P. Petsini: Documenting the Greek Depression

The crisis narratives
Penelope Petsini
Since the global financial crisis, Greece has been a regular feature in European media, displayed as one of the hardest hit EU countries, a place with skyrocketing debt, mass unemployment and crippling austerity programmes being forced upon it, resulting in heightened social tension amongst its residents. As the Greek recession deepened, the spectacle of the Greek crisis was portrayed in world news reports through startling images such as the one by Louisa Gοuliamaki, in which desperate Athenians scuffle at free food hand-outs. The images of Greeks struggling to seize bags of fruit dominated Greek and global media, replacing the victorious and glamorous visual narrative of the Olympics and the Euro trumpeted only a decade ago with that of a poor, debt-laden country, leaving the Greeks once again in search of their identity and their status within Europe.

For photographers, not to picture the crisis would have been to omit what’s here, to fail the truth of our situation, to deny its existence. Crisis is on our doorsteps; its effects are in front of us: the homeless people, the unemployed, the closed shops, the social tension and the political turmoil  –a pressing reality which affects all photographers one way or another and almost demands to be depicted.

These problems were already acute during the last decade; however, they were limited to documentary projects related to marginalized social places, which in the public mind were always “in crisis”. Dimitris Michalakis’ NATO Avenue (2004-11), for example, has been an extensive documentation of the area east of Attica, below the Thriasian plain, a place which he describes as “a world apart, a rupture in the traditional image of Athens, a strange mixture of ancient myth and modern industrialization”. NATO Avenue, named after the old NATO military base, (and renamed ‘Peace Avenue’ in 2003), connects three of the largest municipalities of the Thriasian Plain, namely Ano Liosia, Aspopyrgos and Eleusis. Populated by local Arvanites, Roma, repatriated Greeks from the ex-USSR Republics, and both internal and foreign migrants, it was and still is a place in which the “others” try to survive. Yannis Kontos’ Perama in Crisis (2012), moved along the same lines to document the crisis-stricken region of the port-city of Perama, previously a lively centre of the Greek ship-industry, which is now left facing the severe consequences of recession (almost 60% of the town’s population of 25.000 is jobless and many people rely heavily on charities to get basic food and medical help).

Pavlos Fysakis’ Nea Helvetia (2013) also focuses on a poor and neglected area of the Thriasian plain yet, unlike the previous photographers, he produces documentary-style pictures that remain empty of sentiment. Ironically describing the area as “New Switzerland” –in striking contrast to the original rich and successful Switzerland- the project combines lifeless photographs with a discrete narrative describing how this, once prosperous, industrial area full of “factories employing the working class and producing capital for the rich” now experiences an acute decay. “A place of major archaeological importance,” he states, “has become infected, collecting -literally and metaphorically– a country’s waste and debris.”

Several photographers created documentary projects that provide extensive accounts of the crisis, attempting to formulate a broader narrative on the concept of "crisis" and aspiring to gain a place in its historical tableau. Dimitris Michalakis, Nikos Pilos, Yannis Kontos, Enri Canaj, Louisa Gouliamaki and Milos Bicanski are among them. Burnout (Dimitris Michalakis, 2009-14), for example, starts in 2009, following Greece’s bailout agreement with the EU and the IMF, documenting the tearing apart of the social fabric and capturing both a sense of individual worth and class victimization. It focuses on the marginalization of those social strata that are most vulnerable due to the drastic cuts in public spending which have dismantled welfare state institutions. The despair, the anger, the state repression, the poverty, the deadlock are all there in Michalakis’ photographs who clearly distances himself from the neoliberal claims of free market to portray the complex and charged political and social context of the recession.

Several projects, usually entitled “the Greek Crisis”, create similar narratives based on facts and events, namely the 'data' of the crisis. Street clashes, poverty, prostitution, far–right extremists, are themes that occur repeatedly, along with some major events such as the public broadcaster’s closure, the racist murder of 27–year–old migrant Sahzad Luckman by neo–Nazi Golden Dawn members, and political leaders promising that “we will make it.”

The arsenal of social documentary becomes a resort for a significant number of photographers who, returning to the black–and–white aesthetic, draw from its tradition to record both the crisis itself and the almost heroic survival of people who found themselves in its turmoil. Either balancing documentary and creative expression or using a strictly realist style, these photographers reclaim the traditional aesthetics in order to approach reality.

Apart from the works discussed above, which aspire to extensively cover the whole of the Greek crisis through an all-inclusive narrative, a series of other projects focus on some limited yet typical issues which the public identifies with it: the homeless and the unemployed (i.e. Yiorgos Depollas, Untitled/Depression, 2013), the closed shops (Nikos Panayotopoulos, Typologies/Crisis, 2012–13; Yangos Athanasopoulos, Empties, 2011–14), the gradual disintegration of structures and institutions.

Among them, the immigration question holds a significant place (i.e. Moutafis’ projects Migrant's Odyssey, Xenophobia and I Had a Dream; and Stateless by Pilos). Albeit recording the Greek example, these projects illustrate a 'crisis globalization', a term introduced by T.J. Demos to describe an era of growing economic inequality and poverty, one facing an increasing influx of migrants and refugees who seek decent standards of living into an increasingly xenophobic North. Xenophobia (Giorgos Moutafis) focuses on the attacks on migrant communities by the far-Right and neo-Nazis which also concurs with an escalation of physical violence by the police which, according to Dimitris Dalakoglou, can be understood as reflective of the more general mode of governance emerging in Greece during the crisis. Since August 2012, Dalakoglou notes, central Athens has been subjected to the fundamentally racist police operation “Xenios Zeus” which has stopped and searched thousands of migrants, arresting and detaining many of them without justification.

The social tension and the political turmoil also became the focus of many photographers who document the aftermath of the extensive street clashes in December ‘08 and February ‘12 in Athens, the “Indignados” and the heterogeneous crowd of "the Square" period, or focus on the most radical part of Greek anarchism known as “the Black Block”. The extreme policing tactics on the streets of Athens emerged after the revolt of December 2008, aiming precisely to control any future popular uprising.

Documentary assumes a privileged place in the representation of the crisis, not only for its ostensible ability to accurately depict social situations, but also because of its ability to bring visibility and testimony to social areas beyond everyday sight. Probably one of the most interesting works in this category is Antonis’ Voice (2011–13) by Christos Kapatos, a project recently presented in the Benaki Museum, which is placed within the context of the most contemporary critical efforts to write history “from below.” Rather than depicting the events of crisis, Kapatos attempts to render his own everyday social experience socially visible. Forced to move back with his parents at the age of 37, along with his fiancée, Kapatos started recording his new life, creating both a tale of personal history and a symbolic narrative for the larger social drama.

Sea Change (Yannis Kontos, 2013–14) is part of an extensive European project that refers back to the 1930s US Farm Security Administration photographers. It documents the lives of young Europeans affected by the current crisis, aspiring to use the power of photographic storytelling to create “a basis for a pan–European discussion on the crisis and the possible solutions”. Investing in notions of photography as a means of faithful depiction of reality, as well as drawing on the ideological values of the F.S.A. photography, the project seeks to use the photographic document as a thought–provoking instrument to inspire change constructing a narrative in which despair is allegedly transformed into hope. In this regard, it is quite possible that the tapestry of stories and images it weaves together will amount to yet another instance of “liberal humanistic” documentary photography that scholars have extensively criticized. By celebrating abstract humanity, Alan Sekula argues, photography in the service of liberalism celebrates nothing but the dignity of the passive victim.

Several works discussed so far are part of the Depression–Era project, a collective of photojournalists, photo–based artists, amateur photographers, and writers formed in 2012. Initially inspired by the photographic program of the F.S.A., they aim to record the Greek crisis through images and texts, as well as depict “the emerging landscape of the recession and its consequent, rapid, unraveling transformations of Greek society”. The group acquired significant status in 2014 with a celebrated exhibition at the prestigious Benaki Museum in Athens. Both the re–contextualization of the works by the exhibition space itself, and the fact that the show was sponsored by large foundations, such as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Neon, triggered a debate about the degree to which this sort of practice can actually be critical or emancipatory at all. Despite their militant rhetoric and the emancipatory artistic promise, Depression–Era has not so far invented any radical critical strategies with which to negotiate the crisis, neither did they critically and creatively intervene in its socio–cultural context as, for example, did art activists during the British miners' strike in the 1980s. Notwithstanding these facts, Depression–Era is the only collective photographic experiment that we have hitherto seen in Greece, which is in itself promising.
Penelope Petsini is an art theorist, Doctor of Philosophy in Arts and Humanities