Capturing the Refugee Crisis Through a Camera Lens - The Work of Emily Pinna

Interview by:

Franscesca Recanatini

Senior Economist


CV MENA: Why is it important to use pictures to document this crisis and capture this story? How did this idea come about?

Emily Pinna: I had heard so much about the refugee crisis and it was getting worse by the day. As many of us, I felt I had to do something to help and decided to narrate the crisis by using my skills and training as a visual storyteller. The format that I chose is that of a visual chronicle consisting of a few powerful selected pictures with extended captions. In my experience, this is a powerful format that combines the instant power of images with concise and to-the-point narratives. It is very useful in creating an instant connection between the audience and an event, while being informative at the same time. In addition, I really wanted to learn more about the refugees, who they are, what reality they left behind, what their dreams are, and why they decide to subject themselves and their children and elders to such perilous journeys. It breaks my heart to see, after the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris, that people confuse refugees with terrorists. In many cases the refugees are the direct victims of those exact terrorists. If only we were all more compassionate! 


CV MENA: How can these photos and information complement what we already know?  How is this relevant for a development organization like the World Bank?

Emily Pinna: In my opinion, with exceptions, development organizations approach communication with an angle that is exceedingly analytical. This approach is justified in the case of comprehensive development reports. However, the analytical angle does not work as well in emergency/crisis situations. In such cases, too much focus on analysis and dry figures make reports hard to read and disconnected from the actual issue — which in the end is the stories of human beings and their families as they face adversity, suffering, sometimes death, and hopefully redemption or success. I believe bringing the human dimension into the narrative is very important. It is the personal human stories that touch us the most.



CV MENA: What does this new way of conveying information offer to development practitioners that is different and useful for their work?

Emily Pinna: Visual storytelling — and the visual chronicle format in particular — is very useful because it combines photography with narrative. The former is essential to create an emotional link between the reader and the subject of the photograph. This is critical to elicit in the reader an emotional response and a desire to learn more about the subject of the photography. The extended caption provides the information that the reader is seeking about the events and people that are being photographed. I believe that this format which combines empathy with information has a role to play in the reporting and advocacy works of development organizations such as the World Bank. With this specific work, I also wanted to communicate the personal dimension of the tragedy as I lived it. As it happened, events took on a life of their own because just a few hours after landing in Lesvos, I found myself helping out of a plastic dinghy 50 refugees from Afghanistan, some of  them literally collapsing in my arms. What struck me was that, except for a handful of other helpers who like me happened to pass by that stretch of coast at that time, there was no network, no organization, no doctors, nothing. It was just one human being helping another human being. It was overwhelming, and I was certainly not prepared for that. One thing is clear, you do not board a shabby, overcrowded plastic dinghy, while wearing grass filled life vests, putting your own and your children’s life at risk, if you have any other thinkable option. These people are running for their lives, they simply have no option.


CV MENA:  Can visual storytelling more broadly help development practitioners to better understand some of the challenges we face?  Are there any other areas in which this approach could be applied to help Bank staff in their work?

Emily Pinna:  As I said, I believe visual storytelling and visual chronicling can and should be used more, especially whenever awareness needs to be raised about an emergency or crisis situation, or when the human angle needs to be emphasized (which is often).  As we know, images can convey information and emotions very rapidly, and the extended captions provide a set of concise initial elements of information. Than the deeper, more analytical, figures, numbers, and extended narrative can follow. But the first impact should always be visual in my opinion. This is an area in which development organizations can improve. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are often better at this.


CV MENA: What did you learn from this particular project and experience?

Emily Pinna: I learned many things both as a professional and a human being. As I think back about the refugees I met, especially those Afghans who I helped out of the boat, I am confronted with an urge to learn more about where they are now and how fate is treating them. I would love to visually chronicle the journey of two or three refugee families as they cross Europe to reach their destinations and attempt to settle. In the end, we are interested in specific human experiences that we can relate to. Getting to know our fellow human beings and learn about their stories as they develop. A sort of reality storytelling. Between 50 to 100 of these 'plastic boats' are arriving each and every day to the shores of the Greek island of Lesvos, separated by the Aegean Sea from Turkey by only 10 kilometers.



Emily Pinna graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art with an innovative Master’s Degree in Social Design.  She is a certified professional photographer (Washington School of Photography), and also holds a Master’s Degree in Communications from the University in Bonn/Germany. She is a visual storyteller, photographer and social impact designer. She has worked for several international organizations, including the community outreach program at the World Bank. She currently divides her time between Luxembourg and Washington, DC and travels often on assignments.

To see the full Blog//Visual Storytelling Chronicle, please visit:  WWW.EMILYPINNAPHOTOGRAPHY.COM/BLOG




It is a desperate decision to board such an overcrowded, unfit boat, as the likelihood that they will never reach the Greek shore is pretty high. It is also a business. The refugees pay between €800-2000 to smugglers per person. The one who agrees to be the driver of the boat, gets a free ride and a 5-minute introduction on how to 'drive' the boat.  If the refugees are lucky, they are greeted by some very dedicated volunteers who provide some dry clothes, water and food — as there is no structure in place, no big humanitarian organization dealing with this human exodus in a professional way. In this case, the boat did not arrive at Skala Skaminias — the shore where most boats arrive — but just outside the capital of Mitilini. I happen to spot them, pull over and help the exhausted refugees out of the boat. There were around 60 people fitted tightly into each boat. Luckily there were another three, more experienced, volunteers driving by who knew what to do, and together the four of us did what we could to help. We had people collapse in our arms, with no help or doctor nearby. We drove them to the nearest camp. 

Children are the most vulnerable of travelers. There are no statistics about child mortality among refugees as they travel to Europe. The boy above is among the lucky ones who made it safely to Europe. Others are not so lucky. When boats capsize, they are the first to die. The coast of eastern Lesvos is littered with thousands and thousands of discarded life vests. If those of adults are fake and stuffed with sponge-like material or grass, those worn by children are pathetic pieces of cheap plastic, originally intended as toys. In fact, many of these vests carry warnings in English, such as "does not prevent drowning" and "not for boating".