Experience

Joel Van Houdt: “Once You Are in the Boat There is No Way Back”

Having become an illegal person, Dutch photo journalist Joel Van Houdt together with Afghans went from Kabul to Australia

When Van Houdt got tired of doing mundane work as a photographer for Dutch parliament, he decided to engage in journalistic work in dangerous and risky hot spots. His focus is the topic of illegal migration. On more than one occasion Houdt has traveled in dangerous waters with illegal migrants escaping their country to find another life. He embarked on one of these journeys with writer Luke Mogelson to make project for The New York Times Magazine.

Joel told Bird In Flight how much the services of smugglers cost, what it was like to embark from Morocco to Spain on a fishing boat, endure wrecks, and be seized by the police.

Joel Van Houdt, 33 years old

Independent photo journalist, native of Nordhauve, Holland, based in Kabul, Afghanistan. He studied design and photography at the Bradford University in the UK and graduated from the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. His work has been published in The New York Times, GQ, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, TIME and other publications. .

Can you tell me about your project about illegal immigrants? How did you manage to travel with them on a boat?

I started the first project in 2007. It was a long and expensive trip. I heard about young guys who try to get to Europe from Africa on fishing boats. Each of them has their own reasons, but typically they are looking for a better life. I traveled to different villages in Morocco looking for people. And of course no one would say, “Yes we are smugglers.”

It was very difficult. After two weeks I was about to give up. I was walking in the market and there was this young guy, Mohammed. We decided to go somewhere to have a tea and watch a soccer game. I asked him if he knew anything about this business. He was actually trying to go to Europe. And he had a friend, Ahmed, who tried once, but his boat sunk. So I basically started following him. I spent three months with him. We found some smugglers.

How much did you pay the smugglers?

At the time, Moroccans paid like 500-600 Euros and they asked me six times that price. So I paid 3000 Euros. We made a begginers mistake – we paid in advance to smugglers. They had us wait for weeks and weeks. Every time we were in safe house they were saying, “Tomorrow you go, tomorrow you go, the weather no good, the waves to high.” At some point they brought us to the safe house. There were around 30 or 40 immigrants next to the water at night, waiting. At 4 am they said, “Sorry but the boat was just caught by the police.” The smugglers turned off their phones. So they basically stole everyone’s money.


{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_02.jpg”,
“alt”: “Young unemployed Moroccans wiling away their time in cafes. October 2007, Morocco.”,
“text”: “Young unemployed Moroccans wiling away their time in cafes. October 2007, Morocco.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_01.jpg”,
“alt”: “Young unemployed Moroccan drinking water from a well in a mosque. August 2008, Morocco.”,
“text”: “Young unemployed Moroccan drinking water from a well in a mosque. August 2008, Morocco.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_03.jpg”,
“alt”: “Young Moroccans playing football on a beach in southern Morocco. August 2008, Morocco.”,
“text”: “Young Moroccans playing football on a beach in southern Morocco. August 2008, Morocco.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_04.jpg”,
“alt”: “Young Moroccans playing billiards. August 2008, Morocco.”,
“text”: “Young Moroccans playing billiards. August 2008, Morocco.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_05.jpg”,
“alt”: “Mohammed and other migrants in the trunk of a vehicle driving from a port in Sidi Ifni after failed attempts to illegally flee to Europe in a fishing boat. August 2008, Marocco.”,
“text”: “Mohammed and other migrants in the trunk of a vehicle driving from a port in Sidi Ifni after failed attempts to illegally flee to Europe in a fishing boat. August 2008, Marocco.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_06.jpg”,
“alt”: “Moroccans loading a boat into a Land Rover before a trip through the desert to the Atlantic Ocean. September 2008. Morocco.”,
“text”: “Moroccans loading a boat into a Land Rover before a trip through the desert to the Atlantic Ocean. September 2008. Morocco.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_07.jpg”,
“alt”: “Moroccans illegally leaving Morocco to Spain through the Atlantic Ocean. The trip lasts more than 30 hours. September 2008, Morocco.”,
“text”: “Moroccans illegally leaving Morocco to Spain through the Atlantic Ocean. The trip lasts more than 30 hours. September 2008, Morocco.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_08.jpg”,
“alt”: “Moroccans illegally leaving Morocco to Spain through the Atlantic Ocean. The trip lasts more than 30 hours. September 2008, Morocco.”,
“text”: “Moroccans illegally leaving Morocco to Spain through the Atlantic Ocean. The trip lasts more than 30 hours. September 2008, Morocco.”
}

I ran out of money and my visa was about to expire. So I went back to Holland and worked as a photographer until I had money again. Mohammed went to Tunisia to make money as well. Half a year later in March 2008, Mohammed called me saying that he had enough money to try again.

This time we agreed that we would only pay when we actually saw the boat. In three weeks we were in the safe house, waiting again. They brought us (along with 30 other immigrants) to the desert in the middle of night. It was an old boat, and I really did not want to look at it. We all started pushing the boat, after 3-5 waves it broke into a hundred pieces and sank. We had to fight our smugglers, but we got half of our money back. Ahmed gave up after that boat sunk.

Back in Morocco I had promised the captain of a boat that I would not take pictures of him for which he would face 80 years in jail in Spain. The judge asked, “Who is the captain?”

The third attempt a half year later was successful. In 30-35 hours we made it to the Canary Islands. We basically arrived on really tiny island. There was one village and one policeman. In an hour we all got arrested. They took my camera, my pictures, everything I had. And they released me after one day.

They brought me to the court. There were was this judge, she started asking me questions, “Who is the captain?” The captain of the boat was a young Moroccan. The guys who get the money – the smugglers, the big mafia in this trafficking business – do not go on the boats. They are either in Morocco or in Spain. I promised to the captain in Morocco that I would not take a picture of him because in Spain the captain of the boats go to prison for 80 years. I am a journalist; I want to protect my sources. I promised that I would not tell. The judge got really angry. She decided to punish me by not giving me my pictures back. They kept my memory cards as evidence. I got journalist organizations in Holland and also international ones to help me. It was really difficult. It took me six months to get the memory cards back.


{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_09.jpg”,
“alt”: “Moroccan migrants coming ashore on the Canary Islands after a 30-hour trip in the Atlantic Ocean. An hour later they were arrested.”,
“text”: “Moroccan migrants coming ashore on the Canary Islands after a 30-hour trip in the Atlantic Ocean. An hour later they were arrested.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_10.jpg”,
“alt”: “Moroccan migrants coming ashore on the Canary Islands after a 30-hour trip in the Atlantic Ocean. An hour later they were arrested.”,
“text”: “Moroccan migrants coming ashore on the Canary Islands after a 30-hour trip in the Atlantic Ocean. An hour later they were arrested.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_11.jpg”,
“alt”: “Mohammed is just released from prison as the authorities could not establish his citizenship.”,
“text”: “Mohammed is just released from prison as the authorities could not establish his citizenship.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_12.jpg”,
“alt”: “Mohammed is just released from prison as the authorities could not establish his citizenship.”,
“text”: “Mohammed is just released from prison as the authorities could not establish his citizenship.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_13.jpg”,
“alt”: “Mohammed in a dormitory for immigrants in Spain.”,
“text”: “Mohammed in a dormitory for immigrants in Spain.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_14.jpg”,
“alt”: “Mohammed. December 2009. Spain.”,
“text”: “Mohammed. December 2009. Spain.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_15.jpg”,
“alt”: “Mohammed standing in line waiting for a free meal in a church. December 2009, Spain.”,
“text”: “Mohammed standing in line waiting for a free meal in a church. December 2009, Spain.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_16.jpg”,
“alt”: “Mohammed. October 2008, Spain.”,
“text”: “Mohammed. October 2008, Spain.”
}

What happened with Mohammed?

They arrested him. They put him on a plane to Spanish territory near Morocco. And they gave him to Moroccan police. Mohamed could lie really really well. Moroccans did not know if he was from there. So they flew him back to Spain, and they put him in prison for a month. In prison he was a good liar, so he said that he was from another country. And in Spain there is a rule if they can not figure out where you are from within a month they let you out. So they let him out. He traveled to mainland Europe – to Barcelona. He is still living there without documents. He made it, but the situation for him was much harder than he expected.

You made another trip from Afghanistan to Australia. How was it different from the trip from Morocco to Spain?

The first trip was a personal project. And the second trip to Australia was an assignment for The New York Times Magazine. I was drinking coffee in Kabul with the writer Luke Mogelson. We were discussing stories. We decided to follow Afghans who were trying to go to Australia. We bought tickets, $4000 each. We told smugglers that we were refugees and we wanted to go to Australia.

But you don’t look like a refugee.

We told them that we were refugees from Georgia and made our way from our homeland to Kabul. We did not speak English to each other. We both know a little bit of Russian and Dari (one of the Afghan languages – Editor’s note). This was a crazy idea, but we tried. And month later we were in Australia as refugees. Actually it was much easier than we expected. I bought this Fuji camera and scratched it with a key – to make it look old to make it seem like I was refugee with an old camera. We went to Jakarta from Kabul and we told these smugglers – hey we are here, we are refugees – and they brought us to the safe house. In the safe house they were all were Iranians. We stayed there for 2 weeks. After some things, we ended up in the boat two weeks later and we made our way to Australia with Iranian refugees and one Afghan.


{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_17.jpg”,
“alt”: “Central money market in Kabul. Often Afghans that try to flee to Australia offer an advance payment to transporters on this market. September 2013, Afghanistan. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “Central money market in Kabul. Often Afghans that try to flee to Australia offer an advance payment to transporters on this market. September 2013, Afghanistan. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_18.jpg”,
“alt”: “Iranian refugees returning to the secret shelter in Jakarta, Indonesia. September 2013. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “Iranian refugees returning to the secret shelter in Jakarta, Indonesia. September 2013. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_19.jpg”,
“alt”: “Refugees from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan on their way to the secret shelter in Jakarta. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “Refugees from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan on their way to the secret shelter in Jakarta. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_20.jpg”,
“alt”: “Iranian refugees in an apartment rented by illegal transporters in Jakarta. September 2014, Indonesia. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “Iranian refugees in an apartment rented by illegal transporters in Jakarta. September 2014, Indonesia. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_21.jpg”,
“alt”: “First day in the boat with refugees from Indonesia on the way to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “First day in the boat with refugees from Indonesia on the way to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_22.jpg”,
“alt”: “Second day in the boat with refugees on the way to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “Second day in the boat with refugees on the way to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
}

Is it a long way from Afghanistan to Australia? How many days did it take for you to get there?

First you fly. There is a starting point – Jakarta. And then you go to a smuggler and you pay, then they try to get you in a boat. It takes about three days to get to the small island Christmas Island, which is Australian territory, but it is quite close to Indonesia. It’s a three day trip.

Did you have any issues not telling people that you are a photojournalist? Did that make you feel like you might be exploiting your subjects a bit?

It was a difficult question. We were struggling with it in a way because we could not tell them. Because we had to deal with smugglers. When we were in the boat they knew. But before when we were in safe house, we were not able to say, “Hey we are journalists.” Yes, we struggled, but in the end we thought we were doing the right thing. To show what is going on. And it’s the only way to do it – either to do a story like that, or not to do it at all. In the boat I took my camera out. I had a small camera in the beginning when the smugglers were around, but in the boat there were no smugglers or traffickers anymore. And I had my 5D in my bag.

Was it frightening for you to get on this boat?

I was scared. It is a really dangerous trip and people die in these old fishing boats. You do not know what kind of boat you are going to take before you are inside of it. They bring you to the beach and you have to walk through the water and jump into a small boat and a couple of small boats bring you to the bigger boat which is like a hundred meters out in the water and only then do you see what kind of boat it is. Once you’re in the boat there is no way back. Everybody was sick in the boat. People were trying to survive and thinking about a final destination. There was not much talking in the boat.


{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_24.jpg”,
“alt”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_25.jpg”,
“alt”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_26.jpg”,
“alt”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_27.jpg”,
“alt”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_28.jpg”,
“alt”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_29.jpg”,
“alt”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_43A.jpg”,
“alt”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”,
“text”: “A boat full of 50 refugees from Iran and Afghanistan sailing from Indonesia to Australia. September 2013, Indian Ocean. Joel Van Houdt for The New York Times.”
}

A lot of people die doing it. It is a dangerous journey. That was one of the reasons why we wanted to cover it. To see the reasons behind why people would leave their homes and take on so much risk to try go to Europe or Australia. A lot of people know that is happening. The newspapers in Australia blur out the faces of the migrants. Those people end up in the prison; it is really hard to get access to speak to them as a journalist. So we did it from the beginning, and we were able to speak to them and be able to give them face. It is a cliche, but it is one of the things that is great about being a reporter. You can give these people a voice in these situations – make it a personal story. It is not about numbers it is about people.

How much did this trip cost you?

In Kabul we payed $8000 for the two of us.

For Iranians and Afghans this is a huge amount of money.

It is and that was only from Jakarta to Australia. Some people, like Afghans, might have to go to India first, spend like month in India trying to get or buy a fake visa and they are really expensive. We met one family from Iraq in Jakarta when we were caught by the police with fifty people. This was a family of eight or nine people and they probably sold their house and everything they owned in Baghdad just to be able to afford this journey. It’s a really sad situation because when they arrive in Australia they are just put in prison. The rules changed and these people are never allowed to settle in Australia. So the family we went with are staying in prison and they will never be allowed to settle in Australia. These people take incredible risks.

The Netherlands is a fairly wealthy country and I would make five times more, but I would have to return to taking photos about politics. For this very reason, I decided to go to Afghanistan.

What is the specific nature of the work of a photographer in Kabul?

I have lived in Afghanistan since June 2010. It is virtually impossible to take photos of women. The most difficult thing is security. You always have to think about security when you go somewhere. Working there is quite expensive. For some projects you have to hire locals who agree to work with foreigners. This costs around $4,000 – $5,000 and it is very difficult to a return from such projects

Is it easy to find magazines interested in publishing a story from Afghanistan?

It is getting harder and harder because people are not as interested any more. Other things are happening in the world. The foreign troops are leaving in the end of this year. And foreign media is interested in this story when there are foreign troops. It is depressing. But we are no longer there and people don’t care about the place any more. I saw it in Iraq, when American soldiers and other nations left Iraq. People did not care anymore until those people from the Islamic State showed up. And then people where like, “What is going on in Iraq?” And I fear that it might happen in Afghanistan as well.


{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_30.jpg”,
“alt”: “Garbage bins being set on fire in the old city in Kabul.”,
“text”: “Garbage bins being set on fire in the old city in Kabul.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_31.jpg”,
“alt”: “People watching a struggle in a park in Kabul.”,
“text”: “People watching a struggle in a park in Kabul.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_32.jpg”,
“alt”: “April 2014. Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “April 2014. Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_33.jpg”,
“alt”: “April 2014. Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “April 2014. Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_34.jpg”,
“alt”: “Police square. June 2014, Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “Police square. June 2014, Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_35.jpg”,
“alt”: “Market in Kabul. 2010, Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “Market in Kabul. 2010, Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_36.jpg”,
“alt”: “Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_37.jpg”,
“alt”: “Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_38.jpg”,
“alt”: “Member of the Taliban from Pakistan captured by the Afghan National Army.”,
“text”: “Member of the Taliban from Pakistan captured by the Afghan National Army.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_39.jpg”,
“alt”: “Presidential elections in Afghanistan in April 2014.”,
“text”: “Presidential elections in Afghanistan in April 2014.”
}

Which of your photo shoots in Afghanistan was the most dangerous?

One time my colleague and I took photos of the Ashura holiday in Kabul. There were thousands of people. 70 people were killed. When you go to take photos of a religious ritual you always think that somebody will kill you, but you hope that it will turn out for the better.

Are the photos worth such a risk?

Yeah it is worth it.You always think that it is never going to be you. It is cliche, people say the picture is not worth the risk, but I think some stories are. Working in a place like Afghanistan or here, or following migrants – it is worth doing it for other people. It is meaningful. I became a professional photographer in 2002. And I worked for Dutch news for a while. I covered a lot of Dutch politics, the parliament. I felt like stories there were not as meaningful. The Netherlands is a rich country. So I decided to go to Afghanistan for this reason. As a freelancer I took a big pay cut. I am making twenty percent of the income of what I used to get in Holland, but I was doing political assignments and commercials.

How do you convey such important stories to a wide audience?

Of course, it is great when your work is published in Time Lightbox or NYT Lens Blog. I, just like any photographer, want to make a book. This is fantastic, but on the other hand only other photographers and journalists will see the book. The circulation is around 750 books that your colleagues would buy. That’s why I think it is important to publish your photos on other platforms – on the Internet or exhibit your photos on the streets where the average people will see your works.


{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_40.jpg”,
“alt”: “12-year old Tanara among injured and killed people following an explosion near a mosque on the Ashura holiday in Kabul. December 6, 2011, Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “12-year old Tanara among injured and killed people following an explosion near a mosque on the Ashura holiday in Kabul. December 6, 2011, Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_41.jpg”,
“alt”: “Afghani National Army.”,
“text”: “Afghani National Army.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_42.jpg”,
“alt”: “Afghani National Army.”,
“text”: “Afghani National Army.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_43.jpg”,
“alt”: “Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_44.jpg”,
“alt”: “NATO leaves Nimroz in Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “NATO leaves Nimroz in Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_45.jpg”,
“alt”: “German military in Kunduze. July 2010, Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “German military in Kunduze. July 2010, Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_46.jpg”,
“alt”: “Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_47.jpg”,
“alt”: “German military soldiers injured after a vehicle rode over a self-made mine in Kunduze. July 2010, Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “German military soldiers injured after a vehicle rode over a self-made mine in Kunduze. July 2010, Afghanistan.”
},
{
“img”: “/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/joel_48.jpg”,
“alt”: “Аttack on the international airport. June 2013, Afghanistan.”,
“text”: “Аttack on the international airport. June 2013, Afghanistan.”
}

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