A photographer’s view of Mount Athos

Most of the photographs taken by Costas Balafas, a distinguished photographer and one of the pioneers of human-interest photography in Greece, refer to a period in this country’s history that belongs to the past. Mainly photographs of rural Greece in the late 1950s and 60s, they are images that document bygone poverty. They rarely display urban, contemporary life and have never made the everyday, modern city-dweller their protagonist. Yet one will sense a strange kinship with the people that Balafas depicts and will relate, if not to those people’s lives, to something far deeper that touches on the general issues of life, its meaning and the nature of mankind. The images in the Mount Athos series, which are presented under the title «A Photographic Itinerary on Mount Athos 1969-2001» in the main building of the Benaki Museum, have that penetrating effect that is so typical of Balafas’s images. They are not just documentation of life on Mount Athos but images that probe our existential questions and reveal the beautiful, almost spiritual, simplicity of life. Balafas visited Mount Athos in 1969 on a mission that the Ministry of Coordination had organized with the purpose of finding ways to protect from looting the religious treasuries that belonged to the, at that time, semi-deserted monasteries of Mount Athos. Balafas joined the team as a volunteer and took pictures mostly of outdoor scenes. He was only allowed access to the Vatopedi, Iveron and Gregoriou monasteries. It was another 30 years before Balafas revisited the site, this time just for a short time with his friend and colleague Takis Tloupas, another of the great Greek pioneers of human-interest photography. Shortly thereafter, he met Father Ioustinos of Simonopetra who, together with Vassilis Psycharis, was a key figure in helping him gain access to the monasteries and take pictures of the monks. Balafas’s project coincided with an interest that the Mount Athos administration had shown in documenting and collecting photographic material concerning the holy site. In 1991, the Mount Athos Photographic Archive was founded and Father Ioustinos, a protagonist in the venture, began to look for related photographs. He began a collaboration with the Photography Archive of the Benaki Museum and the two institutions began a series of albums on the subject of Mount Athos. The album on Balafas’s photographic itinerary on Mount Athos is part of that collaboration. In the album, one will find moving, flowing narration written by Balafas. Among other things, Balafas speaks of the crucial role that the monks at Mount Athos played in the country’s struggle for independence and in preserving «the values of Hellenism,» its culture, tradition and language. He also writes that «man and his reactions to life» are what concern him the most in his work. Indeed, as with the pictures taken in Epirus or on the Greek islands, Balafas focuses on human toil and gives the daily chores of a rural life a dignified quality. Many of the pictures from Mount Athos show the monks fishing, preparing their food and working. Balafas brings out the spiritual aspect of their lives, their prayer and religious, monastic life, side by side with that daily, secular aspect that is common to all of us. Deeply moving, his images resonate with the dignity of existence and remind us that spirituality is behind everything we do. «Costas Balafas: A Photographic Itinerary on Mount Athos 1969-2001,» at the Benaki Museum (1 Koumbari, 210.367.1000) through September 1.