Greece through a Lens

Introduction to ZOI, a book of photography by Stella Johnson (2018)

The photographs in Stella Johnson’s new book, ZOI, were made in Crete and Lesvos over the post-recession years of the last decade. Although these have been some of the most perilous times for Greeks since World War II, the images reveal the irrepressible flame of life (“zoi”) that permeates the Greek culture. Despite losing their savings and facing an uncertain future, the Greeks keep on living, buoyed by a tightly-knit culture and a landscape that remains one of the most beautiful on Earth. 

Stella’s lens captures the vibrant spirit and life of Greece, a land that feeds all of our senses. Her portfolio starts with the sense of sight, but also infers the taste, touch, smell, and sounds of Greece. Combined with what we see of the strong Greek sense of family, these pictures reveal a rich culture. 

ZOI opens with an image of an old black-and-white photograph on a table, giving us an immediate sense of history and family. As any proud Greek will tell you, the word “photograph” comes from Greek roots, as do the words “etymology” and “genealogy.” Like Stella, I was born in the United States to Greek parents. My family went to Greece every summer and my parents spoke Greek in the house. Although I always responded in English, there was no escaping my Greek identity.

Wherever you turn in Greece, nature delivers a bounty for your eyes. The overriding visual element is the unrelenting sunlight. Locals are always looking to escape it, although the skin of the laborers tells the full story, as seen in a photograph of an old man watching his grandson, with the shadow of his son cast behind them. A child in the shade makes a bubble by a wall, chipped royal blue and white, the colors of the Greek flag. The islands are filled with white houses with blue shutters and white churches with blue domes. Blue is omnipresent in the bright sky and in the sea. 

Because of the mild climate, many architectural structures in Greece have an unclear dividing line between inside and outside. An example of this is seen in Stella’s photograph of a woman serving lunch. She steps out of a sun-drenched curtain of hanging leaves, into the “outdoor” shaded patio. Neither inside nor out, you are sheltered from the sun, but exposed to the breeze. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a view of the horizon, the sea, the sky, or the star-filled night. 

Likewise, there is a particular beauty in experiencing Greece as a Greek-American: neither inside nor out, living a life that is foreign yet familiar. Straddling two different worlds, Stella is a close outsider, observing Greek society like a loving anthropologist. Through this lens, she points out to us the beauty and quirks of life in Greece that might be unknown to foreigners and lost on locals. 

To a visitor, some images may seem mysterious. What is the meaning of the translucent, water-filled, bottles hanging on a tree branch? A Greek would likely know the bottles weigh down the branches to encourage leaf growth that will produce shade. Light and shade are recurring elements in Stella’s photographs, such as the image of a bare lightbulb framed by an  aqua-colored background, which is brightened further by a warm natural light. It captures the country’s simple aesthetics. 

The senses of taste and smell are inextricably linked. Greek food is augmented with herbs, and usually enjoyed outdoors where the environment brings its own aromas. The dry air of the mountains is filled with the fragrance of thyme, oregano, gardenia and jasmine, often mixed with the smell of a breeze of salt air from the sea below. The colors and flavors of the spicy arugula, rich red watermelon, juicy peaches, and sweet figs are unparalleled. Greeks love their wine with dinner, and even children are served wine that has been watered-down. 

ZOI is alive with the sense of touch. One of my favorite photos in this book shows the image of a four-year-old child waking up from her nap, yawning, as her grandmother caresses her. This photo captures the mixing of generations, and the feeling it evokes of those timeless foggy moments after a deep nap. 

Touch is also conveyed in the photos of the sea, by rocky beaches and trees that offer shade. Greeks love the water, and the Mediterranean is the perfect temperature for swimming. On a blistering summer day, nothing tops the refreshing touch of the cool sea on your hot skin. The sea is transparent, so the marble pebbles are visible through the water as children play with abandon in the rushing waves. Greeks count the number of swims they take in a summer season, as if their entry through the pearly gates depends on this virtuous activity. They even debate whether two swims in a single day—one in the morning, say, and one in the evening—count as one or two for the final tally. 

The sounds of Greece start with the ever-present local music. An image of a laouto player lets us imagine the music and feel the movement and energy of the moment—the enthusiastic spirit of the singing revelers. On a warm night when the stars come out, the Greek music lights up our souls, allowing us to rediscover forgotten emotions, from joy to melancholy. All of these sensory delights—the sight of the light on the sea, the taste of the fruit and wine, the smell of the flowers, the touch of the sun, and the sound of the music—are available to everyone in Greece, rich and poor. They bring the community together. 

In Greece, privacy is forsaken in exchange for connection. As mirrored in the inside-outside architecture described above, dividing lines in the social realm are never clear. You see the desire for community in the photograph of a young woman dressed in pink in the mountain village of Anogia, Crete, looking up at the group of women who are celebrating her engagement. The groom’s family in this community of shepherds and farmers will soon arrive with gifts and ask for the young woman’s hand in marriage. The wedding progresses into the evening and continues for three days with rituals, ceremony and traditional folk dancing. 

Friendships are cherished, as seen in an image of a woman reminiscing in front of a Turkish tapestry with a photograph of her best friends. If, like Stella, you have spent some time in Greece, returning again and again, you can’t walk far without running into someone you know. A brief interaction with a store clerk or a friend of a friend bonds you forever. When I visit my family in Greece, the grocer always smiles at me like an old friend and asks how my brother is doing. My mother knows to bring gifts from the US to the ticket lady at Aegean Airlines and the car rental agent. She invites the computer repair guy to stay for coffee and the lawyer to stay for a sunset ouzo. She knows how it’s done. 

Greeks happily drop everything to pick you up at the airport or take you out to dinner, but they never make plans in advance. “Call me when you get in,” they say. Such contradictions abound. The boats run like a Swiss time piece, but the ports are mayhem. How can a country of 11 million citizens in economic shambles handle an influx of over a million refugees from the Middle East with such generosity of spirit? Everyone gossips, then complains that everyone gossips. They gripe about their country in the same breath that they declare pride for their heritage. Even the ones who leave always return in the summer; they’re not stupid.  

The word “enthusiastic” comes from the Greek adjective “enthousiodis,” a trait that is embodied in many of Stella’s images. If you’re ever at the Zurich airport connecting to Athens, you can instantly spot the Greeks: they’re the ones converting the quiet, orderly line into a disorganized crowd. The word “temperate” does not come from the Greek, but “chaos” does. Greeks are loud, they interrupt, and they love to argue, especially about politics. 

Still, Greeks are incredibly generous. You can ask a Greek for anything, and they will provide it, and just as easily turn around and ask you for something. Store owners regularly toss in free items or offer discounts after you’ve committed to buying, and there’s little concern for exact change; it’s quite common to be told by storekeepers or taxi drivers not to worry about the last few Euros. If you ask to buy a single piece of fruit, the vendor will often give it to you for free. 

Greeks do things to be kind, and the concepts of “policies” and “standards” don’t really fly. If you’re hungry, you can ask the restaurant owner for an oversized portion and you’ll get it. If a storekeeper knows you, you’ll be invited to cut the line. Ask anyone—other than a government bureaucrat or a banker—to bend a rule, and if they understand why, they will happily consider breaking it for you. Life is lived in the moment, and Greeks want to please. 

At restaurants on the islands, dinner is often served at tiny wood tables on the edge of a patio with no railing, just inches from the water’s edge. Yes, children fall in on the rare occasion, but the water is warm and they are easily pulled out. Safety is an issue of personal responsibility in this land where pools are fenceless, houses are built into mountain cliffs, and worn marble stairs with slippery and uneven surfaces have no banisters. Children playing in the back of a pickup truck might seem dangerous to our American eyes, but this photo in fact conveys the children’s carefree pleasure from their just-picked flowers. 

In the dramatic portrait of a farmer backlit by the smoke of the grill where he is cooking meat, Stella relates a tale of kindness and generosity. Stella and her class had been invited to eat and drink at the shepherd’s “metato” in Anogia Crete, but the students had to leave to catch their flights and were unable to enjoy the hospitality. When Stella returned in the winter, her host Lykorgos asked how long she was staying, then told her to stay put; within an hour he put together an impromptu feast with homemade cheese, lamb, wine, raki and musicians. 

The word “philoxenia” is a Greek word which means the loving care of strangers. Nowhere is this concept more evident in Greece than in Lesvos and other areas that have been swamped by refugees from the Middle East, where Greeks give their time and effort to help. The unpreparedness of systems to handle this refugee crisis has been paralleled by the generosity of these individuals. 

Pervasive in these photos is a sense of community, family, friendship and belonging. In one photo, men are drinking before a wedding; the groom is covered in smoke, waiting for the bride in front of the church, where the bride will walk through the arch to join him. 

My favorite picture is of a man mixing the ingredients for Graviera cheese with one hand while he kisses the back of his little daughter standing on his lap. The focus is on family, not work. Family is everything. According to Greek law, you can’t disown your children; your estate must leave a portion to each of your progeny. Even after marriage, your Greek mother is forever in your business, making her opinions known about every dimension of your life. Long after you can cook for yourself, she will feed you her home-made food because, no matter your size, “you should eat more.” 

Many Greek dishes—spanakopita, moussaka, baklava—require an entire day to prepare. They are served in massive pans that can feed an army, because everybody is invited, and you don’t want anyone to go hungry. Speed is never the measure; efficiency is tossed aside in favor of humanity. The simplest tasks take forever, because there’s always discussion—a human connection between individuals. Life in Greece is a process, not a product. The difficulty and time required to get your check in a café is almost a reluctance on the part of the owner to charge you; now that he knows you, you’re connected. 

There’s an assumption held by both Americans and Greeks that Americans have something that Greeks are missing. As if the bright sun, reliably turned on every single morning, isn’t enough. As if the warmth of the people, the sea, and the music won’t cut it. Living with bureaucracy so absurd that it could have come out of an Ionesco play, the Greeks are constantly bemoaning their plight, yet here we are, after thousands of years, and Greece is still standing. 

When you see a family—mom, dad, kids and grandparents, maybe even some cousins— eating home-made meatballs on the big boat to the islands, it strikes you that they’re onto something. Greeks live life, and they place the highest value on relationships. 

Many of Stella’s photographs—in this book and previous work she has done in Greece—show young people mixed with old. Children (and cats) are welcome everywhere. Retired men play backgammon, sipping their thick Greek coffee outside at the corner café. Their social lives remain full, deep into old age. Bakers hand out free bread to immigrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Old ladies get together to wrap candy for one of their grand-daughter’s weddings while they tell stories. 

It’s natural that a culture that values relationships would delineate different types of love, as done by the Ancient Greeks: 1) Agape: selfless love toward everyone; 2) Eros: sexual passion which can become appreciation for a person’s beauty, or beauty itself; 3) Philia: deep friendship; 4) Ludus: playful, uncommitted love; 5) Philautia: love of one’s self; and finally 6) Pragma: mature love of long-married couples. We see love in all these photographs, and Pragma in the couple smiling: the husband whose wife’s name is tattooed on his arm with a heart and arrow. They have what they need. 

The value placed on human connections can be inferred in Stella’s still-life photograph near the end of ZOI. Although there are no people in the photo, we see the remnants of a social gathering: half a bottle of raki, several empty glasses, food remains, water, cigarettes and a napkin crumpled up after wiping one’s mouth clean: the satisfaction of being full, both  physically and spiritually. This picture sums it up: in what matters, Greece is a land of plenty, so it’s not surprising that Greek is the origin of the word “plethora.”