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Immigrants of Hope

His close proximity to tragedy has spurred Canon Ambassador Massimo Sestini to seek out the stories of hope that can be found beyond a single image.
An aerial view of a green rowing boat on the sea, with the front of the boat pointing left and the rear to the right. Oars are sticking out from the top and bottom of the scene. There are three people seated in the centre of the boat and they are looking up to the sky, and the camera.

Immigrants of Hope

In times of tragedy, is it possible to find moments of hope? This is the question Canon Ambassador Massimo Sestini often asks himself. The very nature of his photographic work, documenting the frequent tragedies of immigration, means that he often finds himself facing harrowing events. He frequently exposes himself to danger and risk so that he can bring us, the viewer, a world we otherwise would not see. And despite witnessing so much suffering up close, he continues to seek and discover moments of beauty. And through it, Massimo challenges our perspectives and the emotional choices we make when presented with such images.

“I started as an amateur photographer in my late teens and fell in love with photography as the most powerful means of communication. Even more so than video, as photographs speak all languages. From there, I became a photojournalist, sent to increasingly important places to take images. I enjoyed developing a unique skill – to photograph things that others couldn't reach. I convinced a helicopter pilot to fly over Pope John Paul's funeral, which was the only one in the air over the meeting of all the world's dignitaries and took the one picture distributed the world of his funeral, captured directly above St Peter's Square.

When I'm photographing in a challenging position, I am so focused and concentrated on doing my job, I tend not to get distracted by the potentially dangerous or tragic situations around me. The emotion of the moment is temporarily gone. The focus of getting the right photo is all that dominates my mind. If I'm hanging out of a helicopter and changing lenses, I have to be really careful it doesn't slip out of my hands, as it could literally kill someone.

A collage of six images in two rows of three. Top left is a man and a child underwater, looking down at the camera. Top centre: a head scarfed woman with a child on her lap sits on what appears to be a yellow and red striped flag. Top right: A couple and their child stand on a staircase looking up at the camera. Bottom right: a person stands surrounded by flowers, holding a hosepipe and spraying them with water. Bottom centre: The original image of the boat on the sea, as per the page banner. Bottom left: fifteen students, photographed from above as they sit at four white desks, working on computers. In the centre of the image, one person looks up to the camera and smiles.

Life after immigration. Each image shows the new lives of the people who were originally in the boot (pictured bottom centre). They look up at the camera, to reflect Massimo’s original image of them on the boat. © Massimo Sestini

After one of my images - immigrants in a boat - became quite known in the media in 2015, National Geographic and I set about to find the people who had been on the boat. I wanted to share what happened to them after the moment I had previously captured. And we found many of them! They now have prosperous lives in France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. I visited their homes and places of work and study to photograph them again. Together, this collection of images are the follow-up stories to what have probably been some of my most well-known photographs. But this isn't the story of the boat. This is the story about what happened after the boat. These are stories of immigration. About people who have gone on, thanks to immigration. Thanks to tolerance and to people not thinking about borders but opening their arms to people who've lived these beautiful stories.

In the original image, the people are looking up at me. There are so many ways to look at a photo. One might say that the perspective in the original boat image captures the tragedy of immigrants who cross the seas, placing their lives at risk. Or it can be seen as the beautiful story of the people who looked up and had a sign of hope.

In these pictures, I had a dream to find the people that had been on the boat and do a shoot. When we discovered that they could be found, there was this overwhelmingly happy feeling that I'd have the opportunity to find these people living a life of serenity after having undergone such a drama. Each one of them in one way or another said, "you were the guy on the helicopter that saved our lives." Because that helicopter found the boat, and the boat's position was then reported to the Navy. The Italian Navy was involved in this operation. So, they saw me as the symbol of their salvation because we identified them from above. To them, I represented safety. I can't describe the overwhelming emotion when somebody tells you that you're a symbol of having saved their lives.

Left: a quote that reads: “After many years of photographing tragic events, I have found that if you can't find a way to see hope or at least a search for hope, it's hard to go forward.” On the right, a portrait of Massimo Sestini photographing whilst hanging out of a helicopter.

In these new images, they are now looking up with joy. They mostly live around Italy, and I wanted to tell the story of the people who used Italy as the landing point from which immigrants head across Europe. Once you're in Italy, you're in Europe and your freedom of movement is pretty significant. With the young man, I wanted to show that he is a successful student in a classroom and learning. The woman on the rowboat in the lake – I was fascinated by the idea of showing a life where she is still in a boat, but now she's in a beautiful position, rowing in a safe and secure environment and not trying to save her life. Whilst I am often tasked to photograph tricky and tragic situations, from my own perspective, I always try to look for where I can also find an image of hope. On the one hand, the newspaper wants an image that shows the reality of the moment – the news story. On the other hand, I want to think about how there's another side of that story. It is a choice of hope, a choice to look on the bright side.

My desire to show this other aspect of my work has been developing for many years, and it gave birth to an idea that is now rapidly becoming concrete. I am about to open a gallery to show the other side of the stories that are usually shared in media. We hope to open it around the first of July, and it will be a permanent, rotating image gallery for my various collections with ten or eleven images. One of the walls will also feature a very large high-resolution monitor on which I will exhibit multiple additional photographs. I will also document the interesting behind the scenes stories that many of my shoots require. I want to open people's eyes, not just to the tragedy, but to the beauty on the other sides of these stories. It won't just be a bunch of nice stories, but a way to show the contrasts of this world we live in. After many years of photographing tragic events, I have found that if you can't find a way to see hope or at least a search for hope, it's hard to go forward.

When I'm called to shoot what I often refer to as 'mission impossible,’ that's when I'm motivated to make the photo happen. It makes me feel that anything is possible. Capturing hope has taught me to never surrender. I yearn to take photos of people in situations where they are overcoming adversity, when they are willing to fight for their safety, their health and a better life. Being in these situations also helps me grow. It helps me improve. I discover emotions I didn't think I had. It helps me cancel the pessimism that naturally comes with tragedy. I've learned to see the opposite of what I'm photographing. It changes my life for the better.”

Find out more about Massimo Sestini and his work.

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