Enri Canaj is an Albanian photojournalist who migrated with his family to Athens when he was 11 years old. He’s grown up in and around adversity for most of his life and over the last couple years has been documenting Athens’s transformation from a prosperous city to a melting pot of fascists, antifascists, protests, poverty, and sex trafficiking. Enri’s photographs, which focus on the town’s immigrant population, are a compassionate look into the lives of a population stuck in terrible conditions. He was kind enough to send me these sometimes heartrending photos from his series, titled Shadows in Greece, and I talked to him about his subjects, the troubles his city is going through, and whether there is hope for the future.
VICE: What’s the inspiration behind these photos?
Enri Canaj: Shadows in Greece is a personal project that I started two years ago. The series documents everyday life in Athens in the wake of the tremendous tourist influx during the Olympics in 2004 and subsequent outflow. These are places that were once the city’s busiest districts and now rot in abandonment. People creep through the streets like shadows, heads down, stiff shoulders, sealed lips. While the stock market falls, suicide is on a steady rise. Each photograph depicts a person with a story to tell.
What were you looking for when you started?
At the beginning this project, I was focused only on the smaller economic and social crises that were spreading on a personal level day after day. Things immediately changed, though. Big strikes, demonstrations, angry people protesting, and burning shops and buildings became the norm in Athens. At first, I was photographing without a clear purpose. It was unbelievable even for me what all of us were going through. Then suddenly my photographs took me down another path.
The center of Athens, as I first remember it, was full of life. During the period before the Olympics there was great development. But after they all left, the city started deteriorating and gradually recovered its previous character: the junkies, street merchants, immigrants, and prostitutes. But for me, those people were always there. I saw all of that when I first arrived to Athens as an 11-year-old child.
I began to focus on the immigrants, living in small rented rooms, many of them without much hope. The women prostitute themselves for five euros Hanging around them has become my daily routine. They are sensitive people with a lot of family problems, but they were the ones who were friendly to me when I first arrived in Athens, an immigrant myself. They came to Greece for a better future but found poverty and racism. Some of them suffered physical violence and some even lost their lives. These are the people my project talks about. The images I have selected are powerful to me on a personal level, because I knew the story behind them. When others look at those pictures I want them to feel respect for and dignity of the subjects like I do.
Could you tell me a bit about how you came to Greece as a kid?
I was born in Tirana, Albania, in 1980. My family migrated to Greece in 1991, when the borders opened. I didn’t understand why we were leaving; I thought Albania was beautiful. We sold most of what we owned. We took some old family photos in black and white and a bag with our clothes and got on a bus. All of this seemed confusing and scary to me, until the moment I saw a road full of shining lights, commercial posters, shops, and bars where I would taste my first Coca-Cola.
For the first two months, our home was a cheap hotel room in the center of Athens. We lived on the third floor, but my favorite was the second floor because of the young, beautiful Greek girls who stayed there and worked as prostitutes. They were my first friends. They let me into their rooms and I was fascinated with staring at their faces through the mirror, as they were putting on their makeup. Those girls helped me learn Greek. The images are still very strong in my memory.
Greece was hard on my family. We thought we’d return home quickly, but the years passed and we encountered so many problems, sacrifices, difficulties, and even racism. Now, after 22 years, Greece is the place where I encountered both good and evil. This is my home and my war.
You said these people are living in Athens “without much hope.” Is that what your images depict, or do you feel like there is room for optimism?
As everyone knows, the situation in Greece has become a very difficult one in the last six years. Things are getting progressively worse and people are in very difficult times. They feel lost and without much hope. They are suffering and in my images, I want to show this. I don’t want to hide it.
This is also why I think there is hope. Confronting and seeing the reality, even when it’s hard, makes us find hope. Even while some of us are more lucky, we have to be sensitive and compassionate to the pain of the others. I want to make people stop for a minute so they can feel and think.
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