Award-winning photojournalist Enri Canaj shares his experience as a migrant and how he chronicles human transit with Olympus

Born in Tirana, Albania in 1980, Canaj has been a freelance photojournalist since 2008 for outlets like Time, CNN, The Wall Street Journal and The Financial Times. An award-winning photographer, he started using Olympus cameras in 2013.

For many photographers Magnum Photos is seen as the gold standard. The legendary agency, whose co-founders include Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, is the most prestigious in the world. And being selected to join Magnum was something that Albanian photographer Enri Canaj aspired to, when he was fortunate enough to spend a year studying with Magnum’s Nikos Economopoulos in 2007. “I became familiar with Nikos’ work while I was a student,” explains Canaj.

“After finishing my studies, I heard about the workshop that Nikos was doing in Athens. His work inspired me as a photographer, and being accepted in his workshop at the time was something that had a huge influence for me – not only as a young photographer but as a young man as well. I attended the whole year, and it had a significant inspiration to pursue my career and develop myself as a photographer.”

Refugees and migrants safely reach the Greek coast.

The two share a passion for documenting migration: Economopoulos photographed the first wave of migrants crossing the Albanian-Greek border in the early 1990s – including Canaj himself, who made the journey from Tirana to Athens in 1991. “I left Albania when I was 11 and returned as an adult when I was 21. But through Nikos’ work, I had the opportunity to travel back to Albania before I went to visit it in person. 

“Nikos’ images from my country were taken in the period when I left together with my family. Those pictures were not only visually familiar, but I could sense the smell of some of the places he had photographed. The only thing that hadn’t changed when I went back after 10 years was the morning’s smell; it was exactly the same as many years ago.”

Syrian mother holds her baby just after crossing the sea border between Turkey and Greece.

Canaj retains the same passion today, as a Magnum Photographer in his own right, photographing the migrant crisis. “After almost three decades I’ve documented migrants reaching Europe. In recent years the Balkans have become the main stage for the first wave of people trying to reach central and western Europe. 

“It’s a place where you can see people living in another dimension. High adrenaline. Exhaustion. Deep breaths, because they were alive. Hope, because they managed to touch Europe with one foot. Strength and determination, to continue the journey and jump into the final destination with both feet. People on the run, with no time to stop and think. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of people is a historical change for Europe. And to me, all this was very familiar. Their present was walking in parallel with my past.”

Refugees line up to get food in Idomeni, Greece

From the Balkans to his latest assignment photographing human transit in Niger, there is a constant in Canaj’s photography: his Olympus equipment. “For most of my work and personal projects, I use Olympus’ flagship OM-D E-M1 series cameras, with the M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO and M.Zuiko 17mm f/1.8 Premium lenses.”

For a photojournalist constantly on the move in challenging conditions, Olympus’ compact yet capable system has been invaluable. “The Olympus cameras and equipment are part of my daily life. Even when I don’t shoot every day, I always have my small bag with my camera and lenses. My camera is my closest companion; I feel it as an extension of myself.”

Unsurprisingly, when asked about the lessons he’s learned over his career, Canaj’s advice is all about the human condition.

“Something very precious I’ve learned from Nikos – and which I truly believe is the most important part in all professions – is to choose what kind of person you want to be. How you think of and accept yourself reflects on the way you accept others.”

Migrants from Syria and Afghanistan reaching the northern Serbian town of Sid.

Article featured in Digital Camera Magazine June 2019