“Chips!” ordered the boy on the other side of the metal fence, pushing a two-euro coin through one of the holes. He looked about 9 or 10. He may have thought I was working for one of the mobile canteens parked nearby, little family enterprises that have mushroomed here recently. But I doubt it. After all, he had clearly seen me getting out of a car with two friends a few minutes before, when he was playing football with two dozen other kids on a sloping cement surface not fit for any sport. It’s more likely that this boy, locked up in the Moria detention center in Lesbos, was teaching me a lesson in dignity: “I am not begging for anything. You are outside, I am inside; I am asking you to cross a road and buy me a packet of chips.”
“Photo, photo!” another boy insisted when he saw my mobile phone. Several more gathered around him and posed, smiling and making the victory sign. I hadn’t planned to take photos of people, and I hesitated. But this was different. These children were asking to enter into what the artist and cultural theorist Ariella Azoulay has called “the civil contract of photography”: They were offering themselves up as a photographic subject, while my side of the contract was to disseminate the photo to the outside world. They wished to become visible, to be seen, but to be seen smiling, assertive, courageous. They were claiming their agency, understanding only too well the globalizing power of images.
The few young men we spoke to were less keen to be photographed but very keen to talk. “Are you a journalist?” was their first question. “This is a prison. This is Guantánamo,” a man from Afghanistan said to me. “There is a Guantánamo in…Australia, and another one in Greece…. I have not washed my body for 20 days; baths are full of dirty water, up to here” (pointing to his knees). “Food is bad too, and you have to wait for two hours in the queue.” And then he paused. “The pope is coming here,” he said. “Do you hope to see him?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “I want to.”
Further along the fence we met a group who seemed tormented and distraught. “There is a hunger strike inside here,” they told us, and showed us pictures of families in tents next to the fence and small children lying on the ground outside. A Syrian man stressed that there are no lawyers, that no one knows what they are supposed to do: “They fingerprint us, and we do not know what for.… I have been here for 22 days now. A man was hit the other day by the police because he stood in line for food twice.… A few days ago, there was a fight among the detainees, and one was hit on the head with a metal bar. He was taken to hospital and has not come back.”
The man asked my friend what she had studied at university. “I studied English literature too…but then the war started,” he said, as they tried to find each other’s Facebook profile on their phones. “Families are taken from here to another, better camp nearby; why only families, and not us? My twin brother is at the border between Greece and Macedonia, and they are pushing to open the fence.” I thought of his brother that evening when I saw on the news that the refugees at Idomeni were tear-gased and shot at with rubber bullets by the police of the Republic of Macedonia when they attempted, once more, to cross the border.