A still image taken from the Imperial War Museum Life in a Camp immersive video display showing a family of refugees cooking at an open fire in the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. Photo: CNN / Courtesy of Elinda Labropoulou
ATHENS – Elinda Labropoulou spoke with The National Herald about Life in a Camp, the immersive experience created in partnership with CNN and the Imperial War Museum London, part of a series of exhibitions titled Refugees.
Journalist, broadcaster, Greece regional consultant and CNN live on-camera reporter since 2010, Labropoulou explained how Life in a Camp works, “The immersive experience enables visitors to relate and therefore better understand what life in a refugee camp is really like. Museum visitors enter a 30 square meter space and experience life in the Moria camp unfold on three large wall projections. They feel the camp surround them. The five-minute video seems like it could go on indefinitely. In this it is unsettling and deliberately claustrophobic.”
Labropoulou noted that “there are plans for Life in a Camp to travel to the United States,” adding that “well-known galleries in New York have expressed interest.”
TNH: How long did it take to put the exhibition together from idea to realization?
Elinda Labropoulou: Life in a Camp is an immersive experience, whose filming began exactly a year ago in February 2020 and is part of a series of exhibitions titled Refugees currently on display at the Imperial War Museum in London shedding light on 100 years of refugee experiences. The overall project has been in the making for a long time. Life in a Camp is a CNN-Imperial War Museum partnership.
My involvement in the project comes as a result of having closely covered migration issues in Greece for CNN since the late 2000s. I first traveled to Lesbos to document the arrival of overcrowded inflatable boats carrying migrants and refugees from the nearby Turkish coast in early August 2008. In the early hours of August 5, I saw the joy and relief in people’s faces as they set foot on European soil for the first time. Flows dramatically increased. Refugee camps were created in the four frontline reception islands, with the Moria camp in Lesbos, the island with the greater number of arrivals, being the biggest.
In the years that followed I witnessed many dreams and hopes being crushed at the island camps and the northern Greek border where the makeshift camp of Idomeni stood until bulldozers erased the tent city.
Funneled by the war in Syria, the humanitarian disaster unraveled in the summer of 2015. It is estimated that over one million people reached Europe that year through Greece’s shores, draining the country’s resources. Lesbos bore the brunt. I watched Moria and the makeshift camp around it mushroom into a ticking health time bomb and earn its reputation as ‘hell on earth.’ Moria soon became a global symbol for the plight of refugees and a semi-permanent home for thousands until a large fire razed it to the ground in September 2020.
Having extensively witnessed the grueling everyday camp life reality, the central theme of Life in a Camp, when CNN offered me the opportunity to take part in this innovative project that uses the network’s state of the art technology I was quick to hop on a plane to Lesbos along with three-time Emmy-nominated CNN photojournalist and filmmaker Lewis Whyld and make our way to the camp.
TNH: What was the most surprising thing you learned in the process?
EL: Every time I went to Moria it was like entering a time capsule. A place where ‘time’ acquired a different meaning despite the extensive use of wi-fi and social media that the migrants and refugees used to stay in touch with news and people back home.
Exactly a year ago, there were people living in and around Moria who were waiting for many months, in some cases over a year, for their asylum applications to be processed. The uncertainty, combined with the overall uncertainty of what might lie ahead took a huge psychological toll. This is something we don’t hear about.
TNH: How has the pandemic affected the project and/or your work?
EL: The opening at the Imperial War Museum in London was originally scheduled to take place in Spring 2020 but was delayed until late September of the same year due to the coronavirus. The pandemic also made any further visits to Lesbos and the Moria camp extremely difficult for most of last year due to the lockdowns.
Interestingly, the opening’s delay has also added a new element to Life in a Camp, as the actual camp no longer exists. So entering the immersive experience now also means entering a time machine and traveling to a place that holds special significance in migration history.
A large fire razed Moria to the ground in September 2020. An additional segment showing the destruction from the blaze and the new uncertainty that it created was shot in the days that followed. The fire adds an extra layer to the transient existence of those featured in Life in a Camp, highlighting the vulnerable position they are in as they suddenly have to add an extra stop to their journey.
TNH: Will you return to the camp for a follow-up project?
EL: I plan to return as soon as the circumstances enable me to and witness conditions at the temporary camp in Lesbos that has replaced the Moria camp. I want to also see some of the people I met in Moria. There is a young woman I keep in touch with who had a baby since moving. I look forward to seeing her again and meeting her baby. The new camp is smaller and better regulated but there are major problems with water and heating. There are over 7,000 people living there, at least a third of them children under the age of ten, braving the winter in tents.
TNH: What are you working on next?
EL: Some of my long-term projects remain focused on migration, particularly social integration in large urban centers. COVID-19 has created additional barriers and challenges that will need to be addressed. I continue to work on news stories and I am also involved in a multimedia project, a documentation of the era we are in. Due to the pandemic we are witnessing fundamental changes in human interaction. I feel it is important to document the transition and the transformation this will lead to.
Life in a Camp runs through May 23 at the Imperial War Museum London.
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