Photograph by John Stanmeyer
Photograph by John Stanmeyer

World Press 2014: Signals from Djibouti

Each year, an international panel of visual luminaries gathers at World Press Photo in Amsterdam to judge tens of thousands of images submitted by photojournalists from around the world. The results of this year’s contest were announced on February 14, with six awards going to photographers on assignment for National Geographic magazine, and a seventh for a project funded with the magazine’s support. Over the next few days, we will go behind the scenes of the winning shots with the photographers and their picture editors. Here, John Stanmeyer and Kim Hubbard share their thoughts on “Signal,” which took the top prize of 2013 Photo of the Year.

When John Stanmeyer called me from Djibouti to say he was photographing people on a beach holding their cell phones in the air, I was a little skeptical. In his first few days there, he’d only been able to find what he described as “frivolous vignettes,” and we were both hoping for something better. Something substantial. When he sent me a jpeg of the folks on the beach, we both knew he had found a special situation. John returned to that beach night after night, hobbling on a sprained leg to get the picture. He managed to distill our entire story into one beautiful, moonlit image: modern day migration meets the universal desire for connection.

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Kim Hubbard and John Stanmeyer

John Stanmeyer, Photographer

The photograph “Signal”  was taken along the shores of the Red Sea on an evening of a full moon in Djibouti City, Djibouti.  I was there on assignment photographing the story “Out of Eden”, a project with National Geographic explorer Paul Salopek related to our collective human migration out of Africa that began some 60,000 years ago.

After a month traveling overland from a small village in Ethiopia, I arrived in Djibouti City. On my second day in the capital, I did what I often do when in a place I’ve never been before — walk about in the natural process of getting lost. While meandering along the beach, I came upon a group of people at dusk, all standing at different spots along the shoreline holding up their phones, some talking on them, others waving them in the air or just standing motionless.

I asked my friend/translator what they were doing as it was truly one of the more unique gatherings I’d ever stumbled upon. He said there are people, mostly Somalis, who often come to this spot along the beach to try and do what is called “Catching”—to catch an inexpensive signal from neighboring Somalia by using a Somali SIM card in their phones.

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Impoverished African migrants crowd the night shore of Djibouti city, trying to capture inexpensive cell signals from neighboring Somalia—a tenuous link to relatives abroad. From part one of the Out of Eden series published in the December 2013 issue of National Geographic.

Immediately I was astonished by what we were witnessing — the innate desire we all have as humans to reconnect home. Over the following few days I would revisit this stretch of beach where each night there would be a new gathering of men and women waiting for that moment when all the natural layers would combine.

Speaking to many of them, the stories were always the same: the desire to reconnect to family, asking for remittance or updates on emigration papers from family living in Europe. Not all attempts to catch the signal were fulfilled.  Some would stand in one place for twenty of thirty minutes, waiting for their phone to grab the faint signal which never appeared, only to return another evening to try once more.

I’ve been asked often over the past few days what this photograph means to me. Very simple — it felt as if I was photographing all of us — you, me, our brothers and sisters — all desperately trying to connect to our loved ones.

In this tenuous period of human migration where despair and hope simultaneously intertwine, we seek to find comfort, a sense of balance, a desire to be home, reconnecting to something stable, reassuring. This photograph of Somalis trying to “catch” a signal is an image of all of us as we stand at the crossroads of humanity, where we must ask ourselves what is truly important, demanding our collective attention in a global society where the issues of migration, borders, war, poverty, technology and communication intersect.

Stanmeyer’s coverage of the Hejaz region of Saudi Arabia, the second segment of Paul Salopek’s epic journey, will be featured in the July 2014 issue of National Geographic. John will travel to Israel in April to continue his coverage of Salopek’s seven-year-walk from Ethiopia to Patagonia. Stay tuned.