University of Westminster BA photography graduate Aida Silvestri is BJP’s Best of show at this year’s Free range graduate exhibition in east London. Gemma Padley speaks to her about her work, which documents human trafficking in Eritrea
For her final degree project, Aida Silvestri chose a subject that was close to home. Born in Eritrea, east Africa, to an Italian father and an Eritrean mother, Silvestri decided to document the experiences of refugees from the region as they travelled to the UK. Eritrea has been governed by a dictator for 22 years and there is no freedom of speech or religion, Silvestri explains. People who leave are regarded as criminals and are unable to go home for fear of imprisonment or death.
Silvestri began speaking to people who had made the dangerous and uncertain journey to the UK. “A lot of my friends experienced it,” she says. “People are scared because of the oppression back home. I wanted to find a way to tell their stories. I didn’t want to get into the political situation but to discuss the journeys people made. People were frightened to talk about their experiences. I wanted to show this fear, and I wondered how I could do this through photography. In the end I decided to blur people’s faces by defocusing the lens. I took just one photograph after I had interviewed each person. The people may not be there physically but their soul is there.”
The project’s title, Even This Will Pass, echoes a message written on a wall on Mount Sinai that Silvestri came across while researching. “People wrote messages of hope during their journeys and I thought this one was quite special.”
Silvestri mapped the route each person took and superimposed it as a corresponding line across the individual portraits. “Mapping the journeys graphically allows the viewer to trace these journeys,” she says. “In the early days [of the regime] people could take a plane but others have had to travel on foot and by car to a point where they could catch a plane. The journeys have become increasingly difficult.”
Describing her approach as documentary, Silvestri’s chief objectives are to raise awareness of human trafficking and smuggling, and to draw attention to the brutality of the Eritrean regime. “I wanted to do this in an artistic and conceptual way, rather than showing the injuries that people have sustained. It’s less gruesome but more powerful and dignified for the sitters. I had to be discreet for fear of endangering myself, my family in Eritrea and my subjects. We are used to seeing images from Syria and Iraq, so I wanted to take a different approach.”
Silvestri has produced a book of the images, which includes a written account of each person’s story. “I would also like to exhibit the work,” she says. “If I could help those people who are trapped in the hands of traffickers, that would be brilliant.”