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[Eyes of the photographer] "They were singing to regain their dignity"


Whether it’s the day after the rescue or upon hearing about the disembarkation, women are often the ones who initiate songs to celebrate the joy of being alive, amidst a journey that has nonetheless left them wounded and whose outcome is more than uncertain. Tess Barthes, photographer and videographer aboard the Ocean Viking, filmed these moments of intense joy and tells us about them.

I spent the day collecting testimony from survivors. I had been confined in the clinic for over an hour, listening to the story of a man who had spent eight terrifying years in Libya. Little by little, a soft melodious sound began to creep into my headphones from afar. 

Outside, between the clinic and the women’s Shelter, three harmonious voices of young women came together to suddenly gather in unison, as if they had always known each other. 

The last testimony ended with lighter questions. We then finally left the clinic, guided by the chants. The sea had never been so calm since the start of the rotation. It gently shimmered in the setting sun. I only had one fear: to shatter the ephemeral beauty of the moment with my presence. I simply couldn’t capture this moment on my camera without offering anything in return. 

So, carried by the lively singing of these Ethiopian women with whom I could not exchange a word, I began to dance, clapping my hands with them. Sometimes I interrupted my dancing to film, but always with the same dilemma: to capture the moment or to live it with them. 

This indefinite balance kept the rhythm until nightfall, despite repeated calls from the crew to serve them dinner. 

I still don’t understand how these women managed to draw such strength, to sing with a powerful voice full of life after all the atrocities they went through their journey. This shared, suspended moment made me realize to what extent singing in their language was a need as vital as the rest and a way to regain their dignity.