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These Images of an African Migrant Boat Reveal an Unfolding Tragedy

In the future we will be judged harshly for the brutality of the current migrant crisis. These images in today's New York Times show why.

It is impossible to overlook the harrowing image spread across today’s New York Times cover. In the strikingly dismal photograph is a boat filled with migrants hoping to be rescued off the Libyan Coast by the Italian Coast Guard. Most are dead.


These scenes are far from ordinary. Though there’s been a decline in unsafe migration into European countries in the last year, it’s been reported that in this past week alone, over 11,000 migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Somalia, amongst other countries, embarked on the precarious journey from North Africa to Italy via the Mediterranean Sea—one of the deadliest routes.

What’s most gut-wrenching about the photograph is the glaring image of death captured by the profusion of lifeless bodies shown lying on the floor of the boat. Those who managed to survive the journey were forced to climb over them in an effort to reach one of the rescue vessels that awaited them—leaving behind those who most likely died from asphyxiation caused by overcrowding on the boat.

The full-length article includes a number of images like these taken by French photographer, Aris Messinis, who found the scene to be eerily reminiscent of images depicting Trans-Atlantic slave ships.

Messinis described the scene as something he had never seen before. “The analogy to slave ships that once plied the Atlantic, was exactly right — except that it’s not hundreds of years ago,” he said, "I’ve seen a lot of death, but not this thing. This is shocking and this is what makes you feel you are not living in a civilized world.”

The image captures a tragic truth that should not be ignored. But what are the ethics of using an image that depicts the death of black people in such a blatant manner? While this is a tragedy pure and simple, the images have raised, once again, important questions about the objectification of the black body in the media. What is the intent behind the use of such images? Is it still the belief that such photos will trigger a global call to action or is it about commercializing death? After all, this is hardly the first time that an image showing the suffering of black people is being widely circulated, yet these injustices continue to occur.

Is the repeated media dissemination of suffering, like this one, doing anything in the way of tackling these issues or is is just adding to the already large repository of black poverty porn that exists in mainstream media? We’re not sure.

What we do know is that this is an absolute tragedy that will lead to even more substantial consequences as it progresses. This is clear with or without a photo.

Interview
Image by Mark Peckmezian.

Filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr Explores the Sweet Spot Between Nollywood & Hollywood

Winner of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, London-based Nigerian filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr speaks about his experimental film 'Lizard', what belonging looks like and the overlap between Hollywood and Nollywood.

In early February, the jury for the short film competition at the Sundance Film Festival announced the Nigerian film, Lizard, as the winner of the Grand Jury Prize, the highest honour for that category. Thirty-five-year-old Akinola Davies Jr, Lizard's director and co-writer (with his brother Wale, better known as Tec, one half of the rap duo Show Dem Camp) accepted the prize from the United Kingdom, a country he has called home since the age of 13.

Lizard follows the adventures of an eight-year-old girl, Juwon (Pamilerin Ayodeji) who is kicked out of Sunday school service and goes on a tour of the massive compound where she witnesses firsthand the dynamics at play in and around a Lagos Pentecostal megachurch. Davies Jr makes use of elements of magical realism to thrust audiences into the world of this innocent as she grapples with the images she comes in contact with. The film closes out in a climactic act of violence that recalls Davies Jr's memories of growing up in a country under censorship and military dictatorship.

With this Sundance triumph, Davies Jr became the first Nigerian filmmaker to achieve this distinction. However, he is no overnight success though. Born in London and raised in Lagos, the multi-disciplined artist attended school in the English countryside and has been grinding for a while now. The bulk of his creative work—music videos, fashion films, experimental films—have navigated aspects of belonging and existing in some kind of "middle".

In 2017, collaborating with photographer Ruth Ossai and stylist Ibrahim Kamara, Davies Jr paid homage to his Nigerian roots for French luxury brand Kenzo in a video film titled Unity is Strength. He has participated in the Berlinale Talents and opened his first solo show at Art Basel in Switzerland. He is also a prolific music video director, shooting visuals for British acts, Larry B and Mischa Mafia.

We caught up recently with Davies Jr via Zoom from his home in London.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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