Greek photojournalist wins French award for poignant images of migrant crisis

Greek AFP photographer Aris Messinis has covered conflicts in Libya and Syria, but it was for his dramatic images of a migrant crisis on his doorstep that he was honoured Saturday at photojournalism's biggest annual festival.

Messinis won the Visa d'Or for News, the most prestigious award handed out at the"Visa Pour L'Image" festival in Perpignan, southwestern France.

The 39-year-old father of three girls has done more than just provide photographic evidence of the plight of the masses of migrants fleeing to Greek island shores.

He also became part of their story; helping a mother and child clamber out of the sea, carrying a baby to safety and even taking to the morgue the body of a child washed up on a beach.

Last year Messinis set himself up on the island of Lesbos, the epicentre of Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.

The images he captured there have been flashed around the world.

"I never thought I'd be covering this in my own country," he said. "These are strong emotional moments. I cannot describe them with words. You feel so many emotions at once.

"I tried to be as close to the people as possible, to feel what they were suffering."

As for when to stop being a photographer and start being a rescuer, there was no conflict of interests for Messinis. It was a "normal human reflex," he explained.

"We try to keep our distance, to be objective. But sometimes it is good to lend a hand to somebody who needs a hand. It is a personal decision."

His work, which radiates that humanity, is currently on display at the "Visa Pour L'Image" festival in Perpignan.

'An eye and a heart'

His work provides an extraordinary record of the humanitarian tragedy played out on a tiny Greek island.

For Messinis, the refugees and migrants aren't just part of a massive problem to be mulled in European capitals. In his pictures, eyes stop us in our tracks and we share the joy of a successful arrival after a perilous voyage or the cries of anguish of those coping with death or others who only narrowly escaped with their lives.

Messinis is himself the son of a photojournalist. He joined Agence France-Presse (AFP) in 2003 and has risen to become the head of the agency's photo desk in Athens. His first major theatre was the Libyan conflict in 2011 when he recorded the battle for Syrte, days before the death of dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

For his courage and coverage of that conflict he was in 2012 awarded the Bayeux-Calvados war correspondents' award for photography.

After Libya he made the world's front pages with images from Syria and from the mass anti-austerity demonstrations in cash-strapped Greece. Then last summer, when his third daughter was born, the migrant crisis exploded.

"It appeared as if he never stopped. He was working day and night," said AFP's Athens bureau chief Odile Duperry, describing Messinis as "very courageous" and with a "big heart".

"Aris has a deep sensitivity," explained Stephane Arnaud, chief editor of AFP's photo department. "You see that straight away in his pictures. He can capture the headline news, the things that jump out... but also the quiet times when you need both an eye and a heart."

"Yes, I want to shock you," Messinis said in an AFP blog. "Not only so you can understand what is happening here, something dark and terrible. Perhaps if you are shocked, it will stop."