video still of Liquid Traces, 2014, run time 17 min
video still of Liquid Traces, 2014, run time 17 min


Liquid Traces by Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller

It is generally well known that thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea end up dying. The route the migrants take is rather arduous and extremely dangerous. The survivors live on as stories and the dead can’t talk. It’s impossible to know how this journey looks, while every now and then a body ends up washed ashore. Liquid Traces1, a visualization of the “Left-to-Die boat” case2, reconstructs as a documentary the deadly route taken by 72 passengers in 2011. This documentary, directed by filmmaker Charles Heller and architect Lorenzo Pezzani, both researchers at Forensic Architecture3, is part of the research project Forensic Oceanography. 

The reconstruction tells the story of the 72 passengers who left the Libyan coast on a 10-meter long rubber boat heading in the direction of Lampedusa. After making it about halfway to Italy, the boat ran out of fuel and spent the next two weeks drifting without water and food. As they tried to call for help, they were left to drift without assistance in the NATO maritime surveillance area. Meanwhile, they were seen by a few helicopters, a military ship, and several fishermen’s boats. Despite their visibility, the journey ended in only 9 survivors. 

Liquid Traces shows how the complexity of the overlapping jurisdictions at sea allows the various involved parties to neglect their responsibilities in conducting a rescue mission. Critical questions are asked in the video: “How to reconstruct violations when the murder weapon is the water itself? What are the conditions that transform the sea into a deadly liquid?” Dry data, generated through surveillance technology combined with the survivors’ statements, was turned into tangible evidence of responsibility for the crime of non-assistance. From a designer’s point of view, the visual and poetical approach, used by Heller and Pezzani to produce a reconstruction that became evidence and documentation of human rights violations, is remarkable.

The conclusion of the documentary takes place on the Libyan coast, the boat was drifted all the way back. It seemed as if the 9 survivors had never left Libya, the only result of their journey was the death of 63 of their fellow migrants. Although this reconstruction wasn’t effective enough to actually hold the involved parties responsible due to external issues, the complex structures behind the Mediterranean sea have now been made visible and accessible for people to understand a little bit more about the migrants’ arduous journey.

Even if we are able to travel through cyberspace from one spot of the world to another at the speed of light, it doesn’t mean we would be able to see everything. The ugly, disturbing things of our world are often masked and disguised. A lot of socially engaged designers are, like investigative journalists, interested in unmasking the invisible. Unveil refers to projects which challenge political and social issues and turn them into tangible narratives.