed against the bus windows, stunned by fear and the enormity of the journey behind them. In ‘Pink Bobble Hat’, a girl wrapped in a foil survival blanket sinks exhausted into the seat in front of her. Barlow’s subjects are photographed from behind the glass of the bus windows which frame the instant where relief temporarily overtakes the horror and desperation that have driven their journeys.

Since the summer of 2015, boats carrying refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other war-torn countries began to arrive on the beaches of Lesvos’ northern coast. At that time, it was forbidden by Greek law to provide transport to anyone who was not documented, and refugees faced a gruelling three day walk across the mountains to register with the authorities in the port of Mytillini. UNHCR in Greece worked with the government to change the legislation so that this extra ordeal, faced by people who had undergone an already harrowing journey across the sea, could be avoided. As the conflict in Syria intensified, thousands of refugees arrived daily in Lesvos and UNHCR buses took them safely across the island. These refugees were the lucky ones. Last year 5,000 people lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach safety.

Running until 28th February, the exhibition celebrates the best of contemporary portrait photography around the world. Barlow’s pictures are being shown alongside 56 photographs selected from more than 4,300 submissions.

Here, Barlow explains how she came to take the photographs:

“I spent two weeks at Katia beach, helping with and documenting the arrival of thousands of refugees as their boats drifted to the Greek shore. Many photographers were waiting at the shoreline trying to capture the essence of what we were witnessing: a mass migration of historical proportions. Finding it hard to film and photograph people in distress and feeling the need to help the refugees off the boats and to change sodden clothes instead of document, I found myself waiting until people were safe and dry before taking portraits.

 Away from the chaos of the beach, I became drawn to the UN transfer buses that were waiting to take the refugees to the registration camps. Although uncertain of what the immediate future held, their first perilous journey over the sea had been successfully accomplished and the UN bus became a temporary place a sanctuary, where families and individuals could get warm, shelter from the rain and freak snow storms. As the refugees took to their seats, some would look out of their windows, back at the ocean that had brought them to this point. Others would slump exhausted, others huddled in the warmth, some smiled with relief.

The UN bus became a temporary place a sanctuary, where families could get warm and shelter from the rain.

From where I was standing, each bus window served as a frame and presented a portrait.  There was a calm, although it was harrowing. Away from the chaos of the beach, people were still and reflective.

Two of the portraits taken at Katia Beach are currently being exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition. I would like to think that they are helping to keep the issue in the public eye.”

"Pink Bobble Hat". A young girl sinks exhausted into the seat of the bus transporting her across Lesvos, Greece.  © Katie Barlow

The National Portrait Gallery invited 10 composers from the Royal College of Music to respond to images from the exhibition. Damien McBride from the Royal College of Music composed "Home" in response to "Looking Back at the Sea". Separately, Alistair Hickman, also from the Royal College of Music, has composed the track "Dried Tears" in response to the photograph "Pink Bobble Hat". You can listen to these below:

Read more about Katie's visit to Lesvos here.

To find out more about the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize please visit the National Portrait Gallery website.