Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Greece on the move as crisis bites deeper.

For Rent says the sign behind the man. Thessaloniki, Greece

While for many outside the country, the main symptoms of the current economic crisis are the soup kitchens in central Athens, or perhaps the violent confrontations that light up TV screens from time to time,but there is another quieter, yet just as significant trend sweeping Greece. Thousands upon thousands of Greeks are on the move, leaving the larger cities for the countryside or smaller provincial towns or abandoning the country to try their luck abroad. As with so many other economic and social upheavals the current one has forced people to up sticks and try their luck elsewhere. However, this time there are no endless trails of refugees marching along dusty roads, or convoys of dispossessed Okies with their belonging strapped to the top of a car. Instead it's the steady rhythm of friends, neighbours and colleagues gradually slipping away.

There are no firm figures for the numbers involved and those official statistics that do surface in the media often contradict themselves, nevertheless the truth is that something is changing and I see it with my own eyes every day. In every apartment block in every street no entrance hall is complete without a handful of For Rent or For Sale signs, apartments I pass by on my way to work lay empty for months on end, even though the removal vans seem to be doing a roaring trade.

On a more personal level, many of my friends and acquaintances have left the city. Thomas, who's now in Germany, trying to start a new life, Anne and Makis who have decided to go back to Makis's home town of Alexandroupolis, Panos who is off to Crete to try his hand at farming after losing his job in the latest round of job cuts, and so the list goes on.

And most importantly for me, my own 12 year old daughter, who is now living in central Greece, after her mother's business finally succumb to the crisis., so obliging her to move back to be closer to the her own family and the support they can offer. So instead of being a weekend dad, I've become a fortnightly one, as every two weeks I catch a train to Larissa, and then a coach and then a lift to see her in her new home.

I do not harbour any bitterness to my ex for her decision, she tried everything to find work in Thessaloniki and when that didn't work out she was left with no real choice. Given such unpalatable options, you do what you can to survive.

This weekend though, my daughter is staying with me, or to be more accurate she's staying over at a series of friends, catching up on lost gossip and news from the classmates she left behind. Even then, the story is the same. One has left for England, another is going with her family to Australia, another's family is contemplating moving back to Albania if things do not improve in the near future.

Ironically, my financial situation has stabilised and unlike the last few summers, paying the rent and bills is not something that wakes me up at 4am in a cold sweat. I've even been in the enviable situation of turning down jobs (don't worry, I passed them on to friends in need) in order to take a couple of weeks off but this is something I usually keep to myself as complaining about work when so many around you are desperate for any kind of job seems the height of bad taste.

Those left behind hang on, hoping that things will change soon or praying that their job won't be the next in line. All the while the new government at the behest of Greece's creditors carve yet more slices off the public sector and chase after an ever dwindling tax base. This week it's the turn of higher education as Athens desperately seeks to find another 11.5 billion euros worth of spending cuts and so has announced the closure of at least 30% of the university and polytechnic department, effective immediately.

On the other hand it feels at times like being on a raft in the middle of a storm and all you can do is cling on as tightly as possible and focus on the few inches in front of your face, you do not have the energy to imagine what will happen next so all you do is focus on the immediately around you and forget the rest.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Fire fighting aircraft getting ready to drop sea water on a forest fire near Thessaloniki, Greece

Greek civil defence teams dealing with the aftermath of a forest fire near Thessaloniki.

G4S is a subsidiary of the FUBAR Group PLC

A funny thing happened on the way to the market. Or how I found myself covering a forest fire on my day off.

Yesterday proved once again that cameras are like credit cards and we should never leave home without them. My original plan was to go into the centre, find a cafe with wifi and catch up with things on the internet and then do some shopping. As it turned out I found myself walking for miles in 40C along a dirt track in search of a forest fire.

 But I get ahead of myself, while tweeting I saw that my friend, Asteris was in the centre as well and went off to catch up on his news and find out how he's spent his time at the Global Voices conference in Nairobi. Later, more friends happened upon us (Thessaloniki is that kind of town, despite having a population of over one million inhabitants).

 In the midst of catching up and discussing what we planned to do for our summer holidays,I noticed a couple of Canadair fire fighting planes circling over the city. Usually, that means there are off to fight forest fire in the north of Greece but on the off chance that something was happening closer to home I asked Asteris (i think he's never offline, even in his sleep) to check out Twitter and as I'd guessed there was a fire raging on the outskirts of the city in the Seix Sou woods.

Quickly grabbing my helmet and my bag I made my way to the site but couldn't get very close ad all the access roads had been closed by the authorities. Instead I ended up parking a mile or so away and trekking towards the smoke. Once again luck was on my side an professional photojournalist was also heading in the same direction and offered me a lift. Also she knew from her job many of the fire fighters on duty so there was no problem about me being stopped or turned away and so I was able to take photographs just a few metres from where the planes and helicopter were dropping seawater on the fire.

The only problem was that my bike was at least a 50 minute hike away and the temperature was still in the high thirties but it was worth it and exhausted, red faced and foot sore I ended another Saturday nobody could have predicted.

Friday, July 13, 2012

How to photograph riots.

With clashes in Spain and especially in Madrid growing in intensity I thought I'd post a few pointers to those photographers who want to cover riots and other such turbulent events. Since 2005 I have recorded, dozens of violent confrontations here in Greece and I hope that these pointers will help keep you safe.

1-NEVER FORGET WHAT'S HAPPENING AROUND YOU. It is easy in the heat of the moment to focus only on what the viewfinder sees and miss dangers around you. Take time out to check on what is happening in your immediate vacinity.

2 - DO NOT TRUST THE POLICE. They are often as dangerous as rocks and bottles thrown. With police officers being called upon to impose unpopular economic and social measures in Europe they are no longer neutral players imposing law and order. Also there is a growing awareness among the authorities that the internet and especially photographs and video are exposing police excesses. This means that you can also become a target if you record such actions. Always be ready to flee if necessary.

3 - WEAR PROTECTIVE GEAR. Helmet, some kind of mask and goggles. This will provide a measure of protection against tear gas and other dangers. But remember such gear also makes you a target for the police as it is also worn sometimes by the most hardcore demonstrators.

4 - NO SHOT IS WORTH BEING HOSPITALISED FOR. Don't take unnecessary risks as an injured photographer is not going to be much use to anyone. There will always be other opportunities.

5 - DON'T ARGUE. If challenged by protesters about taking photos put your camera down and walk away. Riots are highly charged events and not a debating club. If challenged by the police, stand your ground if you can see other photographers/camera operators nearby. Otherwise, run as quickly as possible if you have the chance.

6 - KNOW YOUR GEOGRAPHY. If possible get to know the layout of the area you're photographing as well as possible and that means not just via a map but by walking through it repeatedly.  Always have a choice of exit routes if things get out of control.

7 - TALK TO PEOPLE. Let them know who you are and why you are there.This lessens their suspicions that you're working for the authorities. Touch bases, Chat to people you know at the event and they will pass the word on about who you are. This invisible network has saved my hide on many an occasion.

8 - CHECK SETTINGS BEFORE TROUBLE KICKS OFF NOT DURING IT. The middle of riot is no place to be fiddling with buttons and dials and the like. If the worst comes to the worst, put your camera on Automatic. However, always remember where the sunlight light is coming from.

9 - ALWAYS CARRY SPARE MEMORY CARDS with a few pics of area. If you think you're going to be stopped by police, swap out the card in the camera for a spare and then hide it.

10 - BE RESPONSIBLE when posting pictures afterwards. Don't put in peril the people you were photographing. This is a difficult area to give guidelines about but generally speaking you should not be posting photographs that could be used to convict people. Otherwise you are turning yourself and other photographers into targets in future demonstrations.

Monday, July 09, 2012

All Quiet On The Summer Front

Not much happening on the photography or politics front so I haven't been updating the blog or my Flickr page lately. It's the way it goes, often after a period of intense activity I feel the need to just take time off and relax. Much to my surprise my lessons have continued even into July which means that this summer is the first time in years when the summer has not been accompanied by stomach churning worries over money and bills.

Hard to describe the relief that comes with knowing ahead of time that you'll have enough to meet all your obligations for the coming months. Beyond that time frame I just don't plan or think, as so much in Greece has become utterly unpredictable that making such long term plans is an invitation to unwanted fear and anxiety over events you cannot control.

Instead I'm taking this time to buy things I need for the home that I've put on the back burner in light of more urgent demands. Nothing fancy, things like new plates and cups, a few new lamps to replace the battered ones I have. Suddenly, buying things is not something I do with half a heart, wondering if this month I'll be able to pay the power bill as well.

However, when you've lived under such constant pressure, the fear doesn't melt away overnight. The thought that my current spite of good luck is just a temporary respite is always there at the back off your mind, like a getaway car, keys in the ignition, engine running.

Such feeling are reinforced when you see more and more of your friends lose their jobs, or pack their bags in order to leave the country or the city in search of work. In such a situation you have a sense of guilt that you're doing OK whilst those who are equally deserving of such good fortune are being forced to leave.

After the Fall

After the Fall by Teacher Dude's BBQ
After the Fall, a photo by Teacher Dude's BBQ on Flickr.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

UK citizenship test - the crib notes

Tested to death
In keeping with the demands of the latest government directives all those applying for UK citizenship will have to pass a test designed to see if they are aware of  seminal events in British culture and history. In the spirit of international co-operation I have created a list of crib notes which will help applicants with their examination.

1 -Which countries make up 'Great Britain'? England, Hampshire, Tuscany and The Cotswolds.

2 - Which tribal leader fought against the Roman conquest of Britain? Margaret Thatcher.

3 - Which king defeated the Vikings at the end of the 9th Century? Tony Blair - The Hammer of the Scot.

4 - When did the English first impose English laws on Wales and the Welsh? 1957 (When Welsh forced to fight under an English flag in 1st Eurovision Song Contest.

5 - Which famous document eventually led to the formation of Parliament in England? The Leveson Inquiry

6 - Under the feudal system, what were people who worked the land called? Stake holders.

7 - What proportion of the population of the UK were killed by the Black Death? Approximately the same as those not in BUPA.

8 - Which kinds of skilled workers did not come to England in large numbers from Europe in the Middle Ages? Polish plumbers. Hence the delay in UK obtaining European levels of personal hygiene till the late 17th century.

9 - Which monarch established the Church of England? Princess Di.

10 - Which monarch was defeated by Oliver Cromwell in English Civil War? Trick question as no English monarch has ever lost.Charles just lost his head for a moment.

 Good luck and the Best of British to you.