Human Narratives

Each year, the Carmignac Photojournalism Award enables a photojournalist to undertake an investigation into regions in which human rights have been violated. From February to June of 2016, the seventh annual winner and laureate Narciso Contreras travelled around post-Gaddafi Libya documenting what he saw. Through the organisers of the award, Fondation Carmignac, the findings have been condensed into an exhibition with an accompanying monograph, culminating in his report on the deepening humanitarian crisis enveloping the country. The 32 photographs which make up the exhibition are on show at the Saatchi Gallery until 16 June, and the Mexican photographer’s dramatic, highly narrative and often distressingly frank style ensures that the story of human suffering in a conflict zone largely forgotten by the media does not go untold.

Contreras went into Libya with the aim of documenting a region in flux. Six years after the deposition of Gaddafi, an initial surge of revolutionary hope has crumpled, with rival militia groups prevailing over the rule of law. Subsequently, the country now ostensibly functions as an area of transit, an essential corridor for mass migration both internally in Africa and towards Europe.

Earlier images from the project demonstrate the myriad struggles of this migration in much the same way as that to which we have become inured by continuous media coverage from other regions. A sub-Saharan migrant sits downcast on the Tajoura shore, her hair ruffled and clothes filthy in the rubble, the strip of deep Mediterranean azure on which she was arrested by the coastguard just metres away. Another from the same series faces inland: groups of travellers sit in much the same situation, marooned on the wrong continent by the powers that be, their escape foiled for now. These photographs are both evocative and beautiful in a barren, forlorn way, but in the context of our much-publicised refugee crisis their tale is precisely what one might expect from an exhibition such as this.

However, the photographer looked deeper after observing detention centres in which migrants were being kept, apparently similar to in Southern Europe. While the Tripoli authorities allow media access under the pretence of illustrating the “migration crisis”, the reality is even darker. Contreras described his findings to me as “a slavery situation”, in which “humans have become one of many commodities” in a lucrative black market. People are imprisoned, bought and sold via the detention centres; those who run them are stockpiling humanity.

It is photos of these scenarios which are most compelling, and often appear to have been taken covertly. Several make up the series from Garabuli Detention Centre, but one in particular [pictured] stands out: four hands reach through the tiny peephole of a cell door, straining, struggling towards freedom. One is outstretched towards the viewer in apparent supplication. Others grasp at the air, at the daylight which its inhabitants can barely see from the darkness within. This visually shocking image perfectly illustrates Contreras’ acute ability to do what he described as his aim in the photographs: “to produce a narrative which takes one from “context” to a feeling of what it is to be trapped in these circumstances.”

A similar series, this time from the Surman Detention Centre, includes female detainees being loaded into a bus headed to another facility. It was this location, however, which also produced the most perturbing section of the exhibition. In a separate room to the rest hang photographs taken of mentally ill inmates [also pictured]. One woman, clearly distressed, bears an abortion scar and looks straight into the lens. Her imploring gaze and the saturation of bright colour draws the viewer to the heightened emotion of the scene. This powerful image of violation brings to bear the brutality of the situation into which many have fallen.

Unsurprisingly, Contreras admits that this was no simple undertaking, even with all the logistical and financial help provided by the Fondation. Patrick Baz, Contreras’ primary “fixer” throughout the project speaks frankly about the risks: “I imagine his solitude in the Libyan desert, surrounded by … smugglers who are hostile to his presence, corrupt police and military, and human traffickers in the pocket of Daesh or Al-Qaeda, ready to sell him to the highest bidder.” One might also consider that the oeuvre in which this work sits: reports on Yemen’s civil war, the Egyptian revolution and the Syrian civil war reflect what Contreras describes as his “obsessive pursuit of the truth.”

In stark contrast, the glamour of the Saatchi gallery initially seems an odd place to stage a piece of hard-hitting investigative journalism such as this. It wouldn’t be the first time that setting the global migration crisis within the paradigm of contemporary art had the effect of seeming gratuitous. But jumping to that conclusion would be missing the point: the aesthetic of these photos is part of what makes the subject matter so compelling, so undeniable. Such a lucid and well-structured show in a major national exhibition space is a statement of intent by Fondation Carmignac to breath fresh life into photojournalism, a profession which, according to the General Secretary of Reporters Without Borders, “is going through an economic crisis … and must be defended.”

From chaos and civil war, Contreras has assembled a clear, vivid and emotive report of modern day slavery. With the Fondation’s help, the Mexican photographer presents a unique glimpse into a world which very few understand.

Alex Daniel

Narciso Contreras, Libya: A Human Marketplace runs until 16 June at Saatchi Gallery, London. For more information:

1. Human trafficking 21: Surman, June. Illegal female migrants queue in the prison yard as they are loaded onto buses to be transferred to another detention centre, after having been sold by the militia group ruling the Surman detention camp in the west of Libya. Surman, Libya. © Narciso Contreras for Fondation Carmignac.
2. Human trafficking 07: Garabuli, March. Sub-Saharan illegal migrants and refugees reach through the window of a cell in the Garabuli Detention Centre, pleading for water, cigarettes, food and their release. Garabuli, Libya. © Narciso Contreras for Fondation Carmignac.
3. Human trafficking 06: Surman, June. Sub-Saharan illegal migrants and refugees are pictured begging for their release in one Surman Detention Centre. The Centre’s Director (not pictured) stands in front of the cell, threatening to beat them with a stick if they do not calm down. The detainees freeze in panic. Surman, Libya. © Narciso Contreras for Fondation Carmignac.