The images of refugees crossing Europe last year have become burnt in the national consciousness. Photographer Matt Cardy took some of those images. As a staff photographer for press agency Getty, he followed groups of migrants as they travelled from Greece to the Austrian border through Serbia, Macedonia and Hungary.
His photos and those taken by his colleagues have been used by campaigners on both sides of the political debate. In September last year, the image of drowned Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach was used to petition the Government to accept more refugees. Eight months later, Nigel Farage chose a photograph of migrants queuing in Slovenia to warn that Britain was at “breaking point”.
“Everything changed in Europe because of those pictures; politics changed – and there’s a suggestion they had an affect on the EU referendum too,” Cardy says. Cardy returned to the same scenes that dominated the headlines a year on for a series of “before and after” shots. But this time he found no trace of humans on the move. One of the places he returned to was the site of the photograph used in Ukip’s controversial EU referendum poster campaign, taken by his colleague Jeff Mitchell. The original photo, shot in October 2015, depicted refugees who were marched by a guard every morning after crossing the Croatian border into Slovenia.
“That was quite a controversial image in some ways, the way it was used. It suggested thousands of people were coming. Actually that was something that was happening once a day, which was an extraordinary time and is now no longer happening,” he says. “You go back there now and it’s just a pleasant nature trail with a lady cycling her bicycle along it.”
Aside from highlighting the number of refugees that crossed Europe, Cardy’s follow-up photos show that the Balkan route is closed – at least for now. The only refugees and migrants he saw whilst travelling that way were those stranded on the Serbian-Hungarian border. “You hear there are 800 Afghans and Iranians and other nationalities stranded in [Serbian refugee camp] Horgos – the number is constant because people are slipping through. There are people smugglers and a lot of smoke and mirrors you don’t hear about really.”
While some stories from last summer’s migrant crisis were splashed all over the news, others were never told. In one of the most physically challenging photos Cardy took last year, he found himself wading into water in Macedonia when a group of refugees decided to walk along a river crossing to find a hole in the fence of the border.
“We were up to our waists in fast-flowing river water as women, children and people in wheelchairs were trying to cross the water. That was absolutely Biblical.”
However they had been fed false information about the hole and were arrested at the border along with the journalists following them. Because Cardle was further back along the route and avoided arrest.
He describes the experience as one of the most extraordinary of his career, especially when he got to know the people he was travelling with.
“Friendship is a strong word, but there would be people you got to know, and you would see them again. It would be like greeting friends, especially if you’d seen them on different parts of the route.”
Unlike other stories he has covered in his 20-year career as a photo-journalist, the scale of the crisis made it so hard to predict.
“It was completely unchartered waters but it had such massive resonance. When I was there in Hungary in August, you knew that this was resonating around the world. You knew that it was going to change the face of Europe.”