In this article, Bob Patterson interviewed Margarita Mavromichalis about what’s going on in her home country Greece and, more specifically, about the time she has spent documenting and volunteering on the island of Lesvos.
At what point do you stop shooting and start helping? When do you put down the camera and wade into the water? On the flip side, when do you stop helping in order to document what’s going on around you?
For me there is a fine balance between shooting to document and practically helping the situation around me. On my return from every single trip to Lesvos I was confident and very satisfied that I had done both. My days started at around 7 am and I did not have a rest until about 8 PM. So, I had plenty of time to do both. During those hours, boats would arrive the one after the other and the refugees at the campsite would multiply by the hour. There were lots of NGOs and volunteers working with great enthusiasm and making a huge difference. However there is always room for help, if one wants to do so. I needed to document the arrival of the boats so I would try to get as close as possible but always trying to be mindful of those who were actively helping the refugees to get to dry land. I have a huge respect for the contribution of all the rescue workers and I would never want to stand in their way in order to take an image. Often there were more volunteers there than necessary so I never felt that I was needed and did not assist. However, seeing the agony of all these people and how overwhelmed some of them were, I always ended up putting my camera down to offer one person a warm hug, another a helping hand, a mother two arms to hold her baby… I was not there on an assignment; I was there because I felt that I had to be there. So I documented and I helped in any small way I could. Sometimes I felt so overwhelmed myself that I would forget to shoot. I had rented a car, since the distances on the island are long and whenever I drove from one place to another I would pick up as many refugees as I could along the way to drop them off at a designated meeting point. They had gone through hell to cross the Aegean and still had to walk for hours till buses picked them up and drove them to the registration center. I sometimes did the route back and forth numerous times trying to pick up as many people as I could, always giving priority to adults carrying children and those who seemed hurt. It might not be much but I am confident that at that particular moment, it made a huge difference to those who were offered assistance.
And so it went on and on. I went from helping to shooting and vice versa.
Do you ever feel guilty for shooting while so many are suffering?
I do not feel guilty at all for shooting because I know that my heart is in the right place. I am there to document what these people are going through and I would never leave anyone in need unattended in order to take an image. It is also thanks to photographers like myself and photojournalists in general that the world can really see and become aware of the suffering of so many people around the world. Not everyone is bad or takes advantage of those situations. Yes, some people certainly do and there is little we can do about it. It’s how you treat your subject matter and what you do with the work that matters the most.
I documented Hurricane Sandy while living in NY and I managed to give back by organizing a fundraising event using my photographs. I donated all the proceeds to the New York City Mayor’s Fund to Advance NYC. There is always a way to help and give back. I hope to be able to do the same in this particular case. I am part of a group exhibition in April in NY at Umbrella Arts Gallery on the Lower East Side and the theme is The Human Condition. I will donate all the proceeds of sales to one of the relief organizations working on the island of Lesvos.
Lastly, I would like to note that documentary photography is not something I do on a regular basis. I consider myself more a street photographer than anything else. However, I just cannot stay away from events that really touch me deeply and by using my camera I try to do my part and hopefully make a small difference.
You tell me you’re shy…but your photographs come from a person who is not afraid to get close. How can a naturally shy person get so close?
That is a good point. I am definitely a shy person and don’t enjoy direct attention. As a photographer I really need and crave the pat on the back from time to time to feel that I am going in the right direction and that what I am doing is well received. We all need that confirmation. But, as a person, I don’t like to be the focus of attention; it makes me feel very uncomfortable. However, when I shoot it’s not about me. I am just a photographer doing my job. It’s about my subject and what I am trying to say through my lens. My motivation pushes me forward and my camera helps me get where I need to be. It’s a totally different thing.
What have you learned about yourself through this experience?
Photography has been teaching me more than anything has in my whole life. It has opened to me a world that I continue to discover from a different angle and above all it has taught me that the possibilities are as endless as my thirst to discover and to go further. In Lesvos, I discovered a fearless side of my character that I wasn’t sure I had and I realized that I can be pretty bold and fend for myself in certain tricky circumstances, especially when I am passionate and focused on what I am doing. It so happened that I got arrested for shooting police officers that were trying to enforce order on a very angry and non-responsive crowd of newly arrived refugees. I managed to talk my way out of that situation the same way I managed to escape from the anarchists in Athens while I was shooting the riots last summer.
What’s the one thing you want the world to know about what’s happening on Lesvos and other places just like it?
The refugee crisis is a humanitarian topic of huge proportions that the civilized world cannot ignore. The Greek people demonstrate their support in the best possible way despite the terrible hardships they themselves are going through. There has been criticism that Greece is not handling the matter properly. But this criticism comes from those who are not in the forefront of the problem and do not face the worst economic crisis in their modern history. However, when it comes to finding solutions, those that are quick to criticize close their borders.
How do you feel about the anti refugee rhetoric coming from politicians worldwide?
What I know is that difficult times and harsh measures bring extreme reactions everywhere. In Greece for example, after more than 5 years of harsh austerity measures we have been witnessing a rise in the extreme right wing (Golden Dawn) and an increase of anti-Semitic sentiments. That same pattern can be seen in many other European countries and I find that scary. We have to pause and really think what really lies behind this humanitarian crisis and what triggered it in the first place. The Western world has a lot of soul searching to do. Whether we acknowledge our responsibility or not, the reality is that once this flood/influx starts, it’s close to impossible to stop. So, it’s all about finding a humane way to resolve it and it is not by closing the borders that this will be achieved.
Throughout history, so many Europeans migrated searching for a better or safer life; almost every US citizen comes from somewhere. They were welcomed, the process was not easy for them either but they integrated and became active members of a new society. Why should things be different now?
You can go anywhere and do just about anything yet you’ve chosen to go to one of the most troubling places on the planet. Why?
It so happens that this place is my country and the crisis happens right at my doorstep. I would feel very guilty if I did not go out there and do my part. I probably am not doing much but I feel that I am trying. If my images manage to touch even one single person out there, I will have done something good.
It must be absolutely painful to witness such suffering. Most people would have found many reasons to leave or not return. You haven’t done that. Why do you keep going back?
It truly is VERY painful. I was myself surprised at how emotional I had become after my return from my first trip to Lesvos. The slightest thing would make me cry. My own images would make me cry. I was trying to process everything that I had witnessed and it was bigger than what my images could show. And I felt very frustrated, feeling that I wasn’t doing any of these people justice. In my eyes, what I had witnessed did not translate in my images.
This tragedy is endless, it knows no expiration date and could be getting worse. I am not ready to quit; I don’t feel that my work is over. Furthermore, this topic has many facets. No one really talks about what the locals on the islands go though. We all talk about the island of Lesvos but so many other areas in Greece are equally affected. I want to dedicate part of my work to highlight that the locals, who have really seen their world turned upside down and with the very little they have, do more than we know. Those people are to be commended and recognized. Many locals were refugees themselves once upon a time, came from Asia Minor and arrived on the very same shores of Lesvos many years ago. They know what it means to be a refugee and therefore are very sensitive to the problem.
Is there one story or experience that really sticks in your mind about your experience on Lesvos? Can you share some of it with us?
Yes, there is one story that I would like to share; it’s a very humbling one. One evening I was walking in the campsite next to the registration center, where all the refugees camp until they are able to take the boat to Athens. While walking and talking to some of the refugees I noticed a middle-aged man sitting all alone on a blanket. I walked towards him and he immediately reacted with a smile but unfortunately did not speak any English. In front of him was a little bag with a handful of nuts. It was obvious that he had brought this along with him for his journey. As soon as I got close to him, he picked up his small bag, lifted it up and offered me some of the nuts. I was there to ask him if he needed anything and there he was offering me the very little he had. I was left dumbfounded and felt really so terribly small next to him. He was willing to share the little food he actually had with someone who obviously was not in need of anything and had a warm bed and a roof over her head to go back to. In all honestly, he made me realize that he is a much better person than I am… I don’t think that if I were in his position I would have been that generous. I did not take his portrait but I know that I will never forget him.
When this story hit its peak (in the entertainment news cycle) late last summer I kept hearing these people referred to as “migrants” as if they were looking for new work. Why doesn’t the news media use the term “refugee?”
The truth is that the incoming flows to Europe were mixed, both refugees (meaning people entitled to international protection fleeing from war-torn zones or other difficult situations), and migrants (mostly people seeking a better life). In view of the large number of refugees having entered Europe in the last year those countries unwilling to accept more people have begun labeling them all as migrants.
Greece has been having its own share of economic problems recently, yet it’s at the forefront of the refugee crisis? When do you as a country say enough is enough and just stop?
The Greek people, besides sharing the European humanitarian values have been migrants themselves on several occasions in their history. I don’t think that they will ever say “enough is enough”. But this is a very heavy burden for a small country already in difficulty.
The entertainment news industry seems to focus on one or two “breaking” stories at a time which has pushed the Syrian refugee crisis to the background. It’s lead many to believe that it’s over. How do you respond to that?
The UN estimates that there are 60 Million people trying to flee from wars, famine, drought and other disasters in Asia and Africa. These are all potential refugees/migrants aiming mostly to come to Europe. So, as you realize, this is an issue that will remain in the forefront of the media for many years ahead, whether we like it or not. It is natural that in a world where so much is going on daily, other issues take the forefront. People also get tired hearing the same thing day in and day out… But the refugee crisis is one that is here to stay, unfortunately.
How can others help?
First and foremost, everyone can help by being more understanding and open-minded. People can either donate to organizations who are actively involved with the matter or they can volunteer themselves and be of assistance wherever needed. But you don’t have to go that far. If people could just educate themselves to learn more about the matter and understand why all of this is happening: that would already be progress and very helpful. They would immediately become more accepting and less judgmental and that would create a less emotionally charged atmosphere in the countries that find themselves more affected by the issue.