People are people, not just a number. We are talking about lives, families with children and couples who share love like us.
Creating a different form of awareness about the refugee crisis, Pieter ten Hoopen's project follows the relationships of couples and families in Turkey and Mexico, who have fled their countries in a bid to create a better life for themselves
Q: What inspired you to fulfil this Love Stories project?
The stories I work on are personal - that’s the way it’s always been - which allows me to work on stories I actually want to tell. My stories mainly focus on humanitarian crises or war, subjects which can obviously be seen as challenging and upsetting. With this project I wanted to look at the positives that can still be found within negative situations. The refugee crisis has been widely publicised in recent years, so I was keen to look at things in a different way, focusing on ‘refugee love stories’ that provide strength and hope for those trying to build a better life for themselves. Love is one of the most important elements of human life. It provides us with positivity and hope when we are going through our darkest times, like many of these refugees are. These images capture couples and families who are experiencing the most testing circumstances and show how they have used love to drive them forward.
Q: What locations did you visit and what drew you to these particular areas of the world?
Istanbul in Turkey is the main hub for refugees who have fled Syria, so this was a key location. The horrors of the war in Syria are unthinkable, and many have had to flee and leave family members and loved ones there. I met couples such as Mohammad and Nada, who had left everything they owned, their communities and their livelihoods, in search of a safer life. My second location was Mexico. Most of the people who I photographed here were from Central America, fleeing poverty, violence, political repression and problems associated to climate change. In Autumn last year, approximately 7,000 migrants/refugees started their journey through Central America across Mexico. From these, about 4,000 arrived at the border of the US. I wanted to hear from people who had joined this migrant caravan and experienced leaving family members and loved ones behind in the hope of reaching a better future.
I met an inspiring couple in Mexico called Christian and Daniella, who were part of the migrant caravan in the Oaxaca province. Daniella, who was pregnant, mentioned how she met Christian four years before on a beach in Honduras and it was love at first sight - the couple were married just 15 days after they met! However, their story was filled with sadness as when fleeing their home, they had to leave their young daughter behind as she would not be able to make the trip, a heart-breaking decision for any parent. The couple plan to reunite with their daughter once they make it to the US. It is the finding of incredibly moving stories like this that drew me to these locations.
Q: How much planning did you have to do in advance for this project?
I cannot stress enough the importance of research ahead of projects like this - you need to be prepared. Before my trip, I thought carefully about the locations I wanted to visit and why, and then contacted local people and fixers on the ground who could help me. These people knew the areas well and were able to give me invaluable information on the locations, so I could get the access I needed for my shoot. However, along with preparation, you should leave yourself some room to be flexible - especially in conditions like this where the journey of the migrants could change at any moment. You never know where the story will take you, which is the beauty of photography. These unplanned moments define the end result.
With a project like this, you also need to make sure your equipment doesn’t weigh you down or restrict you. The Nikon cameras and lenses I chose were perfect for the journey these love stories took me on.
Q: What challenges did you face during your trip?
One realisation I had is that just because I am in love with an idea, doesn’t mean everyone else is. Therefore, it’s important to work with people who believe in what you’re doing and the story you are telling. This is one of the biggest challenges when working on photojournalism projects, and one I have faced many times in my career. You also need to find subjects that are ok for you to tell their stories and open the door to a painful past. Many are traumatised by what they have experienced, and you must be sensitive and be careful to not push them too much. This was a big challenge for me, but I was lucky enough to meet couples who were open to talking about their feelings and what they had been through. They understood the story I wanted to tell and were fine to share their moving stories of love and commitment.
Q: Did anything surprise you when you were on the ground?
I was surprised by how open and freely people talk about love. Perhaps this is a reflection on me as it’s not something I am used to, but I really was amazed by people’s honesty. These people who are living through the hardest of times, something we can barely understand from a Western perspective, rely on love and relationships to help them see an end goal. For them, love is a survival tool - perhaps the most powerful one
Q: What was your favourite moment of the trip?
There are many moments that stand out for me, so it is hard to choose a favourite. Listening to the way these couples spoke about each other, and with each other, was incredibly moving, and something I will always remember. It is a real privilege to hear people tell their stories. You realise that wherever people are in the world - whether Turkey or Mexico - love was the recurring theme across each and every story and fight.
Q: Do you have a favourite shot from your trip?
It has to be the picture of a man sitting alone on a curb in Juchitán, Mexico, preparing himself for another long day of walking and catching rides. This was a powerful moment – he was aware of me and I was aware of him, yet we both felt completely alone. It was early in the morning, before any other refugees travelling with the caravan were awake, and the light was perfect for my D850. I feel like this image is symbolic to what many refugees are going through. This man left his home and everything he owns to try and create a better life for himself and his family, a decision many of us could not comprehend.
Q: What kit did you bring with you and how did it help you get the shots you wanted?
I used the D850 - my favourite camera, which is perfect for capturing quick, high-quality shots. I also got the chance to test out the Z 7, which was a new experience for me, and I loved it. Working in the field requires lots of walking, running and jumping, and the lightweight aspect of the Z 7 was superb for this – allowing me to capture some great video content during my trip. The camera allows you to shoot in 4K and is incredibly steady which means there is no shake. In terms of choice of lens, the AF-S NIKKOR 28mm f/1.4E ED stayed by my side throughout. It is a wide-angle lens which is great for controlling the light – and never let me down.
Q: What message do you hope to deliver with your Special Project?
To really understand what these refugees are going through, you need to know that the majority of those who enter Europe, or the US do not actually want to be there. We need to remember this in order to develop a better understanding of what they are going through. These people are leaving their homes and their lives behind because they have no other option. The alternative is too dangerous, and they need to survive. We really have no idea what these people have been through, and I want to use this project and my photographs to tell their stories and portray what life is like living in these conditions. What it’s like to live and love under constant threat.
Q: What does it mean to you to be able to do a project like this with Nikon?
I feel incredibly lucky to have worked on a project like this. I have met some amazing couples and witnessed love in a way I did not even know existed, and I’m really grateful for Nikon’s help in enabling me to do so. The project was both challenging and rewarding and taught me a lot about myself as a photographer. This is just the start of my ‘Love Stories’ journey and I really hope everyone enjoys the image series and is moved by these very special love stories.