The city of Athens has seen many civilizations and historical events occur, establishing itself as both a strategic and cultural hub between Europe and Asia. For the past years, Greece has suffered a pitfall in their economy, receiving several bailouts in the span of five years, forcing Athens to have budget cuts and economic overhauls. Its people have witnessed the downfall of the country’s economy. Yet Athens remains an infinite source of cultural wisdom and top tourist attraction, however, the painted streets and alleys of the city tell a different story. Leica photographer Robon Sinha shares his images from a recent trip he did to Athens, documenting the faces of people in the city’s streets, and his perception on the situation. As the London-based artist well describes it, the people “couldn’t have predicted that things were about to go from bad to worse.”
You traveled to Athens back in 2010 and saw how the inevitable decay of the country’s economy was spreading through its people, its walls and every day life. What has changed, what hasn’t? What’s your perception of the city as a whole?
I was only in Athens for a short time on my first trip so I wouldn’t really be able to comment on what has actually changed. I did however get an overwhelming feeling that things had gone from bad to worse. I noticed many abandoned, derelict buildings, an increase in homelessness and of course a huge influx of migrants and refugees. The spirit of the people however remains unbroken, and it was heartwarming to witness many acts of kindness towards those in an impoverished state.
The faces of some of the individuals in your images seem to be wandering through the streets, as you mention, maybe looking for hope. Was this intentional? To take photos of people who lack blissfulness, or did it happen organically?
It’s almost always an organic process. When wandering the back streets, I attempt to photograph without any preconceived ideas. My photographer’s eye is always growing in experience and it’s inevitable that as my style develops I find myself being drawn towards elements that I find aesthetically pleasing – whether that be a face, a pool of light, a graphical form…
When traveling to Athens, what were your expectations? Meaning, did you set out with any specific objectives before pressing the shutter?
Initially I did have reservations about traveling back to Athens. I knew it was a city that I didn’t have immediate affection for. However, I was intrigued by the endless news reports about the country’s ever worsening economy and what effect it was having on its people. With regards to set objectives, nothing more than that. I take my curiosity into the street and what I find is my expression of that situation.
Athens, as a city, has beautiful landscapes and architectural wonders which have historically caught the eye of every visitor. Your images are solely focused on its people, why is this?
I’m never really compelled to seek out and photograph in the areas of which you mention. It’s undeniable that these architectural wonders, such as the Acropolis, can be and have been a photographer’s dream. I however tend to find myself creatively stumped in these areas as I find their natural beauty somewhat obvious and unrepresentative of reality.
You point out the fact that some of the walls you photographed through the city are filled with graffiti, accompanied by the shadows of homeless people who have suffered the consequences of the economic downfall; how do you envision Athens’ future?
It’s very difficult to envisage Athens’ future as there are so many unpredictable elements. The refugee crisis is clearly taking its toll on the city and the economy still appears to be volatile with no easy solutions. I think we have to believe that things will improve and I feel this is the mentality of the local people. I sensed a defiant attitude that remains hopeful.
When walking through the streets, did you have the chance to talk to anyone? Maybe you can share a story or two about their own personal experience and how Athens has changed in the last years?
Not on this occasion. I always welcome conversation with the locals but it’s not something I tend to seek out. I prefer to remain an observer without drawing too much attention to myself. Inevitably I do occasionally get spotted and people, rightly so, wonder why I’m photographing them. I ‘ve learnt that it’s best not to shy away from these situations and now make a point of embracing them. It’s in these scenarios where I might hear a personal anecdote if I succeed in diffusing the initial tension.
In terms of the equipment you used, you mention the Leica M with a 35 mm lens. You’ve also used other equipment, for instance the Leica SL. What are your reasons for using the M and what’s its role to enhance the street photography experience?
I love to roam with one camera and one lens. It’s all about simplifying and learning how to work instinctively with what you have. The 35mm is my preferred focal length as I’m very comfortable with the working distances. It allows me to shoot in amongst my subjects while mostly remaining unseen to them. I do indeed shoot other cameras such as the SL and also the S system, but for me there’s noting better than the M to walk the streets.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers, maybe about other projects you have in the pipeline?
I am currently working on a portrait series that includes actor David Suchet. I don’t want to reveal much more than that but it’s something I’m quite excited about. I‘m also part of project involving the United Nations Trust Fund that is supporting victims of human trafficking. The project will culminate in a book and an exhibition next year.
Thank you Robin!