26 August 2020

The Hope and Heartache of African Migrants

26 August 2020 - Written by Lucia De Stefani

Russian photographer Alisa Martynova uses a metaphorical and lyrical photographic language to chronicle the journeys of African migrants who left their homelands harboring hopes of a brighter future and better living conditions.

© Alisa Martynova, from the series Nowhere Near

The migrant’s journey is a long one, night after night, inching toward the horizon like constellations. Not just typical stars, they are high-velocity stars, ejected at hyper speed by black holes, sprinkled across the cosmos by the force of their propulsion. And these scattered stars, in their crossing, are like the migrants that Alisa Martynova met in Florence who had come from Nigeria, The Gambia, and Ivory Coast, across Europe, seeking El Dorado.

Immigration has been extensively documented by photojournalists and media publications, using a documentary approach that shows, with unflinching honesty, the cruel conditions and dramatic hurdles they endure - an approach that compels viewers to recognise their pain.

Although telling the same story, Martynova makes a different stylistic choice that brings humanity to the fore. She embraces a metaphorical and lyrical style, beyond the lurid imagery of headlines and news reports.

© Alisa Martynova, from the series Nowhere Near
© Alisa Martynova, from the series Nowhere Near

In the choral testimony of the voices she collects, the celestial constellation is one of young Africans from different countries, of different genders and with different traits, a testament to the individuality and diversity that they each embody. Some young migrants aimed to reach Libya from southern countries, often finding a dead end in prison. Others aimed at Europe’s El Dorado; many found it, despite sacrifices, its promise intact. Others met a dreadful reality - the dream they had long harbored, treasured on those endless nights of travel, shattered.

“Sometimes we want something, but this something never arrives, or we probably realise that circumstances don’t allow it, and therefore it becomes a vision that it’ll never happen,” Martynova says, commenting on the immigrants’ experiences. “It almost becomes a nightmare that hunts you, the recurring dream of a nightmare.”

This desolate conclusion brings a somber tone to the experience, touching a note often concealed: migrants’ deep disappointment, the disillusionment of feeling trapped, estranged from one’s country, outsiders in a foreign land, the dilemma of whether to return or stay. They’re “Nowhere Near” - as the title suggests - catapulted into a world where nobody speaks their language, the rules are different, the culture is different, and everything is unfamiliar.

© Alisa Martynova, from the series Nowhere Near
© Alisa Martynova, from the series Nowhere Near

In Martynova’s kaleidoscopic photographs, the humanity of personal truths transpires from the subjects’ pose, their demeanor, and the landscape, which serves as a theatrical backdrop to their stories. Not every personal adventure bears pain. There are accounts of success, integration, progress and love, freedom and security. Still, the cynical ones harbor bitterness: “Immigration is a lie,” one young man told her. “They almost promise you things that don't come true afterwards.”

Traversing Africa and Europe mostly at night, Martynova mimics the nocturnal atmosphere of their journeys, adding a physical horizon to an otherwise incorporeal narrative that is based solely on their memories and dreams - crossing a river, climbing a staircase - thresholds of a person's internal world. “This sense of walking, the journey of immigration, when we search for a road in the woods at night or we look at the stars… all these connections slowly came together like constellations,” Martynova says.

© Alisa Martynova, from the series Nowhere Near

© Alisa Martynova, from the series Nowhere Near

Accompanying her photos, the written description of the formation of the high-velocity stars is overlaid by transcripts of personal conversations between migrants in open online groups, trading information about their trips: boarding, disembarking, the journey ahead.

And yet, if the metaphorical references that Martynova adopts might render the meaning vague, it makes room for interpretation where viewers’ subjective readings can apply, bridging the space that separates them from the migrants. “This is telling the story from a different point of view… It allows the viewer to relate more to the subject, to feel something much deeper.”


Alisa Martynova is a Russian photographer based in Italy. After finishing her studies in Foreign Philology in her home country, she studied professional photography on a three year program at Fondazione Studio Marangoni in Florence, Italy. She is a member of Italian photography agency Parallelo Zero. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a writer focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives in New York. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.


This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

Written by

Lucia De Stefani

Reading time

5 minutes

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