Standing in the Athens police headquarters, interviewing the director of the drug unit, I realised I had a bag of chemically enhanced crystal meth in my pocket. I’d bought it the night before from a Greek homeless man and had forgotten to throw it away. After the interview, I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, which is when some officers noticed the film crew I had brought along, who were recording from a distance.
Minutes later the cops dragged us into a holding room, the little packet of drugs still stuffed in my pants. They made some calls, glared at us and eventually, reluctantly, released us – without ever searching me, thankfully. On my way out, I threw the baggie into the first garbage can I passed.
Several Greek police stations have been firebombed in recent months, so the cops have reason to be nervous, especially when they notice that they are being filmed. On our first evening in Athens, a different group of officers approached us and, after spotting our film crew down the street, demanded to see our papers. They deleted our footage and detained us for a couple of hours, until we’d managed to get our passports delivered to the station. Greece is a paranoid place at the moment. The police, fascists, anarchists, dealers and drug users are all fighting for local supremacy and no one trusts anyone else.
The night before our close call at the Athens police headquarters, I was approached by a group of homeless people, one of whom was smoking some horrible-smelling stuff through what appeared to be a meth bowl made from an old lightbulb. Although I don’t speak Greek, I managed to let him know that I wanted to buy some of the drug, colloquially known as sisa. The homeless guy wandered off with my five-euro note, and afterward an old man grabbed my arm and shouted, “No, no take! Very bad.” I wasn’t going to smoke it, but I was very curious about Greece’s infamous new drug.
Immigrants Are Being Stabbed to Death on the Streets of Athens
“I urge you to stop racism. At last, you have to realize that we are human beings and we are immigrant workers. We want justice,” shoutsJaved Aslam, the Pakistani president of the Union ofImmigrant Workers in Greece. He is addressing the crowd of about 5,000 people, who have marched all the way to Syntagma Square, in front of the parliament building, to protest against fascismand the growing wave of racistattacks against immigrants, some of which have been fatal.
The demo is occuring a couple of days after the murder of ShehzadLuqman, a 27-year-oldPakistani worker who was stabbedto death by a 29-year-oldfireman and his unemployed, 24-year-old accomplice, both Greek and suspected Golden Dawn members. During the early morning of January 17th, Shehzatwas cycling to his employer’s house in Petralona toload their truck before heading to the open-air market. The two offenders, who claim they had a fight with Shehzat because he’d been blocking their way, stopped their motorbike and stabbed him in the chest, causing his death a short time later.
Unlike many crimes against immigrants that go unreported, this one was witnessedby neighbors and a taxi driver who recorded the motorbike’s plate and called the police. When arrested a short time later, one of the assailants still had the bloody knife in his pocket.
I metZacharias Dimitriadisa few years ago at a bar in Athens. My friend thought he was cute and I was drunk enough to chat him up—a unique technique I sometimes use that mostly involves me talking about work—then my friend got annoyed, stormed out, and I had to chase her down the street.
Since then, Zacharias moved to New York, I moved to London and we haven’t bumped into each other since. However, I have been regularly checking up on his photography, and I promise that’s not because he’s rejected all my friend requests and it’s the only way I can keep tabs on him. It’s just when you live away from home—a home that happens to have turned into a melting pot of hatred and hostility in the time you’ve been away—it takes a very particular type of talent to keep you from giving up hope on your people, and Zacharias’ photographs do just that. There’s nothing better at reminding me that, through the clouds of tear gas, the Greeks are a bunch of very sexy people.
For most of the past three years, Antwerp-based photographer Nick Hannes has been traveling across the Mediterranean coastline photographing the locals, the immigrants, the tourists, and the escalating urbanization that have been interfering with its landscape, for a project he’s called Mediterranee. I only heard about him a month or two ago, however, when this photo (below) taken at a wedding held at a Greek gas station went viral on the internet.
I don’t know if it was the image of the lady smoking next to the gas pumps, or just the world’s inclination to make fun of the Greeks these days that made it so popular. But, in my eyes, it was a beautiful picture. So, I had a look at his website to find that the rest of Mediterranee is equally impressive and convinced myself that I had to call him up for a chat.
VICE: Hey Nick. What was it that made you want to study the Mediterranean coastline so extensively? Nick Hannes: Well, one reason was that in my previous project I focused on the area that previously made up the Soviet Union. I don’t like to jump from one continent to another one and I was fascinated by the region already, having read about its ancient history. Another reason is I was looking for a long-term project. There’s about 20 countries that border the Mediterranean sea, I’ve been working on this since 2010, and I think I have at least one more year ahead of me.
How do you go about it? Do you only visit each country once or is it a case of going back and forth? No, I try to do every country only once because it would be too much otherwise. There are still some countries I haven’t visited, like Lybia, Algeria, Italy, and France. I’m not so sure I’ll end up going to Syria, so I might have to do it with some archive photos from past travels. I can only travel in summertime too, which is why it takes me so much longer to get around.
I was about to ask why your pictures seem to have only been taken in the summer. I teach Documentary Photography at the Academy of Arts in Gent, Belgium, and that keeps me at home during the school year. But not all the pictures are taken in summer. I can always escape during the school holidays, mid-year, for a while so I travel then, too.
What I like most about this project is it covers so many themes and issues, it’s hard to find one thing that binds them together visually. Except maybe for the landscape. For one, I try to avoid stereotypes. I play with them sometimes, but I try to turn them around. My aim is to make photographs that are not readable in just one second. Of course, there are certain topics that interest me, like migration and the natural landscape coming into conflict with urbanization, but the project is more about a certain human condition. What are we, as human beings, doing with our public space—how are we organizing our society?
What have you learned so far, then? Well, most of the coastline is completely urbanized.
I imagine that is become of tourism, right? That’s one thing, but also because of geography and logic. There’s been a lot of activity along the shore since ancient times, because of the ports that allow for cultures to mix and commerce to grow. Tourism is a far more recent phenomenon. In Spain or Albania, the coast is basically a building site. Greece is OK; I didn’t see the same signs of urbanization that I saw everywhere else.
Do you think that has something to do with the economic crisis? No, that’s too recent. I think it’s more to do with having the brains not to spoil the landscape. Some countries only care about making money.
What about in terms of behavior, were there any similarities among the cultures? The only major similarity I noticed is that people who live along the coast are a lot more religious. I don’t know if that’s anything to do with the sea. Family values are a lot more important to people there as well. But, I don’t think that there is just one Mediterranean identity; it’s an extremely diverse area.
As for the landscape, which you mentioned before, that is in fact similar. I also made a conscious effort not to photograph any famous landmarks. I don’t want people to look at the photos and see that it’s Spain or whatever, instantly.
The Mediterranean has always been a place of conflict. Do you think there’s any particular reason for that? I don’t know if there is more unrest there than in other places in the world. I don’t think so. But also I have a fascination with conflict and places that have been centers of civil or sovereign dispute. And that was the case in a lot of the places I visited. You could feel it when you walked around; Cyprus is a great example of that.
See, that’s what I’m talking about. You have all those photos of people crossing borders carrying sacks that are twice their size, and then there is that photograph of a topless glamor model in a giant champagne glass, in a club. What’s going on there? Oh, that one was taken in Pacha, in Ibiza. Those two are showgirls—they put those shows on in clubs, but people have to stand behind a certain point and that’s why you see all those hands coming out of the curtain on the left. I had to use a flash though, and it ruined the atmosphere. When you use a flash in a nightclub it highlights details that aren’t meant to be seen.
I almost think it makes it better. It’s so sad and funny at the same time. Another thing I noticed is that on most of the pictures taken at holiday resorts on your website, the subjects are old. It’s true there aren’t many photographs of sexy girls in bikinis but that wasn’t intentional. It’s just because in my experience, young people are much more aware of photographers. When you take their picture they begin to pose. I did photograph a lot of young people and to be honest I’d rather take a photo of a sexy girl than an old lady, but when you’re making a selection of your best images… those of old people are usually the best because they just don’t give a damn.
Finally, would you like to tell me how your famous picture of that Greek gas station wedding came to be? That was a present sent from above. As a photographer, you always hope that these things happen but they rarely do. I was in Rio in Patras, when I happened upon this very-well maintained gas station and got to talking with its owner. He said they’d be celebrating his daughter’s wedding there that night and I kind of invited myself.
When the couple arrived that evening, there was a DJ playing from an office inside the station and everybody was dancing, drinking, and smoking around the pumps. Everybody was very welcoming, they kept offering me drinks and I stayed until three in the morning.
This particular picture is successful to me because it talks about the economic crisis, but in a unique way. And you can not make it on demand. When I got back that night I knew that it would be circulated.
It’s May 2010 and I’m sitting with my coworkers in front of the miniature TV we managed to get the IT guy to install in our office in Athens. We’re watching the news for updates on the bombing of Marfin Bank on Stadiou Street. No one in the office is doing any work. In fact, those in my department are the only people who showed up to work at all, since today marks one of the first in a series of national strikes.
Instead, we’re all crouching in front of the TV, which prompts my boss to shout from the door of her office, “Can someone tell me what could be so important that you guys have yet to post anything about Lady Gaga’s Armani costume for American Idol?” Bless her, she likes mixing her morning pills with a shot of whiskey.
One year later—October 2011—and I’ve flown to Athens from London with three VICE staffers to cover a two-day-long national strike for our series Teenage Riot. It’s boiling hot, the people are angry, and I’m an intern desperate for a job at VICE, so I spend the next couple of days running through protesting crowds and away from blocks of rock, clouds of tear gas, and flagpole-swinging communists. I have no idea how hanging out in the closet of Greek Vogue as a teenager led to this, but I’m loving it.
But now, I’m so fucking bored of it. Yesterday saw yet another national strike in Greece, one that was very similar to the one we filmed last year. The weather was perversely hot for mid-October, thousands of people gathered in Syntagma Square to protest a bunch of new austerity measures, Molotov cocktails were thrown in the air, and a man died.
I understand that should make me angry, but all it’s done is make me feel depressed and confused. It’s been three years since the bombing of Marfin Bank and, in these three years, I’ve managed to move from London to Athens, then back again, change jobs twice, go through a couple of boyfriends, drop acid at fashion week, and attend a few too many weddings.
The place where I come from, however, hasn’t changed one bit. It keeps burning itself to the ground, being refurbished, then burned down again. Every year, a little before the passing of new austerity measures, we hear that things are looking up—that the economy is back on track—only to then see bigger cuts to our parents’ pension cheques and a rise of support for the extremist right-wing party, Golden Dawn.
Is this madness ever going to end? And is protesting (read: rioting) really the best way to go about changing things?
Having fled to London just before the real shit hit the fan, I hardly feel like I have the right to pass judgement on a situation I only encounter on Christmas and during the summer holidays, so I called my friend Petros to chat about what’s going on.
VICE: Hey man. First of all, a guy died today and a guy died almost exactly one year ago. Petros: That’s true. But the guy today died because of heart failure during the demo before any tear gas was thrown, which was what caused the death of that protester last year. Not that that makes things any better. Also, both guys were PAME (Communist front) members.
Spooky. What really upset me last year was how PAME was protesting alongside us on the first day, but turned against us by the second. My boss and I got chased by a group of men waving red flagpoles at us. The thing with PAME is that they would always hold their own demos at completely separate times from the rest of us. So, when they announced they’d be joining in last year, that was a first. Everyone was surprised. After what happened, they announced that was the last time they were going to join in and just went back to their old way of doing things, which is meeting earlier than the rest of us, walking to the parliament, then walking right past it. That’s pretty much it. That’s what they did yesterday, too.
Members of PAME demonstrating.
So they pretty much censored themselves. What about far-right elements? What’s the presence of the Golden Dawn at demos these days? Non-existent, or at least not obvious. Of course there must be far-right elements, but the larger sentiment is mostly liberal. In fact, a lot of yesterday’s chants were against the Golden Dawn or linking the Golden Dawn to the police. My two favorites are, “Let’s get together and kick the Nazis out of Parliament!” and “Beware, Beware. Golden Dawners in uniform!”
On last month’s equinox I was traveling with a friend of mine through the Aegean Sea. Over the 16-hour boat ride we passed hundreds of small islands on our way to a magical cluster of the Greek Isles called the Kiklades. They are all arid and pseudo desert-like and covered in small shrubs, olive and pomegranate trees, electric pink flowers, and lots of rocks. They are basically just huge rocks, and some are made entirely of white marble, broken off in the sea. Some are completely uninhabited, with nothing more than the remnants of an ancient wall dividing the agricultural plots (although what they grew in sheer rock face is beyond me), or sometimes small clusters of white villas accented with blue and a bright pink flower or butterfly. Until recently there was actually a Greek law that said you could only paint your beautiful plaster home white and blue. Good call. The preservation of good aesthetic quality is A-OK in my book.
We were two women traveling in a large boat all to ourselves. I had never been out to sea like that before, so I have nothing to compare it to, but judging from the way the waves rocked us violently back and forth at times, I guess it wasn’t a terribly large boat. The romantic, introspective thoughts I was conjuring about the vastness of the ocean and space were kind of overshadowed toward the end of the seven-hour sail when the rocking turned from soothing and romantic to barfy-ill-making. I tried lying on my stomach with one foot on the ground like I do when I get the booze spins, but these were actual waves and real spins, so that didn’t do shit. Even though the trip was only seven hours, I was sick for two days. But it didn’t matter because I was in paradise.
The Kiklades are like a beautiful, more old Palm Springs. That night on Paros Island I had more stoned thoughts about the stars—like how crazy it is to see the same constellation halfway around the world, and how most of the constellations were probably named after the graceful or ruthless old gods here in Greece thousands of years ago. The big dipper has to be an American invention. Who else would name something as mystical and awe-inspiring as the stars after a gravy boat?
The next morning I awoke thinking about how I wanted to bash the shit out of an octopus. I had heard that this is what you do to them. All the old ladies gather at the docks and grab them off the boats, plucked straight from their gardens in the sea. And then they beat the daylights out of them because they are tough and must be tenderized. At any given port the tavernas hang the bashed octopi from hooks along the verandas by way of advertising their fresh offerings, and also to take some of the moisture out of the watery, pulpy tentacles. First though, because naturally I was drinking a lot the night before and communing with Achilles and Zeus and whatnot, what I really needed was a gyro, drenched in tatziki and raw onions, pork souvlaki, and crammed into a hot pita with french fries sprinkled on top for good measure. And beer.
At every meal after that we ate fried cheese (saganaki) and multiple kinds of sea creatures. There is also ouzo. LOTS of ouzo, which makes sense here. It goes with all the white marble, I think. There is a minerality to it, and when you lick the sea salt off your fingers and take a sip it is like having a salted licorice.