First Day at Sea

We were 93 asylum seekers on board and we were told to stay below the deck. It was very congested there and was very difficult to breathe as the place was too small and there were also some diesel tanks which made everyone sick. People who were closer to the entrance took turns to get some fresh air.Barat Ali Batoor

First Day at Sea by Barat Ali Batoor, 2013

The Academy is grateful for Barat Ali Batoor’s permission to use First Day at Sea as this year’s Symposium image.

Barat is a multi award-winning photographer based in Melbourne. He was born in 1983, in a family that was driven out of Afghanistan during the civil war when most of his people were massacred. He returned to his ancestral country for the first time after September 11, 2001, when the Taliban regime was still in Kandahar, despite the United States-led campaign to oust them. After visiting the devastation and destruction of 23 years of war, Batoor decided to work for his country and to draw the world’s attention to the plight of the Afghani people the problems facing the country. He chose photography as his medium of expression.

At the Nikon-Walkley Awards in Australia in 2013, Batoor won Photo of the Year Award for First Day at Sea and was a winner in the Photo Essay category. The Nikon-Walkley Award citation notes:

Batoor began documenting the displacement of the Hazara people as they escaped oppression in Afghanistan and Pakistan to safety abroad … He became part of the story in 2012 when he was forced to flee from Kabul. “Hazara exodus” is composed of photographs he took along the smugglers’ route through Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, then by sea to Australia.

He describes the journey as one of “sudden midnight departures, long road trips, surreptitious transactions, treks through jungles, and terror at sea. It is a journey that mixes fear, boredom and extreme loneliness. A journey that sometimes ends in joy, sometimes in despair and sometimes in death.”

Batoor started photography in 2002 and launched his first solo exhibition in 2007. His photographs were exhibited in the United States, Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Dubai, Australia, Pakistan, Italy, Japan, Switzerland and Afghanistan. His works have been published in magazines, newspapers and catalogues such as TED Gallery, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, Stern, India Today, Afghan Scene, Risk Magazine, The Global Mail, The West Australian, Strategic Review and others. He participated in the ‘Lahore Artist Residency’ in Pakistan and was the 2009 recipient of a photography grant from New York’s Open Society Institute for the documentary project ‘Child Trafficking in Afghanistan/The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan’. He was also awarded the 2014 Communication for Social Change Award by the University of Queensland.

Barat Ali Batoor, photo by Enzo Amato


Barat is a public speaker and advocate for refugees and human rights.

You can learn more about Barat and his work via his website and Facebook and watch his TEDxSydney talk on My desperate journey with a human smuggler.