Journalist Spotlight: Darrin Zammit Lupi on photographing migrant rescues on the Mediterranean
In April, Reuters published a series of photographs taken aboard a migrant rescue ship called the Phoenix in the Mediterranean Sea. Reuters photographer Darrin Zammit Lupi spent several days over the Easter weekend aboard the ship to document the crew’s work rescuing migrants at sea. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Darrin offers an inside look at his days on the ship and covering the rescue operation.
Q. How did you come to be aboard the rescue ship?
A. I’ve known Chris and Regina Catrambone, the founders of Migrant Offshore Aid Station, since the earliest days of the NGO back in mid-2014. I was present for the first interview they gave to the media about MOAS, and was the first (and only) independent journalist they took on board during their first mission saving lives at sea that year. I used to be on the phone with them and their PR manager on a nearly daily basis trying to get on board, and some six weeks after they started operations, they let me join the crew for a few days. Since then, we’ve built a close relationship and I’ve embedded myself with MOAS every year since. This year is the first time I’ve been able to do a longer stint than I’d be able to previously. I’m actually out on their ship Phoenix as I write this, patrolling in international waters some 20 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. It’s quiet right now, but that can change at a moment’s notice.
Q. What was your experience like aboard the ship?
A. The Easter weekend series of rescues were hectic and nothing short of insane. I’d never experienced anything like it in all of my 19 years covering the migration story. What seemed to be very routine, handing out life jackets to migrants packed onto a rubber dinghy and preparing to transfer them in batches onto our rigid hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) to take them to the safety of the Phoenix, changed when one person slipped off the rim of the dinghy, with others following him in like dominos. I happened to have the camera up to my eye when that happened, so I reacted instinctively and kept my finger on the shutter button. When I noticed a man slipping out of his life jacket and beginning to go under, as he stretched out his hand in my direction, I immediately shouted out to our rescue swimmer, who was pulling someone else onto our RHIB. I stopped shooting to help pull a couple of people out of the water, continued shooting, then stopped again to help grab onto another migrant struggling to get on board. It all happened very quickly – from the first migrant falling into the sea till the moment we had them all safely on our RHIB, only 80 seconds had gone by, according to the GoPro footage which captured the whole incident. Everyone survived, that was the main thing. Later that evening, we transferred all 134 rescued migrants to the Italian Coast Guard.
Our mood shifted dramatically by the next day. We got off to a pre-dawn start, very routine operationally, but then the rubber boats, and then wooden boats, just kept coming. By evening, we had 9 boats surrounding us, with over 2,000 people on them. Everyone survived that night, as other rescue ships started to reach the area and were able to embark people.
Q. What was the hardest part about reporting the story?
A. It got hard the following day. Not because of the sheer physical exhaustion everyone felt, having been running on adrenaline for so long, but because of the people that couldn’t be saved. Easter Sunday morning started with a rescue involving a tightly packed rubber dinghy from which several people had fallen into the sea. By the time it was all over, there were seven dead bodies on board, but we knew the death toll was higher, as people were seen disappearing beneath the waves and not resurfacing, despite the best efforts of the rescue team.
Q. What makes you passionate about photojournalism?
A. The ability to make a difference to people’s lives while operating on the front lines. I’ve been called many things, but to me, being called a humanitarian by David Manne, one of Australia’s top human rights advocates, or Chris Catrambone’s tweeting @darrinzl is not just a @Reuters photographer in the eyes of @moas_eu crew onboard #Phoenix, he is a rescue reservist on the frontline – there can be no greater compliment or justification for doing what I do with such passion.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a photojournalist? If so, what?
A. I’d have loved to be an independent film-maker, which is a partly a blend of my love of photography and theatre. There was a point in my life in my early 20s when I had two options before me – go to film school in Italy, or go to photojournalism college in UK. I opted for the later.
Q. Anything else you’d like to share?
A. I view migration as one of the biggest stories of the 21st century. It’s a phenomenon, a reality, that’s not going away soon. So it’s important that we continue to document this story, to inform the public of what’s going on.