Diego Cupolo is a freelance photojournalist, reporter and author whose work exposes the human experience of war, conflict and the resulting refugee crisis. He has visited countless refugee camps and infiltrated smuggling networks both in Europe and the Middle East to better understand the layers of experience involved in mass migration. Forced to flee Venezuela as a child, Cupolo’s life has been characterised by constant transition, giving him a vantage point from which to view the crisis. His mission is to create a change in mindset towards refugees the world over claiming that everyone should be entitled to a life free from persecution.
You volunteered in a couple of refugee camps. What was that like?
I’ve always done volunteer work. I like to do a combination of volunteerism and journalism because with journalism you have this impact on society that you may never see the effects of but with volunteerism you can see the effects straight away, even if they aren’t that big. I think a mix of the two is very satisfying if you want to see progress and change in society.
I worked on the border of Syria and Turkey with a refugee school for children. That was three years ago now and was kind of a big change in understanding for me as it was my first time in the Middle East. People don’t have contact with Muslim societies and have all these ideas about what it means to be a Muslim or a refugee. Most people just see headlines about ISIS and car bombs so they develop their understanding of Muslims through that. So I went and it was very easy to see that all those headlines are very misleading. So through my work I now try to provide another perspective that doesn’t just focus on the violence happening within this quarter of the world’s population. Too many people associate Islam with violence.
I get questions about refugee camps and the places I go and people always say ‘don’t you feel unsafe? Isn’t it dangerous?’ No, the most dangerous places I’ve been are the capitalist Christian societies in northern South America. Because for me, there’s drugs, there’s extreme poverty. People [in the Middle East] aren’t drunk all the time. That has a huge impact on society. People have these comparisons and think it’s much more dangerous and threatening than the West, but it’s not.
How many refugee camps do you reckon you’ve been to in the past 3 years?
I don’t know, it’s hard to count. I mean what counts as a refugee camp? Sometimes it’s just a border and there are a lot of tents. Is that a refugee camp? I would say at least 30-40. Between Europe and the Middle East, the most disorganised ones are in Europe. The worst was definitely in France. When I went to Iraq and saw how organised they were I was like ‘what’s going on?’ In Europe, they really don’t want to establish any permanent presence because that would admit that there is a problem and then force them to deal with it. Leaving people in the mud and the trash says no there’s no problem. In Iraq, they set up bathrooms and have proper showers and beds. People don’t smell and feel horrible. In Europe, it’s an unwelcoming strategy so people don’t come. By having people live in these conditions, they hope it will be a deterrence but it’s obviously not stopping anyone so I don’t know what the logic is behind it.
How bad are the conditions in European refugee camps?
Refugee camps throughout Europe are either half established or not recognised as camps at all. So for example, over the winter in Dunkirk, French police wouldn’t let refugees build structures. People were living in ankle-deep mud, the place was essentially a swamp. People were living under plastic sheets. So the minute you step outside you’re a disgusting mess. At that time there were 3,000 people and 25 bathrooms. The mud becomes the bathroom and you’re basically just mixing it all around. There are rats. They’ve fixed that camp since then, but yeah that place kind of highlighted the different between having an established and non-established camp.
So is there a lot of disease/infection in these camps?
There’s not many horrible diseases. Most of the time people aren’t dying. But a lot of people have respiratory illnesses, scabies, skin infections. Things that you would get from being exposed to nature all the time. These people aren’t mountain hikers. They are Middle Class, Middle Eastern families who usually drive everywhere so for them to be in these conditions is very difficult. Also the stress that they endure from lack of information, that makes you more prone to becoming sick. They only have one thing to think about ‘why can’t I cross the border? When can I cross the border?’ and it’s this kind of cycle thinking, its not good for their psychological state.
How long are people spending in camps?
Depends on the place and circumstance and country they’re coming from. A long time, you could say. People who stay in Greece can apply for asylum documents to be relocated to an EU nation, but the papers take months to process, maybe years. In Italy, it takes 1-2 years to get asylum. People stay in a camp, they get food and a bed, which is not horrible but if you are stuck in the same place for indefinite amounts of time with no stimulation you would probably go insane. People are always saying that refugees complain too much about the camps but I mean you try to sit in a place with nothing to do with 1-2 years, it’s going to be hell. It’s not the governments fault per say, there are a lot of people coming and it’s hard to handle them and finds the funds etc. but you know, they could be adjusting faster. What is often over looked when people talk about the refugee crisis in Europe is that this is not a surprise I mean this was mounting for years and years. The war in Syria was occurring for a long time. People were saying where are these refugees going to go? Well they came. It’s not like it came out of no where, people knew it was going to happen. We live more with reactionary politics, not preventative. If politicians tell people they’re going to start spending money on this issue that maybe the population isn’t informed about, they’re going to say “why? we have our own problems here” but we live in a globalised world and your problems are everyone’s problems.
So what’s the message that you want to tell the world through your work as a journalist?
As a journalist, I’m always trying to portray the layers involved with events and people. People look at situations too simply. Every event and every movement and person has multiple layers. You can just look at one aspect of the refugee crisis — people are poor and they want my tax money. But you need to dig deeper, why are they poor? Why are they coming?
We hear a lot about numbers and statistics and how much the refugees cost. But you need to also talk about the people involved in the crisis and show that we’re all very similar in what we want and what we desire. Most people just want shelter, food and a safe place for children. If they don’t have these things, they’re going to do something about it. You have to see that these people are just taking a logical course of action and these refugees have legitimate claims to our society.
Your photos seem to give a face to the refugee crisis. Are the people you interview responsive to getting their stories out there?
When I’m talking to people, sometimes they want to explain their situation, sometimes not. You just have to kind develop a trust between the people and show them that you’re not a clickbait tabloid journalist that is going to misuse their story. With simple conversation you can show people you are a decent person. Just the fact that I don’t wear a face mask or rubber gloves when I shake their hands. For them, it’s a huge deal because a lot of the government authorities make them feel like they are not human. I get why the authorities want to wear protective gear, but for them it’s just another barrier.
You must have gotten quite close with this guy for him to show you his scars. Can you tell me his story?
That was a guy who had walked across Bulgaria. A lot of people do that because Greece is closed. What happens along this journey is that people get kidnapped and then held for ransom. In the meantime, they beat them up. In that particular case they were stuck in an apartment in Sofia and the guys were just drinking in the next room and whenever they were drunk enough they would come and beat them one by one until they got money. When people tell you stories like this they either really trust you or they are just so pissed that they just need to show someone what happened to them. So in that case, I talked to those guys for a while and there was a group of them. The guys face was much more beat up then his back.
What do you say to ‘they should go back to where they came from’?
They would love to but for a lot of them it’s just not a possibility. People like their cultures, they don’t want to leave their home countries most of the time. They have friends and families, they like their own food. There’s this misconception that they’re just going to come and take and take. They would be much happier living in their own place with their own social structure that they understand eating their own food. This is their last resort.
To contact Diego directly, you can shoot him an email email@example.com.