Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Lingering images of the Great Depression



Depression as depression refers also to the «Great Depression» of '29 in America, during which "young photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans produced important work relating to the adverse economic, political and social context and were able to capture the climate of the time, "says photographer Paul Fysakis.

Cited by Astrapellou Marilena (1)


The title of the exhibition suggests something specific can be expected. By subsuming an economic crisis under the term 'Depression Era', a greater time span is invoked. Consequently a link between the current situation and a certain sense of history is sought. This is because they believe some similarities exist between the Great Depression and the Greek crisis. However, such an analogy entails the risk of over exaggeration. Also a comparison is not something done so easily since these two distinct periods in time are not identical situations. 

The Great Depression started with the crash of the New York stock market in 1929. After a run on a bank could not be stopped in time, panic set in. Suddenly everyone felt the interdependence of all economies. Even a German civil servant employed for life was no longer certain how stable was his livelihood. It was followed by mass unemployment. Ever since photographers have attempted to capture the real expression of depression. One image thereof stands out: endless queues of the unemployed waiting in vain for some job.


It is good to see that Paul Fysakis does make reference to the Great Depression, but it leaves one wondering if photographers can play in the 21st century a similar role as back then? In other words, the title opens up a wide field of associations, but after having seen the exhibition, it leaves unanswered the question what is really intended when such a thematic association is evoked? Why then use such a grand title? After all, the time span from 2011 to 2014 does not amount as of yet to be an era? Of course, artists are free to exaggerate, but then a note of caution may be added in reference to Vincent Van Gogh. He stated in his letters to his brother Teo that keeping a sense of proportionality is the greatest of all arts.

Given that the photographers accompany their images with texts which are not artistic statements, it takes on an effort to go beyond mere images of the crisis. Thus it could have been expected that some references are made to the questions photographers posed when back in the thirties they saw how the world ended up in the Great Depression. By making such a conscious bridge, the over arching theme could have been 'Crisis aversion'.

After all the Greek state did default in the past due to being unable to pay back all loans. Lifting present day assumptions and putting them into a historical context, would allow for quite another field of association to another word many Greeks used to characterize the situation prior to the official crisis, namely 'chaos'. The lack of regularity was a common judgement passed on as a feeling to be experienced when living in such a reality where the civil service was deemed to be hardly reliable. 

If photos would take time differences into account, and not smother them by suggesting a similarity with the 'Great Depression', they would stand a chance to connect people who have become disconnected due to the crisis. That again has a manifold of implications in need to be shown since attitudes towards institutions, or rather the structures behind them govern as much relationships, as what can be expressed and lived as a true feeling for life. As encompassing the latter would be, the loss of enjoyment of life would make associations with 'crisis' become much more 'lawful' than what the overall frame of 'Depression Era' evokes in the minds of viewers when looking at the photos.

How important are titles, this can be illustrated with one simple example. Paul Klee never sold at first his paintings in Munich. Came along the gallerist Herbert Walden who said to Klee he would exhibit him in his gallery in Berlin, but under one condition, namely that he could transform 'no title' into not just meaningful, but 'poetic titles' e.g. a boy on a roller risking to fall because of having just one hand on the bar and the tongue out was called 'Übermut' - over-confidence. Klee sold all his paintings. The title had given access to the viewers. Needless to say, they opened their eyes to realize these are despite their abstractness beautiful paintings.

So what need is there to show that people in Greece have entered a similar Depression as was the case during the thirties. There is some negative truth to this kind of exaggeration which should have been questioned. This is said in full awarness that Greece has due to the austerity policy being applied an unemployment around 27% and youth unemployment above 50%. But the policy is not the only reason for such a massive failing. It reflects as well what commitments are behind the original investments which were made in all kinds of business ventures. Also there should not be forgotten the high rate of 'gray' economy in which financial transactions are made without any receipt and therefore no taxes being paid. There are debates raging about other fault lines into which the photos should have tuned into. Standing in the Plaka, and seeing to where the director of Pireaeus Bank is being driven by his chauffeur, then business as usual is not the apt term. Rather business under special circumstances reflect the political deals being made all the time to make things possible. Some things are let through, others not. The photos should be like filters and present things in a contrast to various light intensities. It could lead to the question why those in the spotlight all the time seem more illuminated than those who go through the streets with sullen faces, the head down and being judged by others mistakingly as unfriendly or even arrogant when in fact that person is worried by not having any success within such a society. The struggle of the honest people has to be a part of the stories still to be written. For too much goes unnoticed.

Also missing is some kind of acknowledgement that the world has learned some lessons since the thirties. Some awareness and economic tools do exist, and much was done to avert repeating the same mistake, namely to let a run on a bank cause a major default. The bail-out programme for Greece did manage that the country did not cease to operate as a state. Even though many people were put out of jobs and are now disconnected to this effort, the political forces wishing to avert that the entire system is put into question averted such a crisis. Once that is admitted, then the term 'crisis' itself needs a more precise clarification.

Of course, the resentiment about the bailout has one prime reason - it helped primarily the banks to weather the storm and not the ordinary people who have to suffer the consequences. A normal civil servant lost 40% of wages, and when tax increases of 20% are included, then that person has lost 60% in purchasing power. The consequence is to be seen in long term perspectives, notably what happens to a youth without jobs nor health insurance, never mind capable of paying into the pension fund. So someone can come rightly so to the conclusion, that the real crisis has not been averted, but only postponed.

Given such a state of affairs and quite a dim future, the photos would attain a critical quality if they convey some confidence the problems are seen and therefore shall be tackled. This is not the case if the crisis is presented as if like fate unchangeable.

Something stands to be gained, if the crisis would be shown from the human side and at the same time as an opportunity to do away with old presumptions. By opening up perception to other possibilities still not tried out, it allow people maybe not to find solutions right away but at least by altering their perceptions of things help them to adapt to future needs. After all a crisis reflects the need of the overall society to restructure its dispositions. For instance, the port of Genoa underwent an enormous transition once bulk cargo was replaced by container traffic. All of a sudden large gangs of workers to unload ships were no longer needed. Containers need only one crane operator and someone on the ground to hook up the crane with the container and to give some direction.

It may be too early to make any prognosis, but certainly one prerequisite for going forward would be to leave behind rituals. That would require entering new passages of time to ensure a learning out of mistakes and to see that history needs to be taken into consideration, if not to repeat the same mistakes which were made in the past. (2) 

Photographically, it would entail showing all the alternative living and working forms which have sprung up as a result of the crisis. The crisis has affected all, best exemplified when everyone in the apartment house gathers at the bottom of the stairs to decide collectively whether heating oil will be purchased for this coming winter or not. Nearly 80% of households are said to have abandoned the purchase of heating oil after the tax on it was made equal to gasoline. The consequence thereof is an over demand of electricity while people turn to stoves to burn all sorts of materials, even if need to be wood of trees taken from near-by parks. When Boutari, the mayor of Thessaloniki described how he sits at home with several sweaters on, but was still freezing due to the coldness inside the house, everyone shared with him a similar experience. This kind of connectivity underlines a notion of equality when all realize to be sitting in the same boat.

During the Great Depressions Keynes and the 'New Deal' came along to overcome the economic crisis. Nowadays it seems more difficult to identify what would help to get out of the crisis. Someone like Jeffrey Sachs advise for Greece to get back to economic growth, focus should be on exports and the business community not to be so pessimistic. On the other hand, there are many false ideas in the air. No wonder then that Chomsky would critize the educated elite as serving blindly the system. To make space for new theories about the economy, is no easy task for even the meaning of 'work' has undergone a rapid transition.

Since the photographers are part of the cultural sector said to be a dynamic factor for growth and therefore employment, a crucial question becomes what impact the functionalization of the arts for economic purposes will have on the photographic works put eventually on display? If not careful, the photographers can become a simple tool or clown in support of making use of the cultural industries and not contribute in reality to finding a solution to the crisis.

Philosophically speaking,  critical theory leading to aesthetical reflections (Adorno, Marcuse, Carol Becker, Martin Jay) seems not to play a role in current discussions. Much more reference is made to Michel Foucault's archaeology of knowledge and concept of an archive as a system of categories brought together by principles which stipulate 'the order of things'. He demonstrates this most explicitly in how a prison or a hospital works. While the former is bent on observation and punishment, the latter relates categories to be used for comparative purpose of all kinds of sicknesses to a single definition of what would constitute 'a healthy soldier'. Likewise it can be imagined that within this collective of photographers practical judgements shall be made as to what constitutes a good photo of the crisis. Inherent in such an approach is a structural disposition to let the photo or image follow the logic of representation. Hence no photo will speak directly but merely indirectly about the crisis which has been transforming Greece at an accelerated pace since 2008/2009. 

Apart from that structural disposition, it would be important that photos do not rush through characteristic scenes, but hold onto moments which depict once caught in a depression how difficult it shall be to get out. As a reminder of the ancient thought on how difficult a task it is to realize a just society, an approach like this would allow for a self critical appraisal and the application of just aesthetical criteria for which photos represent best the crisis.

Helpful would also have been to bring some cross-references to other countries which either have gone through a similar crisis like Argentine or are caught in one at the moment such as the Japanese economy. Japan has been in recession for now more than ten years, but there the dynamics are highly contradictory. While indicators show a declining economy, it is nevertheless still the third largest in the world and despite struggles at many front, it has a highly modernized industrial sector and some very wealthy people. Consequently the term 'crisis' needs to be worked out more precisely, in order not to be confused with a slipping back into under development or economic regressions. Confusion about the crisis is also sown by making the debt into sovereign one. This leads back to national economy accounting and therefore propels back into the limelight of the media the state of affairs in Greece as if an isolated national case. As this propels in turn other forces to the surface, there is a duality involved when it comes to identifying which political forces seek what international partners while favoring internally only certain political solutions.

Popular discussion adds to the confusion. The usual refrain can be heard that those who were responsible for Greece to end up in such a huge debt are not held accountable, while the rest of the population is obliged to suffer the consequences. Critics of austerity policy would also point repeatedly to the economy producing disproportionate results, socially speaking. Occupy Wall Street focused on what incomes are earned by 1% of the population while the rest loses out. In Greece, the difference related to import/export discrepancies is explained by much more money spend on consumer goods rather than activating real investments.

Once a huge deficit exists, there are only few mechanisms which can off-set it e.g. printing of money in the United States. Others less fortunate countries come under the dictate of the IMF which sets off a typical reform pattern. The labour market will be the first one to come literally under attack. The flexibility Capitalists demand is captured by an entrepreneur wishing to be free to 'hire and fire' their employees whenever they like and this without any further questions being asked why after 35 years of work these people can be suddenly sacked. For the youth protesting against such a system few alternatives exist. Once no real commitment is made by the state to sustain the lives of people over time, no good solutions can be worked out. 

A fault line within the exhibition is best demonstrated by seeking to make the Greek crisis be unique despite making statements to the contrary. This contradiction is underlined by having chosen a grand title: 'Depression Era'. If not matched in reality with the photographers not succeeding in their wish to address the core issues of the crisis, then doubt will block any positive review of their photographic results. There is another way to formulate this critique. Disconnected people need to understand the situation they find themselves in. Can the photos be a true mirror for that purpose, especially if the photos are at best 'broken mirrors' according to Marilena Astrapelou? (3) Naturally the photographers are under tremendous pressure, since their works shall not be judged solely according to aesthetical criteria. They will be viewed as well whether or not they have succeeded to live up to such an aspirational title by presenting things in an authentic way i.e. free from any manipulative attempt.

If the photographers want to initiate some self critical reflections, they need to reveal how the crisis was brought about. An attempt was made by including photos of the time period preceding 2009, that is when many lived in affluence and a spending spree exceeded by far what incomes people really had. For much was purchased by using all kinds of credits, including dated cheques.

One great omission can be made out. The term 'corruption' seems not to play a role, thematically or photographically speaking. Likewise the heroic efforts of people to sustain life under these difficult conditions has not been focused upon as much as it should be the case, the family portraits by Loukas Vasilikos perhaps an exception.

Naturally given the number of people who showed up for the opening, it is hard to gauge what impression the exhibition made upon them. A prelimenary judgement  suggests the photos did not evoke some further going self critical reflection why Greece ended up in such a situation in the first place. Too much seemed segmented in order to tell a full story while only certain things stand really out. Certainly it is difficult to link up with the real crisis people are experiencing and going through. Also very few photos showed how to go beyond the crisis, even if only in the imagination. Equally if crisis means loss of innocence, it should be brought out by the photos. Some further going reflections are made possible through the accompanying texts written by the photographers to accompany their photos. But this cannot be deemed as of yet entry into an imaginative process which questions reality and transform it at the same time not by superseding the crisis, but by understanding what problems people have to face daily and what they need to resolve, if they are to continue living and working in Greece. For many have decided not to stay and, therefore, left like so many before for other countries.


1. Astrapellou Marilena „Depression Era: The open file of the recession era“

Published: 26.10.2014 5:45 http://www.tovima.gr/culture/article/?aid=644287

2. An attempt to thematize the crisis of Greece under the terms of 'ritual' and 'time' is the exhibition 'TEMPUS RITUALIS'. See http://tempusritualis.weebly.com/

3. op.cit. Marilean Astrapellouses use alternatively to 'broken' "cracked mirrors" (depending as well on the translation)

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