All Photographs by John Stanmeyer
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A boy sells life jackets on the streets of Izmir, Turkey.
All Photographs by John Stanmeyer

The Heartbreaking Stories a Life Jacket Can Tell

Photographer John Stanmeyer has been covering issues related to migration for over two decades. This November, he spent time in Turkey and Greece, where he examined forced migration through the lens of life jackets, which are sold on the streets of Turkey and then worn on the journey to the shores of Greece.

Life jackets save people. But never have they been worn like this, by thousands of ordinary people as tokens of desperate hope, the way soldiers wear armor into combat. In this instance, the no-man’s-land is an often stormy, dangerous crossing for a better life.

Life, in the form of tailored outer jackets, many with misspelled brand names, arrives daily on the sidewalks of the overflowing streets of Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey. In their unequivocal shade of orange, payloads of tragedy, they’re a fitting economic bounty for street-roaming vendors. These opportunists, seeking to make a living off the calamity assailing humanity that we bear witness to today, vend them like vegetable sellers.

At a crossroad of hyper-commerce, bathed in dripping-neon light, cloaked in the obscurity of night, always attuned to passing police (apparently it is illegal in Izmir to street vend without a license), were those I met who offer this first baton of hope.

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A young man sells life jackets on the streets of Izmir, Turkey.

A life ring, for traversing alive the often perilous Aegean Sea, a 19-mile voyage that once on land gives way to a lack of graveyard space for those who didn’t make it, no room on the hilltop near the slopes of Lésvos, Greece, the refugees’ touchstone to the European Union.

In the Basmane District of Izmir, I met 17-year-old Mert, an ever-kind soul trying to earn money for school. When we’d meet each evening he would scream, “I love you, Johnny!” in elaborately long, drawn-out syllables. Each night, he would be donning a life jacket in a place where no open sea, or even a puddle, could be found.

For hours I would watch Mert moving through the shadows of night, dancing in the performing gait of a Javanese wayang kulit (shadow puppet), calling out a tale he’s been bellowing for months to every passing foreigner: “For sale! Life jackets for sale!”

It’s easy to spot among the throngs of passersby who are the possible clients: Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians—those treading the city in fear, desperation pouring from their eyes.

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Life jackets adorn scarecrows in a field in Lésvos, Greece, November 2015.

Everyone knows what this $20 procurement means. It’s the vest of one life’s status, the symbol of disempowerment, despair, homelessness. It means relinquishing oneself to a truth: that the act of migration is about to commence.

Under an even darker canopy, mothers, fathers, their children, and grandmothers are shuttled by traffickers into cramped, windowless vans that head toward the coastline of Turkey, where they’re forced to exit nearly a mile from the shore to walk, carrying their few belongings in a backpack or purse. Their hands also clutch a plastic bag as black as the midnight they walk through, meant to camouflage the telltale orange that they’ll soon strap to their bodies before they board a small, inflatable raft, packed tighter than smoked oysters in a tin.

I witness this degrading form of human migration while driving late one night to Çeşme, about 40 miles from where every life jacket begins its movement out of Izmir before being discarded on the shore in Lésvos, the island glowing in what felt only a stone-skipping distance away: the Gateway of Hope.

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Life jackets are left behind on the rocky shores of Lésvos, November 2015.

My heart is crushed by more than a week spent with life jacket hawkers in Basmane. For more than 20 years, I’ve absorbed sorrow while documenting forced migration based on war, conflict, poverty, and oppression around the world. I took a boat to Greece, legally and in a humane manner—aboard a passenger ferry—at 1/500th of the cost my sisters and brothers were paying to cross the same short body of water (20 euros to a licensed ticket agent versus 1,000 euros to a smuggler). The passage was seamless, safe, and welcoming because of one simple yet equally cruel document in my pocket, one that hundreds of thousands of others did not possess: a passport from an accepted country.

Arriving on the northern shores of Lésvos when most of the world’s media were following the more than 250,000 already in motion toward Germany, Sweden, and beyond, I stood, breathless, upon a scene resembling a cataclysmic Christo and Jeanne-Claude art installation.

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Life jackets are scattered along the shores of Lésvos, November 2015

An expanse of shoreline speckled with thousands of beaming life jackets—surely many had once been worn by Mert, the street merchant of Izmir—unbuckled then discarded, strewn on the rocks, dappled in disarray by the relentless tide.

Each jacket has a story, a life that it once protected—your sister’s, my brother’s, people who, by sheer destiny and precarious circumstance while fleeing war, persecution, or poverty, reached this shore on their journey of hope.

A story that is about all of us.

See more of his coverage of the refugee crisis for National Geographic here and here.