By Harry van Versendaal
Speak to Sonja Giese and you'll immediately understand that the dominant belief that has us think Greeks are an object of stereotyping by everyone in Germany is no more than a stereotype itself.
“Since the outbreak of the crisis, Greek people have been portrayed by the German yellow press and many mainstream media as liars, cheaters, lazy bums and parasites,” she says of the bad publicity the debt-wracked nation has received since striking a bailout deal with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in 2010.
“They have been told to sell their islands, to open 'gyros' bank accounts, to leave the eurozone and to go to hell,” she says.
Working at the Press and Communications Unit of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament in Brussels, the 32-year-old German knows a thing or two about media stereotyping and perceived prejudice.
“Stereotyping is a common tool used by the media, in advertising and in politics,” she says.
It's hard to disagree. The European tabloids have been awash with stories about lazy, feckless, work-shy Greeks often recycling exaggerated or simply false data about the country. Experts and politicians at home and abroad have not exactly helped to debunk the recurring myths about Greece.
Visiting Athens earlier this month, European Central Bank executive board member Joerg Asmussen said it was difficult to convince people in states such as Estonia and Slovakia, where the average wage is 1,000 euros, to lend to a country where the average wage in the state sector is about 3,000 euros. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has in the past suggested Greeks don't work hard enough and take too much vacation time off. If such hyperbole comes from the lips of high-ranking politicians and bankers, there's not much one can expect from a sensationalist tabloid in Germany or Britain.
Frustrated with the abuse of Greece and the continent's other so-called profligate eurozone nations, Giese decided to actually do something to fix some of the damage. Together with Mareike Lambertz, a 24-year-old freelance journalist from Belgium, she is launching a photojournalism project titled “We Are the Pigs: A Road Trip to the Epicenter of the Crisis” -- a reference to the unflattering acronym used to describe the troubled economies of the European periphery: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.
Between them, the pair have plenty of experience in journalism and the audiovisual field -- as well as a soft spot for good old black-and-white photography. And they plan to put it to good use. Setting off from Thessaloniki, northern Greece, in early August, Giese and Lambertz plan to tour the so-called PIIGS countries seeking to collect and record personal stories of ordinary people who have been hit by the economic meltdown -- but also of people who have not been affected at all. The idea, Giese says, is to show people's faces, to visit their favorite hangouts and former working spaces, to meet with their friends and families, to document how they deal with everyday life in times of social and economic crisis. “But there is no ready-made script or agenda. We want to be as open-minded as possible,” Giese says.
“We want to show an alternative view of the Greek people. Using photographs and words, we want to show a small part of a reality that is beyond GDP figures, stock markets and rating agencies,” she explains, warning that to target any individual nation is to undermine the European home at large.
“There is no such thing as 'The Greeks' or 'The Germans.' Stereotyping Greek people as being lazy and untruthful leads to national prejudices among the people of Europe,” she says.
Instead of relying on commissions, Giese and Lambertz are using Startnext, a German crowdfunding platform, to raise money for their project. The duo have already agreed that various newspapers and magazines will run some of their stories and portraits. The work is scheduled to go on display in Brussels, Berlin and Eupen but the list of shows could grow by the time they wrap up the project.
“We want to show our work to a public that is curious and critical about what is going on in Europe. Our goal is to share information and try to change the way it flows.”