Photographer fights for Afghanistan’s children

Yiannis Behrakis is one of the world’s leading photojournalists, one of those Greeks who is without a doubt among the best in his field – whatever that may be. His photographs for Reuters news agency have been on the front pages of the world’s top newspapers and have won him several prizes. Whether depicting a battle or a sunset, his photographs are distinguished by the power of the images as well as the stories they tell. Now, however, he wants to do something more. This week marks the opening of his first exhibition, in Athens, to raise money for the children of Afghanistan. After 12 years at the front, Behrakis not only wants to see the world and bring it into our homes, but to use this power to do something toward helping the children who are living in desperate conditions. Behrakis, the «crazy Greek,» as some of his fellow war photographers call him (in a mixture of competitiveness and admiration), does not talk much. He lets his photography of the war and upheaval do the talking. He keeps the silence of a person who lives life, death, fear and happiness at another level. But when he does decide to write or speak, he gives us lively descriptions of the joys, the terror, the cost and the risks in a life that many people might imagine, but few could actually live. You recently returned from Afghanistan. Do you think that the images coming from there have accurately described the reality of that war? I believe they have. All the journalists who were with the Northern Alliance had almost unlimited access… Particularly where atrocities were taking place. There is so much hatred that they think that what they are doing is justified. «I couldn’t see the light for five years,» they say, «that’s why this person here deserves to be butchered.» Do you think that your very presence might have averted some atrocity? I think so. There is a very fine line that I have thought about and discussed with my colleagues. I know that on many occasions our presence gives someone the opportunity to commit an atrocity just because we are there. I am the one who decides at that moment. If it is something that will cause harm, I won’t do it. I think it is important that I am the one who decides. In Sierra Leone, when my friends were killed, I took photographs of them, but I haven’t shown them to anyone. (In an ambush in May 2000, his friend and distinguished war correspondent Kurt Schork and others were killed. Behrakis and another photographer managed to escape.) What qualities do you think someone needs in order to be a good war photographer? You have to have your own style. You have to be a person who likes living outside everyday reality. Most people who do this job, like myself, are either single or have never been married… But if I had to choose to do just one thing, I would say that a war photographer has to be an idealist. So many things are in your hands, you take such risks, you are always in the news. You influence public opinion and through public opinion, you influence governments. If you are not an idealist, you can do harm. Of course you also have to be able to take it, to withstand the nightmares. When I realize that I have had enough… What are your own ideals? What would you like to do? One of my dreams is to be able to do something for children. Let’s say what I am doing now with UNICEF is a small step toward that goal. This is, of course, something that I have also done at the front, taking photographs that have made some people aware. What I would really like – and this is utopian – is to stop at least one war. Let me tell you, this job is not one you can do simply for the money. It isn’t possible, because no money can compensate for the risks you take…. In any case, at least those of us who work in news agencies, receive the same pay in Athens as we do in Afghanistan. I work for a salary. You have lived with death and with danger. How do you feel about that today, when you are somewhere where there could be land mines, where you could be hit by a bomb or a boy with a gun might think you are a good target? When I am there, there is the occasional fear, but it is a fear that is, how shall I say, friendly. In a way, that fear protects you, as a kind of ally that will help you, and say «OK, now watch out,» or «Don’t do it,» or «Do it, or else…. » All your senses are working in another dimension, because it is always a snap decision you have to make. You are there and you are alone. Or you are with other people who could get killed if you do something stupid. That’s why I often prefer to work alone. What happened in Sierra Leone? Why weren’t you afraid? Did you take a risk? We took a risk that turned out to be a mistake. You know, it was something we had been thinking about for several years and we had exchanged names and telephone numbers of our nearest relatives. If something happened, I would have liked Kurt, for example, to be the one to call my family, not my business manager. I would like a friend to talk to them, someone who was there with me at the end. He felt the same way, it was something we had contemplated and talked about calmly but we hadn’t dwelled on it… All these years I have been in tight spots, either I have been very lucky, along with the fact that I can also run like crazy, I am in good shape, or have the experience to know how to avoid things. Sometimes, when they are shooting at you, you don’t have many options. You just have to make the right move – run, take cover. Doesn’t that make you rather different in your life here? Yes, it makes me quite different. Particularly when I have just arrived back; I go through a period of adjustment. It used to be quite difficult, but now it has become easier. Do you need a lot of silence now? Yes, I do. I don’t talk to relatives, I don’t talk at home much. But I do want to do things I have missed. For example, one thing I always do when I come back is get on my motorcycle and go for a ride. Simple things. Like eating a good meal or sitting in front of the television. Perhaps talking to someone who can understand, with another photo-reporter… In Sierra Leone, your experience and the fear it had left you with actually helped — you had time to be afraid. Yes, I was very lucky. For the first few minutes after I was trapped in the car – to tell you the truth, I still haven’t really understood how I wasn’t hit by a bullet. I was expecting it. Then later, when the soldiers we were going to meet had come back…. bullets were whizzing about everywhere. They were shooting at the jungle. At that moment, I thought, «I am going to die and yet I am so close.» It’s one thing to be in a tight spot for five minutes and another for four hours. How do you feel about the fact that you are telling the story of people that no one would otherwise have heard about? It is important…I feel very proud that I am one of the people who can do that. I see the people and that little girl (in the photograph below), and my heart starts to pound as if I were bungee-jumping. You have grown up in this job. I like it. And as long as I am able, I hope I can keep on doing it. If not, I don’t know what else I could do.

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