Costas Balafas’s forgotten side of modern Greece

From the mid-1950s onward, Greece was gradually recovering from the ravages of war and enjoying a new period of reconstruction and modernization. Cities became the center of a promising new economy and rapidly expanded as waves of the country’s rural population settled in. This was the beginning of a new, hopeful life both economically and intellectually. None of this is registered in «Photographic Memories of Modern Greece,» an exhibition currently being held at the Benaki Museum, presenting the photographs of Costas Balafas, all donated by the photographer to the museum’s photographic archive. The world depicted here seems isolated from urban development and untouched by the fast pace of progress. The dates when the photos were taken vary, spanning a period of three decades, but the world they depict stays more or less the same. It is the world of underdeveloped, rural Greece and the difficult life of farmers, workers and the poor. If not an objective image, but rather an artist’s personal interpretation of his times – a vision that is freed from both sentimentalism and a combative, social-critique perspective. It is a world documented with dignity and realism, a combination which in many ways describes Balafas’s signature style. Variations of this style also define the work of some of the country’s most celebrated photographers: Voula Papaioannou, Spyros Meletzis and Takis Tloupas are the best known among them. They all share a common aesthetic, probably because they were all roughly contemporaries. Part of the «human-interest» photographic tendency, they all searched the more humble ranks of life, and above all prioritized the value of a human life regardless of the person’s social or economic stature. That Balafas as well as his contemporaries lived through World War II must have played a large part in shaping their vision. A 20-minute documentary on the life Balafas directed by Yiannis Skopeteas helps draw analogies between the artist’s life and art. Balafas, who is now in his early 80s, took part in the resistance against the German occupation and photographed the armed struggle of the Greeks against the occupying armies. The series became published in the album «The Rebel Army of Epirus,» Epirus being the area of northern Greece where Balafas was born. The war eventually ended, but Balafas’s vision was still focused on human toil; not just its harsh side but also its everyday routine and difficult but quiet existence. The son of farmers, he chose his subject matter in the wider context of rural life, often framing his pictures against open skies and beautiful landscapes. His photos of the winter pastures of Epirus, the fishermen at the lake of Ioannina or the monastic community of Meteora all provide eloquent examples. Compared with other photos, these images do not zoom in on peoples’ expressions but rather describe a social gathering or a work situation and capture the mood of people in their surroundings. His images of workers at the salt-pans of Lefkada or at the gasworks in Athens are also typical of the themes Balafas chose to emphasize. There are also striking portraits of workers and the poor. A lignite miner, an ironmonger, a herdsman and a blind beggar are some of the characters that Balafas has photographed with candor and intensity. The images are reminders of an existent but forgotten side of a reality. Balafas is its skilled observer and, somehow, the spokesman of all those people caught in the margins of society. He makes no heroes out of them and does not view their situation with redundant sentimentalism, instead keeping closer to a documentary-like realism. But he does envelop them with an air of dignity and views them with respect, treating them as humans whose lives must be valued irrespective of any socially inscribed ranks. «Photographic Memories of Modern Greece» at the Benaki Museum, 1 Koubari, Kolonaki, through March 2.