Every day, more than 50,000 people leave home on a quest born of despair. Their decision may have come gradually over years or in an instant, triggered by the forces of nature or of man: disasters, violence, persecution, poverty. Their holy grail? A fresh start. What we call them depends on their situation and ours: migrants, immigrants, refugees – or names far worse. Some board boats or buses, trains or trucks. Many rely on the mode of transportation no one can deny them: their feet. Their journey may be long and can be lethal; their landing rarely is smooth.

The toll of displacement is reflected in their eyes: the worry of a Guatemalan mother cradling her baby as she heads north; the longing of a Tajik working construction in Russia; the fear of a Moroccan wedged under a car, hiding from Spanish police; the concentration of Kurdish refugees straining to learn Italian.

You see that and more in the images of four photographers, who set out on their own quests to document this journey, sometimes as a sidelight to full-time jobs. All four were finalists this year for Activist Awards from Catchlight, a nonprofit that supports photography focused on the key issues of our times.

One of them, Russian photographer Ksenia Diodorova, explains what motivated her to retrace the steps of Moscow’s migrant workers back to the families and deprivation they left behind in Tajikistan: “I wanted to convey a sense of the duality of immigrant experience: the fundamental longing for home and family, blood and soil, and the variances of coldness and warmth that define those in search of a better future.”


Ksenia Diodorova, ‘In the Cold’

Ksenia Diodorova is a documentary photographer and graphic designer based in St. Petersburg, Russia. She graduated from the St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University with a concentration in visual communication design. Since 2006, she has led the visual communication studio Gonzo Design and the school of alternative education programs. For the last five years, she also has worked as a freelance photographer, developing independent long-term multimedia projects with a focus on discovering people who conserve their strong identities. “In the Cold” grew from her awareness of Russians’ intolerance toward migrants from Central Asia. She wanted to contrast their lives in Russia with the lives of those they left behind.

If the true scale of immigration can be understood only by appreciating its source, as photographer Ksenia Diodorova suggests, then for Tajiks working in Moscow, that story inevitably begins in a “kishlak,” a rural settlement in Central Asia. In Tajikistan’s Bartang Valley, for instance, Roshorv kishlak perches at a thin-air elevation of more than 10,000 feet. That is only one measurement of hardship. Here are some others: The closest river is more than 7 miles away by foot; people walk two to three times that far to collect wood; and a homemade hydroelectric power station produces just 8 kilowatts of electricity – for 1,200 residents.Credit: Ksenia Diodorova Credit: Ksenia Diodorova
Tajikistan was slammed by a one-two punch: a civil war in the mid-1990s and economic fallout from the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Electricity and gas supplies were cut, forcing many factories to close. For many unemployed Tajiks, immigration to Russia was – and continues to be – the obvious solution. The parents of Jasmina, 6, live in Moscow, where her mother, Sarfia, works in a cafe. Jasmina has not seen them in three years. Credit: Ksenia Diodorova Credit: Ksenia Diodorova
The longing – for family, friends and culture – grows over time for many, even as they work to build new lives in Moscow and other cities. This is especially true when the promise of a better life proves elusive. Mifaroz has lived in Russia for seven years, where he works on a construction site. At the time this photo was taken, no one on his work team had been paid for more than four months. He told Diodorova that as soon as the money shows up, he plans to marry his fiancée. Credit: Ksenia Diodorova Credit: Ksenia Diodorova

Michelle Frankfurter, ‘Destino’

Credit: Jay Premack

Michelle Frankfurter was born in Jerusalem and spent nearly two decades in Central America, beginning in the late 1980s. She first gathered testimony from survivors of attacks by the anti-Sandinista rebel Contras in Nicaragua for the human rights organization Witness for Peace, then became a stringer for Reuters. In 1990, after 10 years of war and sustained political pressure from the United States, the Sandinistas lost the elections. Frankfurter spent much of that year documenting the transition of power. It was among many conflicts that have ravaged the region, and “Destino” follows migrants displaced by those conflicts. It is a journey both concrete and figurative.

In Central America, the legacy of decades of upheaval can be told in human terms: drug and gang violence, grinding poverty and rampant domestic abuse. As many as half a million people choose what must at first seem an easy way out: Hop a freight train headed north. Here, one Guatemalan woman fleeing an abusive husband waits to board in the railhead town of Arriaga, in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. Her worry is palpable and plausible. Racism against Central Americans is common in Mexico. Other threats range from police beatings to thieves lurking along travel routes. Credit: Michelle Frankfurter Credit: Michelle Frankfurter
The trains themselves pose another threat – they often are known as “La Bestia,” or “The Beast.” Life and limbs regularly are lost while people try to board, fall or are knocked off by tree branches. Young travelers are a common sight. The number of children apprehended by border authorities while traveling alone has tripled since 2008, and families also flee together. This Salvadoran man, with his sleeping wife and 18-month-old son, were headed through the southern state of Oaxaca, nearly a 13-hour ride from Chiapas – the first leg of their long journey north.Credit: Michelle Frankfurter Credit: Michelle Frankfurter
Support along the way ranges from women who toss homemade food onto the trains to shelters run by Catholic priests. Weary and injured migrants rest in a makeshift chapel at the Hermanos en el Camino immigrant shelter in the small town of Ixtepec, Oaxaca. A fence outside the center makes its intentions clear, in man-size letters: “Bienvenidos Migrantes” – Welcome Migrants. On the first night the shelter was opened in 2007, more than 400 sought refuge.Credit: Michelle Frankfurter Credit: Michelle Frankfurter
After weeks, even months, of travel, reaching the United States unscathed is no guarantee of freedom. In the Rio Grande Valley alone, more than 250,000 people were apprehended last year by the U.S. Border Patrol. For some, this is a ticket back to the reality they left behind and a tough choice: Give up or hop another train.Credit: Michelle Frankfurter Credit: Michelle Frankfurter

Sergi Cámara, ‘The Wall of Europe’

Sergi Cámara studied photography at the Institute of Photographic Studies of Catalonia in Spain and worked in local media for six years. In 2001, wanting to delve more deeply into stories, he began working as a freelance photographer and later founded a group of documentary photographers, Pandorafoto. His personal work focuses on migration from Africa to Europe and refugees in various countries, with a particular interest in the places overlooked by other photographers. “The Wall of Europe” documents desperate efforts to reach one of those places – Melilla, a Spanish city bordering Morocco, which he has visited 30 times in the past decade.

Two outcroppings on the northern coast of Morocco – Melilla and Ceuta – are cut off from the rest of the African continent not by terrain, but by nationality. Both are Spanish ports and, as such, a magnet for migrants from sub-Saharan Africa seeking to reach Europe. They routinely scale the walls and fences surrounding the two cities and just as routinely are pushed back without an opportunity to apply for political asylum, as provided under European Union law. Police brutality is commonplace. Here, one migrant, injured in a beating by Moroccan police, hides on Gurugú Mountain,  where he can see the beckoning lights of Melilla.Credit: Sergi Cámara Credit: Sergi Cámara
The barricade around Melilla is no slipshod solution. Twelve kilometers long, it combines three fences, each nearly 20 feet high, with a road running down the middle. Armed police patrol 24/7 along both sides, aided by the tools of modern-day surveillance: motion sensors and thermal cameras.  Africans who defy the odds and make it through struggle with police in a last-ditch bid for freedom. The standoff between border police and migrants leads to abuse and beatings, according to Human Rights Watch. Here, a migrant is knocked unconscious. Credit: Sergi Cámara Credit: Sergi Cámara
Attempting to avoid deportation, a migrant hides from Spanish police under a car. The drive to escape detection grows from common border knowledge: Those caught often face express deportation by Spanish authorities who maintain that the migrants were stopped at the border and so never truly reached Spain. Credit: Sergi Cámara Credit: Sergi Cámara
Appearing as a human banner atop a lamppost, one migrant tries to hold out on the Spanish side of the border. He remained aloft for several hours, eventually asking for water. Tens of thousands of migrants congregate on the Moroccan side, keeping fit for their next attempt. Some say they are prepared to wait for years. Morocco, in turn, expels many of them to Algeria, where security forces push them back into Morocco. It is a game of human pingpong that keeps them in limbo, far from both their homeland and their destination.Credit: Sergi Camara Credit: Sergi Camara

Laura Santopietro, ‘Azadi Freedom’

Born in Rome in 1980, Laura Santopietro studied graphic design, photo editing and publishing. She began  integrating photography into her work three years ago, after studying photojournalism with Fausto Podavini in Rome. She has worked at Mediatools.net, an advertising agency, since 2008. She began “Azadi Freedom” in 2012 with Federica Araco and Paolo Fumanti to give voice to asylum seekers and refugees of a minority diaspora, the Kurds, who were virtually unknown in Italy. Neither recognized in their original country nor fully welcomed in Italy, they live suspended between two worlds, in a continuous state of waiting.

For nearly 15 years, an abandoned slaughterhouse in Rome’s meatpacking district provided refuge for Kurdish asylum seekers. Their reasons for leaving home differed: Many were tortured and repressed in Turkey; others were escaping ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria. But all had come to Italy as the first stop on their route to new lives in Europe. While Italian law favors asylum seekers, its own economic challenges make absorbing the flow of newcomers difficult. “Newcomers have to wait a long time to get a bed, and people will be forced to sleep on the streets,” says Nayera El Gamal, a spokesman for the refuge, the Ararat Center. “At least here they have a roof, a hot meal and a community to welcome them.”Credit: Laura Santopietro Credit: Laura Santopietro
While working their way through asylum claims, denials and appeals, many Kurds remained in the center for years without the documents needed to get a job. Even if they intended to move on from Rome, many were drawn back to Italy by European Union law, which dictates that the first member state where an asylum seeker’s claim is lodged or fingerprints are stored is responsible for his or her claim.Credit: Laura Santopietro Credit: Laura Santopietro
During warmer months, when travel is easier, the flow of refugees increased and the center’s beds filled. The last to arrive would find themselves sleeping in makeshift shelters on the center’s grounds. As winter arrived, guests soon would discover that the center had no heating. Many spent evenings outdoors around makeshift campfires.Credit: Laura Santopietro Credit: Laura Santopietro
Every Sunday, volunteers gave Italian lessons to the center’s guests. Last year, thanks to the financial support of former guests and a crowdfunding campaign, the Ararat Center was renovated and no longer provides housing. But the center’s core mission remains intact, as a Kurdish cultural center for meetings, events and language courses. For the Kurds, as for many of the displaced, language skills are the most daunting barrier between their old lives and their new ones.Credit: Laura Santopietro Credit: Laura Santopietro

Amy Pyle is editor in chief at Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, guiding a team of editors, reporters and producers who produce unique in-depth national stories for the web, radio and video. Her primary goals are exposing wrongdoing and holding those responsible accountable, and increasing diversity in the ranks of investigative reporters. In the past year, CIR has established a fellowship program for aspiring investigative journalists of color and another for women filmmakers. Amy has worked at CIR since 2012, previously serving as a senior editor and managing editor. Rehab Racket, a collaboration with CNN that she managed on fraud in government-funded drug and alcohol rehabilitation, won the top broadcast award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. The Reveal radio version of an investigation she oversaw on an epidemic of opiate prescriptions at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs won a George Foster Peabody Award. Previously, as assistant managing editor for investigations at The Sacramento Bee, she managed “Chief's Disease,” a story about pension spiking at the California Highway Patrol, which won George Polk Award. Amy worked as a reporter and editor at the Los Angeles Times for more than a decade where, as assistant city editor, she directed coverage from the parking lot of the Times’ quake-damaged San Fernando Valley office in the early morning hours after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. That work earned the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. Amy has a bachelor’s degree in French from Mills College and a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University.