I met Stefano Benazzo recently in the port city of Piraeus thanks to an introduction from our common friend Annika Barbarigos, secretary-general of the Association of Traditional Boats. Looking through a series of wonderful photographs taken by the Italian diplomat who left a brilliant career after 40 years of service to dedicate himself to shipwrecks, I realized that he is a true aficionado, an artist, as I could almost have sworn I heard the creaks and sighs of the aging, abandoned vessels.
The Association of Traditional Boats is dedicated to salvaging Greece’s wooden fishing boats from destruction under a subsidized European Union program to renew member-states’ fishing fleets. Barbarigos took Benazzo to the site of many half-sunken ships in an area stretching from Elefsina near Piraeus to Gytheio in the southeast Peloponnese. Still buzzing from the excitement of his discoveries, the Italian told me about his love of travel and photography.
Benazzo was born in Rome in 1949 and attended a French school before going on to study political sciences in his hometown. He did a brief stint as a journalist and then went on to join the diplomatic corps, serving in prominent posts in capitals including Washington DC, Moscow, Bonn and Sofia. His natural artistic bent was initially expressed in sculpture and model-making.
At some point in 2012, he decided it was time to try something completely different. That turned out to be looking for and photographing decommissioned ships and wrecks all over the world, a passion that has taken him from Chile and the Falklands to South Africa and the North Sea.
He originally came to Greece to photograph the famous wreck at Navagio beach on the Ionian island of Zakynthos, but he knew that there was a treasure trove of decomposing hulls to be found in a country with such a rich maritime tradition. With help from Barbarigos, a lot of web research and a rubber dinghy, Benazzo’s excursion to Greece resulted in some stunning shots. Among his subjects is the Sirocco, a boat used by Benito Mussolini’s daughter on her honeymoon.
Benazzo has already published one book on his experiences as a traveler and is now planning a second where the boats are the stars, narrators of the human stories they are associated with. “The toil and hard work, the way that people once saw the sea,” he explains.
The photographer laments that technology has made too many people turn their backs on their history. “I see the young people today who have no interest in the past or in anything it can teach us,” he says. They forget, for example, that ships were once the only way to cross the seas and oceans and as a result, people rarely travel by boat today.
Our discussion inevitably turns to maritime traditions. “I cannot imagine Greece without its wooden caiques. They are a part of its heritage and its identity,” he says. “So I will also take part in the fight to save them.”