"Photography is a little bit like a gun: it's neither good nor bad by itself; it all depends on how you use it," says Italian photographer Alessandro Penso, thinking of the many faces of refugees he has captured and published around the world this past year.
Penso's work covering the migrant and refugee crisis throughout Europe was recently awarded Photo Story of the Year by TIME Magazine. Penso sat down with HuffPost Italy to discuss the choices he makes as a photographer.
"I'm happy first and foremost for the protagonists of my work, that I chose to portray their human sides as mothers, children, girlfriends and boyfriends running away from war zones in search of a better life. These are stories that often get left behind when compared to the tragic news expressed by statistics and big numbers," Penso tells HuffPost Italy.
“I feel an obligation to give something back to the people I photograph.”
Penso began his studies in an entirely unrelated subject -- clinical psychology, which he studied at La Sapienza University in Rome. He didn't become a photographer until he was 27. But his work in psychology taught him some mechanisms, for example, that of reciprocity. "I feel an obligation to give something back to the people I photograph," he says.
"Looking back on it now, I can say that becoming a photographer when I was a little older and more mature was a good thing given the responsibilities it implies."
Penso's images portray a reality both harsh and reasoned, human and profound. It is complex work: he has documented boat landings on the coast of the Greek islands of Kos and Lesbos and spent time with migrants and refugees in the station at Corinth while they wait to find berth on an illegal vessel bound for Italy. He has lived in close contact with refugees desperately attempting to reach Germany, Austria and Sweden across the Balkans. He has immortalized the immigration crisis underway in Melilla, Spain, and the push from Calais, France, to the United Kingdom. In 2014, an image he captured in a refugee center in Sofia, Bulgaria, won first prize in World Press Photo in the category "General News Singles." He recently started a project called "Road to Brussels," for which he traveled from Bari, Italy, to Brussels with a traveling exhibition loaded into a truck.
"Photography may have some limits. It's not absolute. But when it is honest and coordinated with media and other institutions, it can help improve things for people by sensitizing politics," says Penso. For precisely this reason, Penso says he feels like he has "an enormous responsibility on my shoulders: the highest possible recognition for my work is maintaining a relationship with the protagonists of my stories, when they show they're proud of the work we've done together."
As new arrivals continue their journey through Europe, the way photographers approach migrants and refugees has changed.
"Lots of photos were taken, perhaps even too many," says Penso, "and sometimes in a morbid fashion. This tidal wave of photographs created diffidence among immigrants, who began to feel like they were being taken advantage of, sort of 'you've taken my picture, but nothing's changing.' Before, people paid less attention to this problem, and sort of swept it under the rug: I had to struggle first and foremost to search out stories and contacts."
Penso intends to keep following migrants and refugees across Europe. "So far we've only seen a small portion of their voyage," he says.
You can view more of Alessandro Penso’s work on his website.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Italy. It has been translated into English and edited for clarity.