On the left, past the goat farm

Commentary: For Road Trip 2016, I shot 5,000 photos while documenting tech's impact on Greece's refugee crisis. They only begin to tell the story.

James Martin Managing Editor, Photography
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
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James Martin
3 min read
Watch this: He wanted to take a picture

This is part of our Road Trip 2016 summer series "Life, Disrupted," about how technology is helping with the global refugee crisis -- if at all.

In June, I traveled to Greece to photograph the lives of refugees and migrants after more than a million fled to Europe. My assignment: to find out the role technology is playing, if any, in solving the humanitarian crisis.

Over 10 days, I took more than 5,000 photos. Photos of people camping inside old airport terminals, living in abandoned buildings, in tent encampments under bypasses. Two stand out because of what I saw and felt.

The first was on the island of Lesvos, where hundreds of thousands of migrants came ashore last year on overcrowded boats from Turkey.

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A view of the life jacket memorial on Lesvos at sunset, with Turkey in the far distance.

James Martin/CNET

It's a still life of life vests at sunset.

The locals call the site the life jacket memorial. Sometimes the mountain of misery. The photo is quiet. There are no people here, but their stories are. Each life jacket represents someone's decision to leave the fighting and bloodshed at home and head into an unknown future they hope will be safer.

I'd heard about the memorial and was determined to photograph it. That turned out to be harder than I'd expected because no one we asked knew exactly where it was. One person would send us off in one direction, while the next pointed us to some place different.

One day Rich Nieva and Ben Fox Rubin, my colleagues, and I followed every lead we got. We even drove nine miles following, "On the left, past the goat farm." We saw a few goats, but no goat farm and no mountain of jackets.

We drove back to our hotel, where I asked a young man standing outside if he knew where it was. He didn't, but I wouldn't give up.

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James Martin, CNET senior photographer, captures the life jacket memorial on Lesvos, Greece, in June 2016.

Richard Nieva/CNET News

We headed out again in a new direction and, nine miles later, found a nearly deserted refugee camp staffed by just one man at the gate. He pointed back to where we had come from: "200 meters past the Sunrise Hotel," he told us.

It was getting dark. Ben and Rich were hungry. But we agreed to make one more try.

So we turned around and drove back up that steep and twisty dirt road for another six miles to the Sunrise Hotel. And about 200 meters past it, we found a trail, even rockier and bumpier than the dirt road we'd been driving for the last two hours.

It felt right to me, but it seemed wrong to them. Still, we followed it to an even steeper and rockier side trail. That's when I spotted three life jackets scattered in the bushes. Could we be getting close?

We drove another 100 yards, up to the crest of a hill -- and found ourselves looking out over thousands of discarded life jackets. We screamed and yelled like explorers who had just found a lost city.

We hiked down into a gully formed by two gigantic piles of jackets, old rubber boats and children's floaties.

The photo just can't show the sheer volume of it all.

We wandered quietly and watched the sun set until it became too dark to see.

There's no one in this photo, but it captures the moment I realized our assignment wasn't just about tech. It was about people.

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CNET reporters Ben Fox Rubin (front left) and Rich Nieva (front right) take shelter from the brutal sun in a camp with refugees near Thessaloniki, Greece.

James Martin/CNET

I felt that way again a week later, when we went north to Thessaloniki, the second-largest city in Greece. Our goal was to visit a military-run refugee camp, not far from the Macedonia border.

It's where we met the men, pictured here, who were taking shelter from the oppressive heat. They had nothing else to do.

They spoke some English and asked if we had any water. They wanted water, cold water.

We didn't have water, but we wanted to help.

So we drove 10 minutes to a fully stocked corner store near the camp and spent 10 euros on three large bottles of water, a bag of Doritos and two bags of chocolate chip cookies.

We headed back and handed the bag to them, slipping it in through the fence.

"Good luck!" I yelled.

And we drove away.