Polaroids put personal touch on refugee crisis

Story highlights

  • Charlotte Schmitz took Polaroids of migrants who had just arrived in Europe
  • She had them write on the photos to say whatever they felt at the time

(CNN)More than 1 million migrants and refugees crossed into Europe last year, according to the U.N. refugee agency, and so far this year more than 173,000 have made the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.

Photographer Charlotte Schmitz wanted to see the crisis with her own eyes.
    "It was something else to be there and to see people arrive to the island and kiss the ground and thank their God or friends that they made it," Schmitz said. "Because, of course, so many people didn't make it."
    Schmitz used a Polaroid camera to photograph people who had left their homes in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries to seek a new life in Europe.
    "Instant photography gives the people the possibility to write on the actual paper," she said. "That's why I decided on it -- so everyone could tell freely what he or she thinks or feels."
    Photographer Charlotte Schmitz
    The writing on every Polaroid comes from the person we see in that image. It reveals some of their most intimate and personal thoughts.
    The statements range from a sense of confusion and sadness to feelings of love and hope. Schmitz said some are also "so poetic," referring specifically to what one subject says in the 12th photo above: "I see only humans, not humanity."
    What people wrote often depended on where they were at the time they were photographed. Schmitz went to Idomeni, a Greek town on the Macedonian border; Lesbos, a Greek island off the coast of Turkey; and Lageso, a refugee center in Berlin where Schmitz said it can take weeks to get registered.
    "I smoke because of Lageso," wrote one of Schmitz's subjects. Another wrote, "I will be free after Lageso."
    Schmitz says one of the most enjoyable and emotional parts of taking these Polaroids has been meeting and making friends from all over the world.

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    "I normally share my WhatsApp number as well, so people are writing me: 'I'm here,' 'I have this problem,' or, 'Can you help me?' " she said. "Most people (I photograph), I have a relation with after that somehow, or at least I know via WhatsApp how they are, where they are. ... That is what I believe is most important actually -- that we are having more friends, friends from all kinds of different countries."
    Ultimately, Schmitz believes it's important to recognize that the people we see in her Polaroids are individuals with situations and circumstances that should not merely be addressed with universal laws and regulations.
    "I met so many people, and everyone was telling me a story which makes total sense as to why they're trying to go to another country," she said. "These are people, no? It's not just numbers ... it's actual people. And this is something European politics is totally missing. ...
    "I don't think (outsiders) see the stories behind the (refugees). They just see a boat which drowned and maybe people died -- and OK, that's maybe sad. But there are so many causes why you have to leave your home country, and no one is doing this just for fun or for getting some money from the state or whatever. I want people to see and to think more about every individual person."