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Thumbs up: photograph taken from My Journey exhibition

According to the 2011 census, nearly two million of London’s residents were born outside the UK.

The figure for Hackney was 35 per cent, or nearly 70,000 people. All of their stories are different, with migrants coming to work, study, or to find a new life; others are fleeing for their lives, and many arrive in this country through desperate and difficult means.

The Sudanese journalist, photographer and artist Anwar Elsamani, a migrant himself, is concerned with this last group. In particular, with the thousands of African migrants who have drowned in the last decade trying to cross the Mediterranean.

In his contribution to a new art project My Journey, which encouraged recent migrants to tell their personal stories, Elsamani decided instead to look at this wider state of affairs.

“I thought it was a good idea to talk about a big issue, not about my own journey,” he says. “Because my journey was not dangerous, like the
other people’s.”

The result is Lighting Your Way, a photo-film pleading to citizens of wealthy countries to stop cursing immigrants and instead try to put themselves in the shoes, for example, of passengers on the many boats which leave North Africa in secret and which never arrive in Southern Europe, whose passengers die in unknown circumstances thousands of miles from home.

“I worked hard to be their voice,” Elsamani says. “The voice of the people who died before they touched Italy or Europe.”

Elsamani’s own migration may not have been so risky, but he hardly had an easy time.

In 2013 he was flown to the UK for medical treatment by the international organisation Freedom from Torture, and has been treated by their medical foundation in London since he arrived.

Elsamani is a victim of torture by the Sudanese government, and was granted asylum in Britain last year. His work on the art project was an opportunity to “create something positive”, he says.

Participants on the scheme, run by the Migrants Resource Centre (MRC), were given free courses in photography, film, comic strips and audio, but Elsamani’s work is informed by already- considerable experience in his field.

Working as a journalist in Sudan, Elsamani had risen to second-in- command at a national daily before being forced to leave the country. He started journalism early on, writing his first news articles aged seven. Growing up in Zalinje, a town in Darfur, his father and uncles would bring him English-language newspapers and get him to read them aloud. He turned a small profit in the process.

“After I had finished, they gave me some coins, so every day I got a lot of money, for me as a child,” he says.Photography was another early interest. One of his uncles agreed to go halves on a Polaroid camera if Elsamani could save up enough money. His early photos were of “a wall, the floor; there was no one to show me how to do it,” he says.

Nonetheless, Elsamani became a teenage roving reporter, calling himself ‘the mobile journalist’. After university in the capital Khartoum he went professional, eventually reporting from all over Sudan.

Elsamani’s work paid particular attention to remote villages and the growing number of refugee camps, home to displaced people from Sudan’s own civil war and from conflicts in the surrounding region.

“This kind of work, few other journalists focus on it, because they want to sit in a cool hall with the politicians. But for me, I don’t like that form of journalism because those people, they have a lot of chances to say what they like to say. What about the people without that chance?”

His photo from one refugee camp, of two small girls craning to fill a plastic jug from a filthy trickle of water at the bottom of a sandy hole, won an award for promoting children’s rights from the United Nations Human Rights Commission in 2009. He won the prize again in 2010.

Visiting the camps brought him into contact with many migrants’ experiences long before he was forced to live his own.

“I knew how they continued their lives, what the problems were. Sometimes they spent three years, five years on the way. And in this journey, they lose their money, the girls are raped, some people in Egypt kill them – sometimes they took their eyes, harvested their organs.”

When Elsamani arrived in the UK, the Home Office initially wanted to house him in Middlesbrough, but Freedom from Torture persuaded them he needed to remain in London to continue his medical treatment. He lived in Stratford for a few months until Newham Council, unable to house him, moved him to Hackney. He now lives in a hostel near the Town Hall with many other migrants from all over the world.

From here, he writes articles for newspapers in the Middle East and Arabic-language papers in the UK.

Hackney’s high rents and deposits make leaving the hostel difficult to imagine. Elsamani photographs prolifically. On a recent outing to Regents Canal’s houseboat regatta, he spent five hours photographing the reflections of houseboats in the water. “I went there like it was a date with my girlfriend,” he says of the day out with his camera.

The resultant photos are beautiful semi-abstract interfolding blocks of colour, the scattered reflections of the painted sides of the houseboats filling the whole frame. The surface of the water appears to assume different textures depending on the angle of the light, taking on by turns a shiny metallic gleam or a matt surface like a tray of brightly coloured powder.

Elsamani admires the Sudanese painter Ibrahim el-Salahi, who recently had a major retrospective at the Tate Modern and who is himself a refugee, who Elsamani believes “is feeling his way” – carrying on in the path he feels is right. “I feel that the colours and the light are the secret of life,” says Elsamani.

The sheer number of migrants in London leads to a story told in statistics, but Elsamani aims to tell a different story: “There are a lot of people who lose their life because they change their job or what they like, because there is a problem here for them to continue their ways.

“So just for one problem, they lose everything. And if they can have another chance, they can make a life for themselves.”

My Journey is at Shoreditch Town Hall, 380 Old Street, EC1V 9LT until 10 October.

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