Gift of a national image maker

The Benaki Museum is usually closed on Tuesdays, but an exception was made last week to celebrate a great moment in its history, the fact that photographer Costas Balafas donated his archives to the museum. Balafas’s work depicts Greece in the 1940s and 50s, a time of great effort and people who built, worked the fields, climbed mountains, toiled and created. All these moments from the history of nameless people can be found in 15,000 negatives, divided by the photographer himself into thematic units covering the period 1939 to 2000. Many people were present and emotions ran high in the museum’s events hall on the ground floor. Balafas did not attend, for fear of becoming emotional. He was represented by his children, his life’s work and an statement he prepared especially for the day: «I would like to ask for this gathering to be dedicated to the mothers living in mountainous villages in the frontier areas of Greece. Despite their poverty, these women had the strength to live, create and keep the place alive. (…) In difficult times these women, alone, cultivated land that was not fertile. They worked on the soil with their hands, as if watering it with their sweat to make it blossom. (…) They were wonderful mothers who spent their entire lives fighting against their fate.» Following the announcement, people who have known and grown up with his work took the stand. These included MP and former minister Alekos Papadopoulos, historian Tassos Sakellaropoulos, Marinos Geroulanos on behalf of the museum’s board of directors, director of the Photographic Archives Fani Constantinou and curator of the Thessaloniki Photography Museum Iraklis Papaioannou. «The dream was to rebuild Greece. What Balafas achieved was to keep the dream alive. His morals and dignity, discreet yet very much alive, can be seen in every photograph,» said Geroulanos. Papaioannou talked about a «genuine and experienced Greekness,» adding that he was somebody who refused to sell his photographs, instead giving them away. And this was precisely what he said to Fani Constantinou when he announced his decision to donate his work to the Benaki Museum: «Come by the house to pick up the negatives.» Balafas really is a «poet of the lens,» as he was described by Constantinou. He represents a solitary, but constant and consistent presence in photography.