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Meet the Photographer Behind Our National Magazine Award-Winning Photo Essay

“My aim was to show these people are human beings,” says National Magazine Award-winning Francesco Zizola.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Francesco Zizola/NOOR)

Francesco Zizola had been photographing desperate immigrants for more than a decade by the time he began joining rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea. Zizola, who was born in Italy, became interested in migration crises at the same time many of his countrymen did: in August of 1991, when a rusty freighter carrying more than 10,000 Albanians—many of them young men seeking work—forcefully docked at the Italian port city of Bari.

“We Italians were very poor, especially after the Second World War, and we were the migrants going to the United States or South America or Northern Europe,” Zizola says. “That was the first time the Italians realized that we were not only a land from where migrants went away, but also a land where migrants are coming.”

Since then, Zizola has worked to document the struggles of migrants to Europe. His portfolio includes portraits of Eritreans kidnapped by ISIS while trying to escape their country, as well as the underwater remains of a smuggling boat that sank within sight of the Italian island of Lampedusa, leaving 368 people dead.

Over three weeks in August and September of 2015, Zizola joined Doctors Without Borders patrols that rescued migrants from overcrowded boats. Pacific Standardpublished his photographs of mostly Eritrean migrants in the July/August 2016 issue. The migrants said they were fleeing a surveillance state and a life of forced labor. Zizola’s photo essay won the National Magazine Award for Feature Photography earlier this month.

“My aim was to show that these people are human beings. That should be a stupid sentence, but it’s not because the public opinion here in Italy — and not only in Italy, in Europe — often is that they don’t have the right to come here; they don’t have the right to be rescued,” Zizola says. “And so the aim was to try to show them as human beings with our same desires. I show the fear in their eyes as they’re being rescued, and the desire and the joy and the pain that they were living at that moment.”