In 2016, Lior Sperandeo spent 10 days in Lesvos, Greece, documenting a rescue team helping Syrian refugees. While there, he filmed a video for his “People of …” series about the refugees arriving in Europe. We talked to him about why he thought it was a necessary video to make, the moment he decided to help the refugees instead of simply filming, and how he chose the meaningful title.
Where did the idea for your “People of …” series come from?
It all started in Nepal, during the earthquake. I was sent to film a documentary about a rescue team there. Along the way I saw all the heroes that come from all over the world — the rescue teams with all the technology, and all the stories that were being made about them. And I saw that no one seemed to care about the local people who were there, who lost everything basically, and needed to rebuild everything from scratch. So I decided to do something in tribute to them.
And then everywhere I went, I saw the same thing. I saw this human strength that no one was talking about. So I decided to start a series — I didn’t plan for it to be a series in the beginning — and when “People of Nowhere” came, it was such a big deal. It got a lot of attention, so I thought, “Wow, let’s keep doing those.”
What was it like to be on the ground there with the refugees?
It was emotionally tough. I didn’t realize it was going to be such chaos. Obviously, there was a lot of press everywhere, and a lot of volunteers, but sometimes I could find myself alone, standing in front of 50 people who had just come to shore and I had to choose, “Am I taking a picture, or am I reaching out and giving a hand?” What do you do in this kind of situation when the ethics question comes into your mind?
How long were you there and how many times did you see the boats come in?
I was there for 10 days. The boats came all the time. It was in the time of year when, I think, 4,000 people came to the islands a day, so it was very easy to catch boats coming. You just needed to see the black dots in the distance and take your car to see where they came in.
How did you decide what you were going film and what you weren’t?
For me, if I film, I like to be close. I don’t like to hide or use a long zoom — I’m not a paparazzi. I want to be there and I want those people to see that I’m there and have an understanding that I’m filming them. It was very important to me, and I think it stood out in the film, too, because I was right in front of their faces. Some of them didn’t like it; some of them wanted to cover up and that was totally fine, I just said “Okay” and moved on. But when I film something I like to be really close to it because I think it’s a huge difference.
I didn’t always know what I was doing. I didn’t always know how the footage would look.
One day, I remember, it was right before dark. It was cloudy and an ugly day. We were sitting in a cafe and heard that some boats were coming, and suddenly everyone was running around. I ran to catch this boat … I thought there were 100 volunteers running behind me. But apparently they went to a different place and I was running alone.
It was perfect scenery and awful scenery at the same time — a lot of the people were injured from the war or from hypothermia. It was very hard. I shot for maybe five or six minutes and then I started helping them get out of the boats. Those six minutes are 50 percent of the film.
You said it occurred to you that there was an ethical line between just filming and helping. How did you decide what side of that line you were going to be on? Was there a moment that you decided you had to film and help, or was it just something that you did?
It’s hard because it wasn’t the first time that I found myself in a situation where a lot of photographers have much more experience than me. I always say that I don’t want to become someone who has no feelings, who just shoots and doesn’t care about the other side. I want to be as friendly as I can. I want to keep feeling their pain, because maybe my pictures and my videos will be better. That’s how I see it.
There was one point where I was very close to an Israeli doctor — they spoke Arabic and they were really popular at the shores because everyone wanted their help. At one point they were treating a 15-year-old boy with hypothermia and it was pretty bad. I was rolling the whole time, until they really needed help getting stuff from their car or their bags. They felt comfortable enough to scream at me and tell me to get my butt together and give them the help they needed. So I just put my camera on my shoulder and started giving them stuff, acting like a nurse for half an hour. The boy survived … he’s well … so I was happy I could be there.
It seems like there are two very distinct parts of this video — the slow part in the beginning and the fast part at the end. When you were in the post-production stages, how did you decide on that pacing?
First of all, I had the music in mind already. I knew I wanted to use this music and actually, it took me two months to get permission from the artist.
I felt like what we see in television is a big bubble that I had to break. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to give the normal photos of everyone getting to shore, everyone waiting, waiting to get to Europe, walking on the streets … and then suddenly see the real thing, see the pain and the struggle. See young people and old people. This isn’t ISIS, these are old people and pregnant women, and babies. I wanted to show the pain. I wanted to get the viewer to feel what I felt on the shore.
This video is more political in nature than most travel videos we would see. Why did you feel it was necessary to make this?
In the series, I don’t use words or spoken opinion because it’s important for me to give you, the viewer, the chance to think whatever you want. We’re so used to the conservative news platforms that are doing all the analysis for us. Here I wanted to give the viewer time to look at it and think for himself.
I knew it was going to touch the political side … and in Israel, I wasn’t popular at all. But I still wanted to do it because it’s about people who suffer … and what’s political about that?
The title, “People of Nowhere,” is a little bit heavy, and has a lot of meaning to it. How did you decide on that title, and did you know that it was going to have the weight that it does?
I didn’t know at the time. I actually worried it would be a bit insulting to the refugees because I’m basically insinuating that they come from nowhere. I think it was my sister who recommended the name, and I thought about it and it was just perfect. These are people who fled a war and it doesn’t look like they’re going to be back in their home. No one wants them there, no one wants them here … so where are they? The setting was also perfect because it was in between going into Europe, but already fleeing Syria, so it was the “nowhere” place.
What have you taken away from the experience of making this video?
My opinion totally changed about the subject matter. In Israel, where I used to live, the opinion is very very bold and very one-sided. This is how I went to Greece, thinking that many terrorists were coming by, and that it might be dangerous. And I saw a totally different story. So my perspective was the first thing that changed.
But also, this is not a third-world country where you’re used to seeing people suffer and know it will take another hundred years until the situation will be better. These are people who have education. I saw a lot of smart, young, educated people who faced what we can all face at some point … the end of the world, a war breaking out, I mean, the Jewish people 70 years ago were in the same situation, fleeing all over the world.
What are you going to do next?
On Saturday, I’m flying to Uganda and I’m going to film with an organization called, “Innovation Africa.” They’re providing clean water and solar technology. And I’m hoping to do a “People of Drought” for the international water day on the 22nd of March. Hopefully I’ll make it on time.
Are you going to do more of the vague “People of …” videos in the future?
Yeah, definitely. The first one was just because I was there. When I see, not only that the video went viral, but also the change that can occur. The Norwegian Parliament came to me and wanted to show [“People of Nowhere”] to their decision-makers. Lots of Syrian and other NGOs want to use it. I saw that it could actually bring change, that it could change people’s minds.
The tool that I had in my hands … I didn’t know it was such a powerful tool. Now I’m going to use it.
What were you hoping that people would take away from the video?
I really hope the video will help the viewer stop and look and feel. For two minutes, just stop what you’re doing and look.
Lior filmed using a Canon 1DC and a DGI Phantom 3 drone.