The doctor on the front line of the migrant crisis

Story highlights

  • The Italian island of Lampedusa is a common destination for Europe-bound migrants
  • For a quarter of a century, Dr. Pietro Bartolo has been the first doctor to treat them there

(CNN)For 25 years, Dr. Pietro Bartolo has greeted the waves of migrants who land on the shores of Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea.

He looks the migrants in the eye, discerns who needs medical attention and deduces how he can help ease their suffering. And no matter the circumstances, he does his best to make jokes that help them forget their burdens for a moment.
    Photographer Stefano Schirato discovered Bartolo and his story in the Oscar-nominated documentary "Fire at Sea." It shows the contrast between Lampedusa's 6,000 inhabitants and the migrants from Africa and the Middle East hoping for a new life in Europe.
    The doctor is tirelessly passionate about his work. He is the director of the island's health services, but he has spent the majority of his time and efforts aiding migrants.
    Photographer Stefano Schirato
    "Even before the politics and thinking whether it is right or not if these migrants come to Italy, you should see with your own eyes the inhuman conditions in which they arrive," Bartolo told Schirato. "And the dead, the women, the burned and the children who die at sea. The first thing you must do is to help them not to die. The rest are details."
    As he documented Bartolo's story, Schirato noticed that Bartolo never seems overwhelmed by the fact that he's usually the only doctor in these situations. He also performs autopsies on those who have died, gathering DNA so family members can identify them.
    "He continues undeterred to go on the front line," Schirato said. "The only thing he often wonders is, 'Why (has) nobody ever asked me if I needed a psychologist?' "
    Bartolo also opened a center for those with schizophrenia and behavioral issues and manages it with psychologists and psychiatrists. Schirato realized that it was born out of an act of love because Bartolo's brother, who was mentally disabled, suffered from the same issues.

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    Schirato aimed to remain "invisible" as he shadowed Bartolo from day to day. He wanted to tell the story in stark black-and-white images, which Schirato finds fitting for the various migrant projects he has worked on. Rather than describe the landscape in color, he wants to capture the range of emotions.
    He has been following the migrant crisis for the last two years, hoping that his lens can help others see the personal stories amid an anonymous crowd. He believes that his images zoom into "an infinite and indefinite human flood."
    "All this leaves you so angry, it leaves you with emptiness in your gut. A hole," Bartolo says in the trailer for "Fire at Sea."
    The Italian Chamber of Deputies has asked Schirato to exhibit his work showcasing the refugee crisis.
    Although this was an emotional project for the photographer, he enjoys witnessing the lives of people who are passionate about what they do.
    "Being with Pietro was like looking inside an epochal tragedy, much bigger than me," Schirato said. "And to live it, to be personally involved. I cried with him for the stories of children who died, and at the same time, I was impressed by his hospitality and authenticity."