Photographers' Blog

The immigrant behind the eyes

Safi, Malta

By Darrin Zammit Lupi

“Go get 13i38 from warehouse 2,” barks the army NCO to his subordinates. We know his name now, but the military personnel providing security in the detention center continue to refer to him, as with all detainees, by the reference number given to him when he arrived here.

He is Mohammed Ilmi Adam, a 17-year-old, from Mogadishu, Somalia. The piercing gaze which made him an iconic figure is gone; he’s just like so many other teenagers of his age, eyes flicking from side to side, rarely making eye contact. Slouching on a chair in a small office at the army’s Safi barracks detention center, he looks dejected, submissive, sullen, lost, and indifferent to our presence.

Mohammed arrived in Malta in the early hours of July 10, after being rescued from a tightly-packed rubber dinghy along with 67 other, mostly Somali, immigrants. He arrived hours after a political storm blew up when the Maltese government threatened to deport a group of new arrivals without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum, only backing down at the eleventh hour when the European Court of Human Rights issued an urgent injunction to block the action.

Though he was safe, at least for the time being, from the threatened pushback, the picture of his apprehensive and piercing eyes quickly became a symbol of the uncertain future he and others like him faced. Soon after I photographed him arriving in Malta and realized the impact the picture was having on many people, I set about trying to identify him.

Visiting two detention centers on an organized media tour nine days after his arrival, I started showing his picture to a group of Somalis I came across sitting in a window. It wasn’t long before someone recognized him, and dashed off to get him. Once he appeared in the window, I immediately knew I’d found my man, though he didn’t immediately recognize himself in the picture. However, hampered by an insurmountable language barrier, and being told by guards to get a move on, meant I couldn’t actually do anything then.

Commemorating Operation Pedestal

Valletta, Malta

By Darrin Zammit Lupi

In ever dwindling numbers, elderly war veterans keep their annual mid-August appointment in Valletta’s Grand Harbour to take part in a commemorative service marking the anniversary of Operation Pedestal. Known to the Maltese as the Santa Marija convoy (as it had reached the island on the feast day of Our Lady of the Assumption, an important day in Malta’s religious calendar), Pedestal was a desperate attempt by the Allied forces to get much-needed supplies of food, fuel and ammunition to the bomb-battered island of Malta in August 1942, at the height of the war in the Mediterranean.

Malta, a British air and naval base at the time, was on the brink of starvation and close to surrendering to the Axis powers that surrounded it on all sides. The operation’s success, albeit with heavy losses, has gone down in military history as one of the most important British strategic victories of World War Two, even though it was in many ways a tactical disaster.

To commemorate the 60th anniversary 11 years ago an old school friend of mine, Simon Cusens, took it upon himself to make contact with survivors of the convoy and arrange to bring them to Malta to mark the anniversary. 105 convoy veterans attended that year, including three former enemies, watching a highly emotional re-enactment of the August 15, 1942, arrival to the beleaguered island of the tanker SS Ohio, the ship that carried the most crucial supply of fuel and is, to this day, considered to be the island’s savior.

Piercing gaze after a dangerous crossing

Marsamxett Harbour, Malta

By Darrin Zammit Lupi

I don’t know his name. He’s just another guy sitting on a police bus looking out of the window. It was the same sort of scene I’ve photographed on countless occasions over the past decade or so. But this chap was looking intently and intensely, straight at me, through my camera lens and into my mind’s eye. His piercing, haunting gaze was burrowing itself deeper into the innermost recesses of my psyche as I keep looking back at the photo.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. I knew it was an image I would probably include in my edit but it wasn’t until I was looking at the photo on my computer screen that his eyes, his expression, the texture on the dirty windows, really got to me.

GALLERY: DANGEROUS CROSSING

Sixty-eight African would-be immigrants had just disembarked from the Armed Forces of Malta patrol boat that rescued them 70 nautical miles south of the tiny island of Malta bang in the center of the Mediterranean. Many were ill, injured, exhausted and barely able to stand.

A sense of closure

By Darrin Zammit Lupi

I attended a brief and very poignant ceremony; the funeral of four Nigerian would-be immigrants who drowned while attempting to reach a better life, crossing to Europe by sea, crossing the central Mediterranean that has become a graveyard.

Six immigrants died on that crossing last August. Four bodies were recovered, including that of a fourteen year old boy.

The burial took place months after the accident, because DNA tests were necessary to confirm the identities of the four who died.

Watching Libya from Malta

By Darrin Zammit Lupi

When the Arab Spring got underway late in 2010, few of us imagined it would spread to Libya with any tangible effect. To those of us of my generation here in Malta, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was the bogeyman – he’d always been there lurking not too far from our shores – Libya is less than 350 km to the south of the island, and Gaddafi was a frequent visitor and close friend of the Maltese government in the 70s, my childhood years.

A year later, when I look back on the events that kicked off on February 17, 2011, I’m amazed it all happened so fast. Who would have dreamed that Gaddafi would be overthrown within six months, and dead within eight?

The start of the uprising turned Malta, normally a rather quiet news backwater spot in Europe into the center of world attention, as countries from all over the world struggled to evacuate their nationals from Libya. As soon as we got the first indications that there may be evacuations, I immediately started looking into ways of how I could get as comprehensive a coverage as possible.

Nurse of the Mediterranean

Ever since the Libyan uprising began last February, the small Mediterranean island of Malta which I call home has been a vital cog in the vast humanitarian machine in operation. It started as an evacuation hub for thousands of people and then became a critical transit point for humanitarian aid. Several months later, Malta continues to play its part.

I got the call to head to Malta’s international airport VIP lounge around lunchtime, to photograph Shwejga Mullah arriving on the island for medical treatment. Shwejga Mullah is the Ethiopian nanny who was recently discovered weak and alone in the home abandoned by deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s son Hannibal. It’s been reported that Hannibal’s wife Aline threw boiling water over her, causing horrific scald burns and scars, when she did not stop his daughter from crying and refused to beat the child.

As she was being brought over in a private plane chartered by the Maltese government, there wasn’t going to be any need to shoot on a long lens from outside the airport perimeter fence. The government officials wanted to show the world that Malta was still playing a crucial humanitarian role in the Libya crisis. We would be allowed right up to the foot of the stairs of the aircraft, so just 2 camera bodies, one with a 70-200mm lens and the other with a wide angle would be necessary. This was what all the other photographers were doing.

An act of God

I’d been looking forward to it for weeks, the flights were booked, passes applied for and I’d even had my suit dry cleaned especially. One of the reasons I became a press photographer and a big factor in why you aspire to work for Reuters is to shoot major figures and stories, both in the world of news and sport, around the globe. Despite ticking off various world leaders, sporting greats, world cups and Olympics, I’d never photographed a Pope.

Pope Benedict XVI nods off during a mass at the Granaries in Floriana April 18, 2010. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
Pope Benedict XVI nods off during a mass at the Granaries in Floriana April 18, 2010. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

So when I was asked to join the Reuters team covering his trip to Malta I jumped at the chance. This was an opportunity to see first hand how the Pope was dealing with the media spotlight he and the Catholic church are currently under, and also to familiarize myself a little with Vatican protocol ahead of the Papal visit to the UK later this year.