A journey to the corners of strife around the world

In «Far Away… and Beside Us,» Odysseas Voudouris presents what he calls a «photo-diary» of his time as a surgeon with Doctors Without Borders, stretching from an assignment in El Salvador in 1989 to Afghanistan in 2004. Voudouris was also president of the organization’s Greek branch between 1996 and 2001. His passion for voluntarism and the aid work provided by these types of groups is the overriding element of this book, published by Kastaniotis. No matter how shocking and frightening the situations he found himself in, the impression given by the author and photographer is that he would not have traded any of the experiences for all the camera film in the world. Perhaps it is the fact that Voudouris himself is no stranger to turmoil – he was born in Budapest, the son of political refugees – and political upheaval – he was involved in the student uprising in France in the late ’60s and ’70s – that he seems to have much more than a purely doctor-patient relationship with his subjects. He certainly put himself on the front line as a doctor, for example, losing seven kilos in Cambodia within a few days in 1990 due to dysentery, and this allows the reader to take his writings at face value. His diary entries are completely unassuming and give the reader the opportunity to enter his sometimes extreme existence, often transported into this terrifying and wonderful world through nuggets of information or anecdotes, such as how a visa to El Salvador for five days is swiftly changed to 15 days with a quick flick of one of his superior’s biros. If Voudouris’s diary entries offer the refuge of a small hut and a warm meal then his pictures are the equivalent of getting caught in the crossfire of a gun battle in a shantytown. Make no mistake, there are some truly gruesome photographs included in this book and the faint-hearted should really think twice before opening its covers. One imagines that the author had a long think about what pictures were too shocking to include. It seems that he landed on the side of not engaging in self-censorship and the book is all the richer for it. If his aim is to bring the reader closer to the battle zones and refugee camps of the world or, indeed, vice versa, then the piercing imagery of the book is the perfect vehicle for the journey. It is not all bomb craters and bodies with bullet holes, though. There are some heartwarming pictures of doctors and children, caught during more inconspicuous moments which help drive home the human element involved in the stories in which Voudouris has played a role. For good measure, there are also some photographs of landscapes and elements of local culture that help round off the visual experience. Voudouris says that he is always asked «How was it?» when he returns from a trip and is always unsatisfied by the answers he gives, never fully able to capture the essence of the moments. However, he can be satisfied with the work he has put together in this book, because, from Somalia to Sri Lanka and from Iraq to Iran, he leaves the reader in no doubt as to exactly how it was.

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