On its own, the photo doesn’t show much: the trunk of a pine (at a slight angle) and marble stairs. We see such trees and climb similar stairs in almost every park and square. A note under the photograph, however, says that a homeless man sat under that tree for two months until he died – not from an overdose but from hunger. The photographer is a woman – like the dead man homeless, addicted, anonymous. With her presence, with the act of photographing, she memorializes the invisible, she shows an absence that never concerned anyone, she remembers what others did not see – or avoided.
Other photos: A woman sticks a syringe into her neck and notes that she never imagined she would come to this… A condom on a dirty blanket, next to its wrapper with the brand name LOVE and a five-euro note, the sarcastic comment of a prostitute who is HIV-positive… A flock of pigeons stands on marble paving stones, with the comment, “We stick together.” From street to street – the photographer notes – they are chased by police and shop owners, but they stay together… On the side of a building a giant painting of an angel with bloody tears, while on the sidewalk stands a lone black pigeon, exposed to continual danger… In a chaotic room, children’s things are piled up in expectation of children that were taken away… A balcony with flowers, a homeless woman’s dream…
The photographs taken by seven women addicts were on display at the Municipality of Athens’s Melina Merkouri Cultural Center until yesterday. With them was a series of powerful photos by Stylianos Papardelas, taken as he accompanied members of the KETHEA Therapy Center for Dependent Individuals as they provided homeless addicts with support, medical care and a place to rest. The seven women took part in a project run by psychologist Vasia Danaskou, who, in cooperation with KETHEA, gave them disposable cameras and waited for their photos and their notes.
The combined exhibition is a series of dispatches from the trenches of our civilization. At one level is the work of the professional “correspondent,” at the other is the view of those who live, work, hope and fall in the street. For 20 years, through its Exelixis program, KETHEA has been reaching out to users who have not decided to join a rehabilitation program. Over the past few years, things got worse. Some 42 percent of substance abusers supported by Exelixis today say that they are homeless, from 24.5 percent in 2010. In 2005, one in two homeless women addicts said that they were involved in prostitution; today the percentage is 84 percent.
In the last three years, a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation allowed KETHEA to set up a street work network and to open two new centers to provide services to homeless addicts. Other agencies, such as Athens Municipality, the Elena maternity hospital and the 18 ANO rehab center are part of a protective network. KETHEA (on whose board I serve) has now proposed setting up three small hostels for addicts, as they are not welcome elsewhere. In this effort, our guides will be the photos and words that take us to a world that on our own we cannot see.