Penso’s single photograph of a school sports hall, with a light dangling from a basketball net and sheets hung around the court, was plucked from thousands of images to win one of nine categories in the prestigious World Press Photo contest.
Taken last November in the Bulgarian capital Sofia, the photograph is of a makeshift refugee arrival centre and represents one of the most pressing issues in Italy and Europe today.
“Fundamentally, my work concentrates on uncovering the European ‘welcome’ people receive,” Penso told The Local in Rome.
“In the autumn the number of arrivals soared to levels not seen in Bulgaria before. This was an emergency and the country was unprepared."
Around 8,000 people crossed the Turkish border into Bulgaria last year, a sharp rise on 2012.
Although the figures are far higher in Italy, where an estimated 43,000 people arrived by boat in 2013, the two countries face similar problems as gateways to the EU. The Syrian civil war has forced around 2.7 million people to flee their country and seek safety elsewhere, mostly travelling to Europe.
When Penso visited the Sofia school he found 800 people living there, the majority Syrians. “There were more than 300 children; they had tried to create a family atmosphere,” he said.
Stringing up sheets created a certain air of privacy, but with winter fast approaching, there was no hot water or heating.
“The Syrians had escaped the war and were desperate. Few have the intention of staying in Bulgaria, but because of European law, they can’t leave,” Penso said.
Under EU law, migrants and asylum-seekers must register in the first member state they arrive in and are barred from travelling onwards to other European countries.
Penso returned to Bulgaria in April and saw worrying signs: “The EU has given money, on Bulgaria’s request, and this would make you think the situation is better.
“Some centres have been refurbished, the walls are white and they’re not dirty anymore. But it’s getting worse because a push-back has begun,” he said, following reports that refugees are illegally being forced back into neighbouring Turkey.
While Penso admitted that one image would not be able to solve the problem, he said photography and the World Press Photo exhibition, in particular, could have a “very powerful” impact.
“Seeing the photos in an exhibition is completely different than seeing them in a newspaper, you stop for a bit longer and ask questions….it creates reflection among people,” he said.
Penso said he hopes his work can serve as a counter to anti-immigration “political propaganda”, allowing Italians to “see the reality” refugees face.
When the exhibition closes later this month, Penso will in June take his images on a tour across Europe in an effort to “create solidarity” among Europeans.
He called for a “complete rethink” on how people are welcomed and, after his experience in Bulgaria, said Europe needed “a more human approach to immigration”.
“The problem is not Italy, it’s not Bulgaria, it’s not Greece – it’s Europe. If they hide behind the incapacity of a few countries, they fail to confront the problem,” he said.