‘Gender division is the most fundamental social cleavage’

Stabbed 15 times by her boyfriend, partner violence survivor Italian Laura Roveri is the lead character in director Nina-Maria Paschalidou’s documentary ‘Femicidio.’

By Harry van Versendaal

Laura Roveri will never forget the night she went out to celebrate a friend’s birthday at a Verona discotheque eight years ago. The 25-year-old ended up half dead in hospital with 15 stab wounds – inflicted by her boyfriend.

Roveri, now a women’s rights activist and yoga instructor, is the main character in “Femicidio,” the latest documentary by Athens-based filmmaker Nina-Maria Paschalidou, which will be screened at the upcoming 24th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in northern Greece. Made over the course of four years, the 70-minute coproduction by Al Jazeera and Sky Italia seeks to explore the notion of femicide, generally defined as the murder of a woman because of her gender.

According to official European Union figures, there are approximately 3,500 intimate partner violence related deaths in Europe every year. That is more than nine victims a day, seven of whom are women. Meanwhile, about 86% of domestic violence cases are never reported to a law enforcement agency.

“What struck me about femicide in Italy was that this is not India, or the Middle East or Latin America, meaning societies which are regrettably used to such attitudes to some extent. This is the heart of Europe. Women here have fought for equal rights in employment and salaries and so on. And yet, things are not what they seem,” Paschalidou tells Kathimerini English Edition.

The director recounts Raveri’s struggle to overcome the physical and mental trauma of the attack and to rebuild her life while seeking justice against her ex-partner. Traveling from the northern cities of Vicenza and Verona to the southern shores of Cava de’ Tirreni and the island of Sicily, Paschalidou also interviews experts, lawyers, activists and, most heartbreakingly, family members of femicide victims, exposing the cultural and social dynamics behind domestic violence.

“We live in a patriarchal society that determines people’s roles and status. Gender division is the most fundamental social cleavage: there are men and there are women. Our entire society is built on this premise,” she says, also drawing attention to the Catholic values that run so deep in Italy, which suggest that a woman’s role is in the home, taking care of her children.

According to a recent survey by AstraRicerche, one in four Italians believe that violence against women is not actually a form of violence. Moreover, 30% of men think that physical abuse against women is less serious when the latter have been accused of showing promiscuous or suggestive behavior – 20% percent of women share the same view.

Shooting a documentary on gender equality and female empowerment was not fresh territory for the Veria-born director, who has in the past worked with international networks such as Al Jazeera, ARTE, RAI and PBS’ World Channel. Her 2013 documentary “Kismet” explores the social impact of Turkish soap operas on women across the Arab world and beyond, while “The Snake Charmer,” released four years later, follows the campaign of a famous Bollywood star to stop violence against women in India.

Paschalidou also takes mainstream media to task for perpetuating traditional gender roles and sexist stereotypes. Scantily clad women parading on stage as the camera zooms in on their busts and other physical features has been a casual – and regular – spectacle on former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s private Mediaset channels and even national broadcaster RAI.

“The model for a period has been either you are a ‘valletta’ (the female television assistants on game shows) or a mother,” Emma Bonino, a veteran Italian politician and civil rights activist, says on the film.

The issue of physical and psychological violence against women has also gained prominence in Greece recently, in the wake of several brutal femicides. Paschalidou says she believes her country “simply followed the trend,” as Covid lockdowns spurred a spike in domestic abuse.

A Eurobarometer poll commissioned by European Parliament ahead of Women’s Day on March 8, found that 77% of women in the EU believe the pandemic caused a rise in gender violence in their countries. In Greece, nine in 10 women agreed.

While acknowledging the long-term merits of education in driving cultural change and improving the status of women, Paschalidou says prevention is a key, immediate step in stemming abuse. “When a woman petitions for a restraining order the fifth time she’s been abused, or when a woman is admitted to hospital with broken ribs for the eighth time, you must intervene,” she says.

But at the end of the day, she adds, much of the responsibility lies with women themselves. “Looking at Italian society, I realized that women themselves espoused the sexism code. The mother of Laura’s boyfriend would scream out of the window, calling her a ‘hoor.’ It’s the kind of attitude you see in old Italian and Greek movies,” she says.

“The change needs to come from us women changing the way we bring up our sons. I often catch myself telling my boy things that underscore gender distinctions, like: ‘don’t do that, it’s for girls.’ This is something we need to work on. This is why I dedicated this film to my son. I, too, am responsible.”

A digital safe for cultural heritage

Boatbuilder Mastro-Yannis Zorzos and his barber. Fouskis Boatyard, Syros, 1980. [Archipelago Network]

By Harry van Versendaal

Sometimes it takes an outsider to appreciate the value and fragility of a local culture. An ambitious new initiative by local and international experts aims to collect, preserve and disseminate the largely untapped and endangered audiovisual heritage of Greece’s Cyclades islands by creating an online archive and a residency program.

Archipelago Network is the brainchild of Jacob Moe, a New York City-born documentarian and translator who shares his time between Athens and Syros, the administrative capital of the country’s most-visited island group. Speaking in a video call from his home in a village on the island’s largely undeveloped northern side, the 31-year-old says the idea dawned on him around five years ago while he was running a film festival at different locations in collaboration with various communities around the island.

“We came into contact with people who possessed audiovisual collections of their own, primarily 16mm and Super 8 film shot in Syros in the 1960s and 70s,” Moe says.

As he quickly found out, the vulnerability and the precarity of the aging analog content required more attention and better organization than the ephemeral festival format provided.

“The idea was born out of this need to begin preserving these materials in a systematic way. We felt they were neglected and very unique to the culture and the landscape of the Cyclades,” he says.

In the process, he realized more was at stake.

“Audiovisual archives have a unique ability to embody subjectivity, emotion and affect,” Moe says.

“By preserving endangered collections of material, we can effectively safeguard vanishing aspects of our not-too-distant past, gaining a better understanding of ourselves, of others, and our shared future,” he says.

The Archipelago Network archive consists of films, photographs, videotapes, audio cassettes and sound recordings, including interviews, field recordings and oral histories from the late 1800s until the appearance of born-digital content on the islands today. It expands as more material is digitized.

‘Living archive’

The goal is to move beyond the traditional notion of the archive as a static repository of data and information toward a more renewable, open-access platform – “a living archive,” as Moe calls it.

“Forget the idea of a hushed library where you approach a material with the consent of a librarian and white gloves before carefully browsing through the available information. We hope it will be something much more contemporary,” he says.

The team will also establish a research-based residency on Syros so individuals from a wide scope of disciplines can engage with the collected archival material and communicate it to a broader audience at home and abroad.

“This will allow it to depart from this purely archival realm of classification and information to become stories and narratives,” Moe says.

The organization relies on an array of specialized advisers both in Greece and abroad providing ad hoc know-how on issues like copyright law, content management and organizational development.

“The scope is inherently both local and international, so it’s something that needs input from experts and researchers who are also outside of Greece but have some kind of a stake in the islands,” Moe says.

Moe, whose mother is a professor of modern Greek literature at Columbia University, was himself raised speaking Greek, although he has no Greek ancestry. Many of his formative years were spent in Greece, on visits to Athens and the islands for summer vacations and his mother’s research sabbaticals. Upon graduating from Pomona College in California, he came to Greece, where he co-founded the Syros International Film Festival (SIFF) in 2013. After pursuing further studies and work in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Santa Cruz, California, in 2019 he returned to his festival duties on Syros while working to materialize the whole concept of Archipelago Network.

Ships and herbs

The network itself has been developed in collaboration with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), which has also thrown its weight behind the first two pilot projects that formally launched on February 15.

One is an archival module on traditional shipbuilding on Syros. It involves the digitization of audiovisual materials from private and public local collections such as the Industrial Museum of Ermoupoli in the island’s elegant 19th century capital, and the production of five video portraits of surviving representatives of the dwindling craft. In parallel, architecture and ethnography experts have been conducting on-site fieldwork on the social, cultural and economic dimensions of traditional boatbuilding.

Syros emerged as the main industrial, commercial and shipbuilding center of the modern Greek state founded after the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire, until it was eclipsed by Piraeus.

For the second project, named Anthemis after a flower that is native to the area, organizers invited Tinos-based multidisciplinary artist duo Hypercomf (Paola Palavidi and Ioannis Koliopoulos) to Syros for the development of an online herbarium that will host photo quadrats of plant biodiversity, linking them with community archives. It will include photographs, sketches and audio recordings made by botanists, artists, and plant enthusiasts on the island. A portable toolkit for collection of botanical data, fitted inside a custom-made hiking backpack, will soon be available for use by community groups and schools.

“We are basically using the original archives as a jumping-off point for a community-driven plant archive,” Moe says.

Open access

True to the spirit of initiatives like the EU’s Europeana web portal, Archipelago Network aspires to be an example of open and reusable digital cultural heritage.

“If we’re going through all of this effort to preserve and document these archives, then they really should be available for public viewing and reuse,” Moe says.

“Prioritizing ethical open access is at the core of our mission,” he says.

With the fervent social media-driven celebrity culture already taking its toll on the Cyclades, some are naturally wary of initiatives that aim to create additional interest in its once-pristine islands. Moe is however confident about the sustainable nature of the project, believing it can foster that substantive kind of engagement with a specific place, its history and culture in a manner that is neither passive nor damaging.

“One thing that is definitely on our minds very much is the pace at which the elements that are the focus of this archive are vanishing, which make it all the more urgent,” he says.

“The notion of endangerment is viscerally present for us. There is no next generation.”

Greek court ruling on ritual slaughter sparks debate over rights of religious minorities

By Harry van Versendaal

Sitting beside his butcher block at the Varvakeios market in downtown Athens, Alaa Elkobtan plays a cellphone video of himself bottle-feeding water to a lamb. A few seconds later, he slits the animal’s throat with a knife.

“I give it some water to calm it down. It’s important for the animal. God created animals for us. But animals also have a soul, and that soul needs to be at peace when they go so that this kindness comes back to us,” says the Egyptian butcher who moved here from Alexandria in the mid-1990s and goes by the nickname Aladdin.

According to halal practice, whose basic principles are found in the Quran, an animal must be alive and healthy before a Muslim performs the slaughter while reciting a prayer dedicating it to God.

Halal, which means “permissible” in Arabic, “is like a key,” Aladdin says. “When I say ‘bismillah’ (in the name of God), the animal relaxes and tells me to slaughter it. Invoking the name of God is a lot like anaesthetic at the dentist. I do not believe that the animal feels pain,” he says.

During the process, the animal’s jugular vein, carotid artery and windpipe are severed in a single swipe with a sharp knife. All blood must be drained from the carcass.

Aladdin sells locally produced halal lamb and goat meat, and imports certified halal beef from Spain and France. Halal products, he says, are tastier as well as healthier than non-halal because the method optimizes bleeding out and diminishes meat defects. “Many customers prefer halal meat simply because it’s better quality,” he says.

A recent ruling by the Council of State, Greece’s top administrative court, could spell the end of the killing of conscious animals, dealing a blow to the Muslim custom of halal. A potential ban would also affect the kosher method of slaughtering animals in accordance with traditional Jewish law. Shechita, performed by a specially trained shochet at an approved abattoir, does not require prayer before the animal is slain.

With the exception of Muslim and Jewish communities, the slaughter of conscious animals was largely discontinued over the previous century. Also due to pressure from animal rights campaigners and secular-minded groups, consumers normally expect their meat to have been slaughtered in the customary Western style, whereby abattoirs use electrical stunning, captive-bolt stunning or carbon dioxide gas (CO2) to render the animal unconscious first. According to an opinion poll published a year ago, 89 percent of EU citizens said stunning should be mandatory before slaughter.

Aladdin disapproves. “Stunning is like bashing someone over the head on the street and then slaughtering them. The animal can, in fact, see what is happening,” he says. In his eyes, attacks on halal smack of hypocrisy.

“The truth is that the spectacle bothers their eyes,” says Aladdin, whose butcher shop has several times been spray-painted with Islamophobic slogans.

Fresh ruling

In 2009, the European Union introduced legislation designed to safeguard animal welfare at the time of slaughter. While green-lighting ritual slaughter provided that this takes place in an approved abattoir, Article 26 (2) of Council Regulation No 1099/2009 states that national governments may adopt “more extensive animal welfare rules.” A joint ministerial decision by the Greek government in 2017 went on to allow religious animal slaughter without stunning. However, following an appeal by animal welfare activists, the Council of State last month ruled that the 2017 decision had failed to duly balance animal welfare with the freedom of religion, and referred the matter to the competent legislative authorities.

The dispute is seen as typical of the issues raised by cultural relativism and diversity, multiculturalism and social integration – and the laden term of identity politics.

Vassilis Tzevelekos, senior lecturer in law at the University of Liverpool, explains that the judicial balancing required by the Council of State in the animal slaughter case “is not a dry, mechanical legal exercise.”

He describes it as an intellectual process involving value judgments that reflect moral, philosophical and political preferences, possibly prioritizing certain – likely dominant – values over other, conflicting ones. “Ultimately, multiculturalism is a political issue – not, strictly speaking, a legal one,” he says.

Reactions

Natasa Bobolaki, the president of the Panhellenic Animal Welfare and Environmental Federation (PFPO), an umbrella organization for 76 groups which submitted the appeal against the 2017 ministerial decision, has no qualms about the ethical considerations involved. “It’s an extreme form of torture,” she says of non-stun slaughter.

Bobolaki hails the recent court ruling and vows to fight against any renewed bid to upend it. She expects that “most pressure will come from the Israeli lobby.”

The Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) was quick to react to the court decision. In a statement, it slammed the ruling as “a strike against the right of the Greek Jews to freely practice their religion and observe the traditions of Jewish faith.”

“Keeping a kosher diet is an integral part of Judaic law; it has been observed for centuries and its banning would constitute a heavy blow to the Jewish way of life,” KIS said, urging the Greek authorities to come up with “a just and viable solution.”

Victor Eliezer, the general secretary of KIS, argues that many people mistakenly understand kosher slaughter as a ceremonial-ritual method of animal slaughtering. “It is neither a ceremony nor a ritual. Kosher slaughter involves the observation of sanitary guidelines so that the carcass is safe for human health, while minimizing animal suffering in the process,” he says.

“Banning the slaughter of lambs and cattle according to the rules of the Jewish religion would deprive those Jews who wish – and there are many of them – to follow the diet provided by the Jewish religion of the right to do so,” he says.

He says KIS is working with Greek authorities in the hope of finding a solution that will allow the continuation of kosher slaughter in Greece, with the aim of protecting the religious rights of Greek Jews and the supply of kosher meat to Jewish visitors to Greece.

Eliezer’s concerns are shared by the country’s Muslim community.

Expressing his “sadness” over the decision, Naim Elghandour, president of the Muslim Association of Greece, claims that it was based on a unilateral examination. “No veterinarian halal expert was called in to represent the Muslim community on the matter,” he says.

Elghandour is convinced that the ruling of the Greek court is politically motivated. It conveys “a clear political message,” he says, that freedom of religion, enshrined in the Greek Constitution, does not apply to religious minorities. “Our religious practices are gradually being circumvented. Halal and kosher are just a pretext,” he says.

He says the Muslim and Jewish communities plan to take joint action against the decision which “demonizes our religious practices.”

An estimated 5,000 Jews live in Greece today, mostly in Athens and the northern port city of Thessaloniki, which saw its once vibrant Jewish community of 52,000 razed under the Nazi occupation. Only a small number of Greek Jews are believed to follow kosher dietary rules today, but the same does not apply to the thousands of Israeli tourists who flock to the country every year.

Greece is meanwhile the third most popular destination in the Mediterranean for Israeli tourists. According to data from the Bank of Greece, more than 680,000 Israeli tourists visited Greece in 2019, up from 570,718 the previous year and almost double the 348,317 who came in 2013.

At the same time, unofficial figures show that around 650,000 Muslims live in Greece, mostly in the capital, a number that swelled amid mass migration to Europe from the Middle East and North Africa in the 2010s.

There is no available data on the consumption of halal and kosher meat in the country.

Integration

The Council of State ruling is bound to fuel the debate around what limits an open society can impose on religious and ritual particularities. There is no consensus.

Die-hard secularists like author and historian Soti Triantafyllou prefer to stick with the Enlightenment rulebook. In a liberal democracy, she says, formal religion must be kept out of public life.

“Religion is a private matter, and its collective manifestations should take place in places of worship, not in the public sphere. Religious canons are subject to the laws of the land and the mores of civil society,” she says.

Triantafyllou, a well-known critic of radical Islam, says that “although tolerance is imperative concerning beliefs, rules should apply concerning religious and moral practices.”

“No freedom is limitless. Rights come along with obligations. Among the obligations of our civilization today is animal welfare, which is promoted by law. Secular law is above religious prescripts and traditional customs,” she says.

“It’s a trade-off: In order to live in relative prosperity, peace and justice, newcomers must waive that part of their ethos which conflicts with democratic legality,” she says.

Other analysts warn that certain prohibitions risk an adverse effect on the socioeconomic integration of migrants. A study by experts at Stanford University published last year found that France’s 2004 law banning Islamic headscarves from public schools undermined the secondary educational attainment and employment prospects of Muslim girls. The measure was found to have had the reverse effect of reinforcing national and religious identities. A separate study showed that a ban on the teaching of the German language in US schools after the First World War obstructed integration and identification with the host country: Affected persons were more likely to enter wedlock within their ethnic group and less likely to volunteer in the Second World War.

Fears of a backlash are shared by Dimitris Christopoulos, a professor in the Department of Political Science and History at Panteion University and an outspoken intellectual who regularly intervenes on issues of minorities and citizenship.

“Any prohibitions should be limited to what is absolutely necessary and not impinge on symbolic dimensions of identity which bind a particular community together,” he says.

Unlike Triantafyllou, who laments assimilation as a “lost dream,” Christopoulos, a former president of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), believes that European societies should aspire to integrate newcomers. The real wager here, he says, is the old continent’s battle for social cohesion.

“The more Europe continues to claim the moral high ground over other civilizations, particularly of Islam, the more introvert and reactionary these will become,” he says.

‘Full liberation’

Mainstream secular observers gleefully hailing the curbs on religious minorities should be wary of the unpredictable domino effect of value changes in seemingly unrelated agendas.

Looking beyond the court ruling, Bobolaki of the animal welfare group says her organization will continue the fight against all animal slaughter and the use of livestock by the food industry. The ultimate objective, she says, is “the full liberation of animals from human exploitation.”

It’s a lofty ambition that would, ironically, challenge mainstream Western lifestyles, no less the gastronomical habits of secular meat-eaters who now object to the religiously sanctioned killing of animals.

From the life raft: Refugee images find fitting home

By Harry van Versendaal

A wrecked yellow dinghy washed up on the rocks of an unidentified Aegean island, wet clothes hung out to dry on the branches of a tree next to the sea, a lost Iraqi passport. “Caesura,” as the name of Demetris Koilalous’ multimedia project a bit cryptically suggests, seeks to capture that deceitfully quiet lull in between the tumultuous before-and-after in the lives of its unintentional protagonists: the millions of migrants and refugees that have undertaken the perilous, often lethal, crossing to Europe from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

More than two years after it was first showcased at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum, and as the Old Continent braces for a fresh refugee crisis sparked by turmoil in Afghanistan, an adapted version of the award-winning project is currently on display at Shedia Home in downtown Athens.

It certainly is a fitting venue. The cafe and cultural hub, which first opened its doors in 2019, is run by Shedia – Greek for life raft – a street magazine launched in the midst of the scathing financial crisis that saw homelessness and unemployment skyrocket. The magazine is sold by and in aid of homeless and jobless persons.

The two sides agreed to join forces after Shedia had published an interview with the photographer on the Benaki show. The parallels between the plight of refugees and homeless people were hard to miss.

“Τhe photo exhibition acts as a vehicle to bring these two situations together: of the person who has lost their home and the person who has lost their homeland,” Koilalous says.

The project includes landscape photos, staged portraits and out-of-context pictures of personal belongings left behind by people on the move, all images that Koilalous shot in 2015 and 2016 along the Greek border. He does not grapple with the political or historical dimension of mass migration, but rather seeks to explore the impact of uprooting and displacement on the human self. And the man is pretty effective at that.

“Caesura” has been shown at Athens Photo Festival, Les Boutographies in Montpellier, Cardiff’s International Festival of Photography, PhotoIreland, and Kolga Tbilisi Photo. It has won prizes at the Santa Fe Photo Festival, at the Kuala Lumpur International Photo Awards, at Head On Photo Awards and at Life Framer.

The show on Kolokotroni Street is the inaugural one in a series of similar exhibitions to be organized across the capital and the rest of the country as organizers aspire to communicate the identity and the work of Shedia with a wider audience.

Although the core will remain true to the Benaki show, Koilalous plans to tweak the narrative and structure of each individual exhibition depending on geography and timing, and occasionally include previously unpublished works.

The images will be available for sale, while a significant portion of the proceeds will benefit the work of Shedia.

The Shedia Home show will wrap up on Sunday, September 26 with a panel discussion on the relationship between identity and individuals’ personal belongings – one of the key themes running through the project. A psychologist will be tasked with unpacking the connection, as a refugee and a homeless person share their own painful experiences of being forced to give up their treasured possessions.

‘Who’s to pay for the societal costs?’

By Harry van Versendaal

Wendell Wallach is uncomfortably pragmatic about the potentially negative effects of artificial intelligence. “It’s not that we lack ways of ameliorating those effects, it’s just that the simple will to do so is not there,” he says during a Skype video call from his home in Connecticut.

Αs a lecturer at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics and a senior adviser to the Hastings Center, Wallach has grappled extensively with the ethical and governance challenges posed by AI and other emerging technologies.

Speaking ahead of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation’s 2021 Nostos Conference: Humanity and Artificial Intelligence this Thursday and Friday, Wallach warns that tech and political elites have failed to take effective measures to contain the looming dangers of AI, including an accentuation of biases and injustices.

Far from monitoring the innovation coming from the tech labs in Silicon Valley, he says, “we are allowing those who invest in certain technologies to reap the rewards without any responsibility for the negative consequences or the undesirable societal impacts of those technologies.”

However, notwithstanding his self-understanding as a “cup-is-half-full” academic, Wendell is optimistic that the unsustainable conundrum we are in can trigger an existential rethink about our trajectory as humans.

“We have built a world that, if we don’t act in a precipitous manner, will be robbed of a future comparable to ours regardless of how much money we can will to our grandchildren,” he says.

Μy understanding is that the good ΑΙ versus bad AI debate is now obsolete. Μost would agree that AI is both good and bad. What are your main concerns regarding AI and where do you see the most promise?

Well, my main concern is that we neither have effective governance to ameliorate potentially negative consequences of AI nor do we really have an effective engineering agenda focused on that. There is of course talk about AI for good and human-compatible AI, but I think these are all relatively weak instruments in comparison to some of the negative effects of the revolution which we’re in the midst of. It’s not that we lack ways of ameliorating those effects, it’s just that the simple will to do so is not there. Meanwhile, the will to speed up the development of emerging technologies enriches many people financially, particularly those who have stocks or significant ownership in tech businesses. AI is being weaponized and becoming central to the new forms of defense, whether that’s cybersecurity or more kinetic warfare in the form of lethal autonomous weapons. Now that isn’t to say that there aren’t hundreds of ways in which AI can improve life for some people. AI is certainly a driver, accelerator and amplifier of research in biotechnologies toward addressing health concerns, and for scientific discovery more broadly. It helps us, in some ways, to think through the ramifications of climate change and has contributed toward the development of vaccines. Nevertheless, I think the overall trajectory at the moment is out of whack and we aren’t taking effective measures to right that trajectory.

AI tends to concentrate more power and more control where it already exists, such as state authorities, the military, police or tech giants. Is that correct?

Yes, it is correct. And it’s not just AI. AI is central to the digital economy; and it’s the future of the digital economy. The digital economy has made many of us wealthier during the pandemic while hundreds of millions have lost their livelihoods – if not their lives. So I do think we are actually exacerbating structural inequalities through the digital economy, and this will continue because AI and other emerging tech enriches some of us sometimes at the expense of others. My take is that there are of course many ways in which artificial intelligence improves people’s livelihood and ameliorates some forms of inequality, but the overall effect is not positive. It’s not just in these specific areas of reinforcing biases or injustice. It’s also in the way that it’s altering the human condition. It is altering the human condition in several respects. One is, it is providing more and more powerful tools to manipulate human behavior, playing on unconscious cognitive capabilities of humans. All the tech companies are studying that in great depth. This gives additional power beyond those that have traditionally been utilized for advertising and propaganda purposes. It is also part of a narrative that I think is weakening human agency, not only in the manipulation of behavior, but in the suggestion that artificial intelligence is and will quickly evolve to have better decision-making capabilities than humans. This empowers a narrative that we should be giving agency to the artificial entities – such as lethal autonomous weapons – the ability to make decisions that will be a way of abrogating or alleviating the actual responsibility of those who deploy the artificial intelligence systems. It will also again be weakening human agency with the suggestion that humans will not be as good decision makers as AI. The overall trajectory, whether it’s true or not, built upon this is a narrative that AI can be more intelligent than humans in all respects. We’re not there yet. I’m among the skeptics, as to whether we will actually realize that.

It has been suggested that machine intelligence will be the last invention that humans will ever have to make because once we reach that point, machines will, at least in theory, be better than we are in coming up with new inventions.

If that is the case, which I would like to dispute, I think intelligence is something much more than the property of an individual or a machine. It also raises this profound philosophical question that we hear in different ways as, then what’s the function of humans, what are humans good for, what will be our role in the future, or are we actually writing our own death warrant?

You say AI reinforces biases. Can more data solve this problem?

Better data potentially could solve the problem. Bias is largely a result of the fact that we are building upon existing data that has traditional forms of bias built into it. And, therefore, as the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out.” So if an AI is deriving output based on imbalanced, or distorted data, then it’s going to give a distorted output. Human experts working with an AI algorithm’s output can learn to be relatively sensitive to the information involved and the biases that may be inherent within the data. That sensitivity might be improved through data analytics looking at the input data, but there are all kinds of other problems: Data can be distorted by adversarial attacks from bad actors who perhaps have some intentional reason to not want the data as it exists to be utilized or want to make sure that the data is biased. Bias is the most obvious example of how AI enters into traditional forms of injustice and inequality.

Do you think that part of the bias issue and, more generally, the problematic data issue has to do with the lack of diversity within the AI and the tech industry at large?

I think that’s a part of it. I think there are inherent characteristics of those who are attracted to jobs in the industry, but I don’t think it’s just that. I think the deep learning algorithm may be implemented by a researcher who knows the field very well. And the data set has been assembled not by people within the tech industry, but by the history of research within that field. So I don’t think we should overplay the imbalances in the male-dominated techno-enthusiastic orientation of the engineers in the field. But obviously when you’re talking about issues of race or gender having other eyes on both the data input and data output and the way in which the algorithm is designed would certainly improve the state of ethics.

Do you think that the proliferation of ethics panels in tech companies is just a smokescreen to ward off what they’re really concerned with – i.e. more regulation?

That’s a difficult question. I would say I have not seen much from those ethics boards to make me feel that they are anything other than that. Not that there aren’t companies who would have liked to at least address some of the ways in which they are being ethically challenged. So, I don’t question whether Google or Facebook might not want to eliminate, let’s say, lies or mistaken information. But will they do so at the expense of their growth? And can they do so or does a fiduciary responsibility override even what might be good intentions. This isn’t to say everybody is bad out there, or that the tech companies are just engaged in ethics washing. But, yes, they are fearful of regulation that will interfere in their ability to innovate in the ways they want to innovate. And, they’re very active in the cult of innovation that suggests that anything that interferes with innovation is bad. We are allowing those who invest in certain technologies to reap the rewards without any responsibility for the negative consequences or the undesirable societal impacts of those technologies. So who’s to pay for the societal costs created by all the damage coming out of misinformation on social media? It’s certainly not Facebook who’s paying for it. Democracies are suffering, citizens are not getting vaccinated because they believe a lot of dishonest information online. There are intense societal costs, and they’re not getting addressed. Governments don’t have the money to pay for it either, but they certainly aren’t making the companies responsible for those societal costs in the way they have tried to do with, let’s say, chemical companies and other industries whose implementations are socially destructive or might cause potential harms.

Is the existing legal framework enough or do we make more laws and more regulations?

I think even more than laws and regulations we need effective governance instruments that can set good policy standards. Right now, laws and regulations have problematics in them too. They get static and as the technology changes they don’t change very easily. There’s a dramatic lag between the implementation of a technology and our ability to put ethical, legal oversight in place. We also lack effective cooperative frameworks to think through what kind of ethical, legal oversight is necessary. Is it laws and regulations or does it need to be something a little softer? There’s such a thing as soft law which is standards, laboratory practices and procedures. The strength of soft law is that it’s a bit more flexible. You can throw it out if circumstances change. The weakness is that it’s often unenforceable. We perhaps need different kinds of governance regimes where, for example, if those deploying a technology violate existing soft law standards, then they can be prosecuted for violating the public trust. We aren’t going to be able to keep up with the laws and regulations on every consideration. But we do need some way of ameliorating the harms.

What can the average person do in the face of all this?

The average person needs to get more educated and needs sufficient digital literacy. For their own self-protection, people need to know when they’re being manipulated or scammed and what measures they need to take to protect their privacy or their rights. I believe they should also take a little time to see who are the good faith brokers out there, who are the people who they generally trust and are trying to move society and the deployment of emerging technologies in positive directions. If they could find ways to support those who are acting in good faith, that would be a great help. One problem at the moment is that we have a lot of good ideas out there, well-intentioned people, but most of them can’t find the resources and time to do their work. When they for example try to raise capital, they often have to compromise their integrity in order to get that capital. So, yes, maybe they can get some money from the tech industry to work on certain problems but probably not to work on other problems, which are likely to be the ones that the tech industry is most fearful of.

Are you optimistic that the harms can be contained?

I came out of the womb as a cup-is-half-full person. I outline so many things that can go wrong and some people get a bit depressed when they listen to me. I admit that I’m not always giving the full story, I’m giving a particular take on what’s going on emphasizing what can go wrong. But my optimism is not about the present trajectory. My optimism lies in the sense that perhaps we are starting to get it: fires in Greece, fires in Australia, fires in Brazil, fires in California. Vicious once-in-a-century hurricanes are alerting people to the fact that global warming can no longer be debated; climate change is happening. I hope that the pandemic represents a little bit of a time-out and a recognition by the public, and maybe even those with resources and capital, that this is a really dangerous moment in human history. We have entered a precarious time and the world order can unravel in a lot of different ways, whether that’s the collapse of a leading democracy or whether that’s the burning down of a major city or a pandemic that is just ultimately not controllable. My hope is that it’s telling all of us that it’s time to act, even if some of our actions are insufficient or a little naive. Even those who have become wealthy, sometimes at others expense, are starting to get the message when their grandchildren call themselves “the doomers.” Their grandchildren are wondering whether they have a future. So hopefully that message is getting through to those who are in a position to do something, that perhaps we have built a world that, if we don’t act in a precipitous manner, our grandchildren will be robbed of a future comparable to ours regardless of how much money we can will them.

Can such an awakening take place by relying on the same tools, like social media, for example, which are being manipulated by algorithms and so on?

I believe that there is a moral compass in us, that there is a capacity, whether it is a soul or it’s something like a soul that says, “This is working, this is not working,” and can figure out appropriate pathways, presuming that’s our intention. I’m hopeful that the mass of humanity understands that this has to be our intention, including the people of good intention who may have contributed to the problem.

Tesla Bot

Tesla CEO Elon Musk last week said his company is working on a humanoid robot and that it will build a prototype “sometime next year.” What is your take on that?

Manufacturers have been using robotic devices for decades to perform dangerous and repetitive tasks in the assembly of automobiles. In his typical flare for drama and hype, Elon Musk announced that Tesla would be building humanoid robots for similar tasks. Why? Why should they look human? One can only surmise that this is another example of Musk’s mastery at gaining attention and publicity as he positions himself and his companies as the most advanced in the world. However, he will realize, as have many other companies, that truly useful humanoids that function as promised are hard to build and seldom fulfill expectations beyond the ability to perform a few tricks and tasks for which they were specifically designed.

Making AI that can be trusted

By Harry van Versendaal

“Few people in the world know better than I do what it’s like to have your life’s work threatened by a machine.” Garry Kasparov’s admission, in his latest book, “Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins,” encapsulates the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence (AI) to its creator. But since February 10, 1996, when IBM’s Deep Blue beat the world champion at chess for the very first time, AI has become an intrinsic part of our day-to-day lives – even if we don’t always realize it. By the time you read these lines, you’ve probably unlocked your phone with facial recognition, gone through your algorithmically curated Facebook feed, or even started a new series on Netflix, recommended on the basis of your previous choices.

A three-day conference organized by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) seeks to redefine our understanding of AI, to the degree that is has been shaped by pop culture and its dystopic – and rather too anthropomorphic – depictions in the realm of sci-fi, with HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “The Terminator.”

But that’s not all.

“We don’t only want to talk about artificial intelligence, but also about how artificial intelligence is connected to that thing we call humanity; how it will change the way we see ourselves as human beings,” says Stelios Vassilakis, director of programs and strategic initiatives at the foundation and also one of the curators of the SNF Nostos Conference 2021 “Humanity and Artificial Intelligence,” which will take place on August 26-28 at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC) in southern Athens.

“We’re not talking about a simple technology. We’re talking about a technology that has the potential to completely redefine what it means to be human – with whatever positive or negative consequences that may have,” he adds.

Apart from Kasparov, another 50 or so experts, academics, artists and futurists will be presenting their views and predictions on how AI will transform the human experience, but also the impact it will have on the societies and economies of the future, on the nature of work and the arts.

Vassilakis believes the conversation is long overdue. “Technology is moving ahead at warp speed and the people who handle these tools – as is usually the case with technology – are not taking a moment to think about the consequences,” he says.

Some people are trying. Cases like the removal of two researchers from Google’s AI ethics unit within the space of a few months reinforce the impression that the oversight of research and development departments at Silicon Valley’s tech giants is lacking to say the least. In any case, the ethical issues involved in AI are already very well documented and many of them reflect the all-too-human weaknesses of its designers.

“The algorithms contain bias because algorithms are made by human beings who are biased,” explains Vassilakis.

According to a 2019 study by the University of California, Berkeley, an algorithm that was used by US hospitals to allocate healthcare to some 200 million patients a year systematically discriminated against Black people. Algorithmic systems are also used by companies and educational institutions for evaluating candidates, by banks for assessing their customers’ credit ratings and by law enforcement for predictive policing.

And for anyone not worried enough about AI putting more power into the hands of the already powerful, the technology is rapidly finding applications in the defense industry and in the development of automated weapons systems.

“This, precisely, is where I think all the attention needs to be right now: how these mechanisms will be used and by whom,” says Vassilakis.

Intellectuals like Nick Bostrom, a Swedish professor of philosophy at the University of Oxford, warn that machine intelligence will also be mankind’s last invention as machines will become more capable than we are at inventing new things. And this, in turn, means that the future will be shaped by the preferences of AI. But what will these preferences be? Reason dictates that to achieve a relationship of safe symbiosis with AI, we must first ensure that our value system – the things we hold most dear in life that is – is hardwired into the neural networks of a machine.

If only it were that simple. For the fact is we live in a world where values are often conflicting and, in some cases, incommensurable.

“What, exactly, is our value system and who will prioritize our values when we cannot agree on fundamental issues such as climate change or Covid vaccination?” Vassilakis asks.

But before we start worrying about the impact of automated algorithms and digital super-intelligence, maybe we need to consider more immediate problems.

“I am concerned about what will happen to millions of workers who find themselves without a job because of AI. Every technological revolution so far, including the industrial, ended up creating jobs. This time, however, I believe we will see a paradigm shift. For the first time, we will have to deal with the fact that a technological revolution will not generate more jobs, but will destroy jobs,” says Vassilakis.

In his book “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow,” Israeli thinker and writer Yuval Noah Harari talks about the rise of “the useless class” and wonders what people with a conscience will do when non-conscious but super-intelligent algorithms do almost everything better.

A year after Kasparov’s defeat by IBM’s supercomputer, a music professor at the University of California in Santa Cruz named David Cope performed a live show of Lutheran chorales in the style of Bach. No one in the audience knew that the music had in fact been composed with a computer code on his household Macintosh.

The assumption irks those who want to believe that the morphological structures we call music, or other art forms, are the purest expression of human emotions, what we often call “soul.” “The question,” Cope told the Guardian back in 2010, “isn’t if computers possess a soul, but if we possess one.”

Vassilakis for his part believes that asking whether an algorithm can be creative is to ask the wrong question. The notion of creation, he argues, is relative: Even an algorithm making something is essentially “creating.” The real question, he says, is all about intentions.

“You could even say that a chicken scratch in the dirt is creative. But an algorithm can, under no circumstances, act with intent in the manner that Bach or Jackson Pollock did. And it cannot possess a conscience. That is precisely where the difference between algorithms and human beings lies.”

Thinking outside the black box

By Harry van Versendaal

“I think we got Huxley.” Since 2004, when he launched one of the first blogs in Greece, Manolis Andriotakis’ view of new media has only grown bleaker. Inquisitive, versatile and independent, he has systematically studied developments in the sphere of the internet and social media, and their impact on human evolution. His thoughts on the subject have been the subject of books, articles (he is a regular contributor to Kathimerini), documentaries and seminars.

Andriotakis recently spoke to Kathimerini via Skype, following the release of his latest work, “Homo Automaton: Artificial Intelligence and Us” (in Greek by Garage Books). The book represents his most comprehensive, but also most despondent, view of the phenomenon. Here, the 47-year-old writer analyzes machine learning algorithms’ subtle manipulation of the human mind. Monitoring our every move on the web, these programs filter and individualize the content that appears on our screens with the aim of making us more receptive to marketing content. The result, Andriotakis argues in the book, is dystopic to the extreme: a surveillance society that seeks to predict – and eventually molds – beliefs, preferences and behaviors; citizens with limited intellectual autonomy and willpower. It’s a world where the so-called “black box” elbows out the analogue man to make room for a brave new species: Homo automaton.

“Social media are not a tool of dialogue,” says Andriotakis, who took down his Instagram account, left Twitter and massively reduced the time he spent on Facebook. “If we assume that democracy, its institutions and its founding principles benefit from dialogue and democratic discourse, then all these media do not aid dialogue,” he says. “They are tools of persuasion.”

You have been studying new media since they first appeared. I have noticed a shift in your perceptions and your latest book takes a much more pessimistic stance.

Yes, there has been a shift. I don’t think I’m alone in that. The fears and concerns were always there, but 2016 came as a jolt. The election of [Donald] Trump, Brexit, but also the election here in 2015, brought to the surface not just the toxicity of social media but also their structural shortcomings. We are talking about specific platforms, specific business models. There’s a train of thought that starts in my book “The Fifth Power” (Nefeli, 2005), which talks about how newspapers based on an ad revenue business model end up having their content dictated to them. This is also happening now: Businesses, mostly involved in publishing, rely on the same business model. We’re experiencing a kind of disenchantment of social media.

The risks and hazards of social media engagement are now well documented and confirmed, even by people inside the tech industry itself. So why do you still have more people joining than quitting them?

Because they respond to a human need: the need for communication. They also offer an environment that is very attractive and very carefully designed. Their targeting is very precise, because their analysis is very precise. They are also – ostensibly – free and everyone is on there. This demonstrates their pervasiveness and structural relationship to reality. You want these tools, because this is the world today.

Do you think that the algorithms pervading the operation of social media undermine the institutions that ensure the function of democracy?

To a degree, yes, they do undermine them. Social media are not tools of dialogue. If we assume that democracy, its institutions and its founding principles benefit from dialogue and democratic discourse, then all these media do not aid dialogue. They are tools of persuasion. They claim to promote dialogue, interaction, communication, connectivity and interconvertibility. But this is a mere smoke screen, because the purpose of the AI machine and machine learning is advertising, it is commercial exploitation. From the moment that they can be used by a company to sell shoes, they will also be used by a politician, an activist or a religious leader, each to promote their own message. These media do not obey the rules that govern traditional media. Algorithms use machine learning to predict human behavior. Therefore, they undermine democracy because they do not aid dialogue, but, rather, emotional manipulation and reaction, thus building a wall between the citizen and critical thinking, transforming him or her into an automaton.

If, though, they were deliberately transformed into a tool of control, wouldn’t that be a major political issue?

Yes, it is. It’s like letting an industry control everything – and it is not just any industry, but an industry of knowledge. A free society does not center its philosophy on the manipulation of people. If you want autonomous, independent citizens, you don’t look for ways to control them but to give them the tools that will allow them to make better decisions for themselves. If you want to ensure that you have free and well-informed citizens, you will make use of these knowledge, information and communication structures. Their characteristics are so structural you can’t leave them completely uncontrolled. This is why it makes sense to have good journalism and a good education system. Otherwise, all you have is a carrot and a whip; not a mature society.

I think the issue is also philosophical, though. If we accept that there is even a degree of free will, these media make it possible, on a technical and mass scale, to take it out of the equation, so that everything, from the smallest to the biggest decisions, is dictated. This creates the illusion of choice, a virtual sense of control, when the message is, in actual fact, dictated. What we’re doing is technical intervention, pure and simple.

Who had a clearer view of the future after all? George Orwell or Aldous Huxley?

I think we got Huxley.

Is there a path to emancipation?

I believe in the power of education and intellectual cultivation. The longer we continue to question established ideas and continue to seek better-quality knowledge, and the more we keep up the political pressure, I am confident that we will not end up with Orwell’s scenario, or with Huxley’s. I certainly see elements that trouble me and energize me. I do not want my book to be viewed as a “call to arms,” however, but as a contribution to a necessary dialogue that is not happening. Because this dialogue cannot take place on Facebook, can it?

Can social media exist without the manipulation machine?

I am convinced that there can be non-commercial motives behind the networks and that in the future things may not be as they are now. It seems impossible, but a lot of things seemed impossible before they happened. Some kind of correction will happen; new technologies may even come along to change the landscape completely.

Regulation

The authorities seem fated to play catch-up with the tech industry, always a step behind developments. Can we expect Silicon Valley to self-regulate, or is that asking the wolf to guard the sheep?

Companies are ahead by virtue of what they are, but they are not working in secret; there is no conspiracy. They are obliged by law to submit their patents to the regulatory authorities. The results are made public and after that it becomes a power game based on the degree of pressure exercised on the regulatory authorities, the political forces, to ensure a type of immunity. There are also rules that have been bypassed by the tech industry because it is obviously an industry with enormous promise of profits and enormous investments. They are also favored by a techno-utopian dimension, by the investment of an enormous amount of hope in the digital world.

Are you at all worried that the surveillance mechanisms developed and implemented to contain the spread of Covid-19 will stay with us after the pandemic?

I see no reason why the contact tracing apps developed during the pandemic should stay. The real tug-of-war is with facial recognition software, predictive policing and biometric data. I think that if anything good came from the pandemic, it was raising a little bit more awareness about the positive dimensions of these technologies. Without these incredible tools, databases, processing capabilities, speeds, I do not think that vaccination development or the pandemic management would have succeeded to the degree that they have.

It is interesting that while private companies – in the West at least – know more about us than our own government, personal freedom activists continue to protest against governments. Why is that?

Because it is the governments that should be controlling these companies. They should be setting some kind of limits on them, but they’re having a hard time with that. That’s how democracy works, though; it’s a power competition.

Portrait of a photographer

By Harry van Versendaal

As radical and influential a man as he is a photographer, Spyros Staveris is also surprisingly modest and softly spoken.

We met on the occasion of the release of his book “There Is Nothing Behind a Photo,” published by Polis during the lockdown. It consists mainly of work from the second half of the 1980s, after his return from Paris and before he became involved with Greek and foreign magazines. It was a transitional phase for Staveris, who was still exploring his identity and leanings.

The images in this collection are accompanied by notes he made at the time, much like a journal which, he says, paints a “more authentic” portrait of the photographer himself.

Mapping a discursive course between the lumpen fringes and the lifestyle of Athenian socialites, Staveris went on to earn a reputation for his portraits of abnormals (in Foucault-speak) but also of celebrities.

Drawing on a surfeit of experiences packed into some three decades, Staveris spoke of the inspiration and motivation behind his new book, his process and today’s image culture.

You have not been stationary during the pandemic. The new book is proof of that.

Artistically, I put down my arms some time ago in photography. What I mean is that I did not feel that I had anything new to say and I did not want to start repeating myself. It would be really hard for me right now if you said, “Go take a portrait” – a real chore. At some point I just started using my phone to photograph my wanderings, just like everyone else does.

One might assume that a mature and established photographer like yourself would look down on that trend. Do you do it because everyone else does it, to see what it’s like? Or do you find it somewhat liberating?

That’s it exactly. I wanted to try a new medium that I saw gaining a place in modern reporting. I also wanted to feel the freedom the phone gives you – to shoot whatever, whenever it draws your attention.

Are you put off at allby the sheer volume of imagery, the direct sharing on such a massive scale, the narcissism of selfies? Many claim that photography is being debased by the process.

I don’t see it that way. That it has become so democratized is great. People are learning to train their eye. I also see something very tender in it, especially with youngsters and their selfies. I don’t have an elitist attitude to the issue.

Can you explain the book’s title? It’s poignant but also contradictory given that the images are accompanied by notes and text.

The entire book came out unwittingly; it was unexpected and unintentional. And the title was kind of a separate thing. I felt it suited the book because it puts you in the paradoxical position of anticipating what it could all mean, through the stories in the book.

Was there a purpose to all this?

What I wanted and what I ultimately accomplished was a portrait of the photographer through the photographs and their accompanying texts. Readers see someone they didn’t know. The fact is that many people, at first especially, thought I was a complete freak; others thought I was some brilliant intellectual – which I am not by any means. They had this erroneous image of me. And I think that a more authentic portrait of me emerges from this book.

What criteria did you use to develop the book?

I noticed at some point that I had writings that suited particular photographs, so I started putting it all together and forming the bones of a potential book. The succession is random, but I wanted it to have a sense of continuity, variety, perhaps even rhythm. And they are all black and white because I am referring to a time when I shot in black and white, before I got into color, which the magazines demanded.

The writings are based on notes you took when you got back home every day, right?

Exactly. It was a time when I felt incredibly free, because I was free of cares, and it was my habit at night to keep something like a journal describing the things I’d done and people I’d seen. It was something that lasted just for that decade, roughly. Because later, after I become involved with the magazines, photography took on a different intensity that did not allow me to sit down at night to write. It’s a real shame, because I met a lot of interesting people later and it would have been very useful to have notes on these encounters, which I now hardly remember.

Could these photographs be shown on their own, without words?

I think many of the photographs in this book could stand alone, or even beside others, because a photograph takes strength from the one beside it too.

You studied in Paris, where you also watched a lot of films. Did that influence your work?

Definitely, though I didn’t realize it of course. Back then I wanted to do something with cinema, but I never found the channel, the way, so it just stayed that way: a desire. I watched Walter Ruttmann’s “Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis” one day and I felt that this is exactly what I had been trying to do all those years, even though I did not have it as a specific reference in mind. The portrait of a city, basically. There was a spell when I was not considering becoming a photographer at all; I just took photographs for the pleasure of it. These here are photographs from a transitional time when I was doing different odd jobs and had just emerged from a period of intense political activism in the wake of May 1968. Myself and many of my contemporaries found ourselves a bit lost at the time. Even though there were opportunities in Greece in the 1980s to get mixed up in things and stay politically engaged, the overall framework was somewhat disheartening. And it was in this condition that I discovered the city, discovered Athens.

Later, as a photographer proper, you moved in the fringes, but also at celebrity parties. Where were you most in your element?

I felt comfortable everywhere. Whether you take me to a club or a hotel room with a transgender woman and her boyfriend, or the social scene I did then. If you are curious about things, about social phenomena, about the different categories of people, I think this curiosity makes you see everything, not from a distance, necessarily – because you can have feelings about what you’re looking at – but it allows you to move around comfortably everywhere. If there is anything that comes across, I think it’s a greater tenderness for the marginalized than the socialites.

Celebration of vanity

You refer to curiosity as a driving force. Can the process of photography change the photographer? Can it give them greater courage?

It’s the camera that gives you courage at first. But I became a different person by working with and meeting people who basically helped me find myself. I’m talking about the 2001 period with Stathis Tsagarousianos, which was pivotal. Until then, I had been doing classic, Magnum-style photo-reporting. But something different started coming through at some point, something I was only just discovering myself. I started photographing differently: freer, more dynamically, perhaps in a funnier way.

When you started doing celebrity and lifestyle photography it was something unfamiliar. How did you sell it?

I didn’t need to sell anything. Tsagarousianos was running Symbol at the time and because there was an explosion of events, the stock market and all the rest of it, he suggested that we also do something with society pages, but in a different way. Walking past a photography shop, I spied a 6×6 [medium-format camera] and thought about how it would allow me to change direction. It was cheap, Japanese, and I used it to start shooting for the society pages. And it did take me somewhere else. Even the medium can make you change direction. And, of course, we didn’t take the photographs other society photographers were doing, your typical portraits and the gowns.

Was there something about the predominant forms at the time that you wanted to challenge?

No, I just wanted a more journalistic style. And funnier, in a way. Isn’t it all really just a big celebration of vanity? So, that’s what I had to show it as.

How do you capture such an atmosphere? Do you do research? Location scouting? Do you have to experience it?

There aren’t many luxuries in portraits, in Greece especially. You’re sent somewhere and you have three minutes to get the shot. You have to be on your toes. You turn up at a house and have to scan all the corners immediately, see what possibilities it offers, put the person where you will get the most information. I always tried to do this with portraits and this is something the 6×6 allowed. I didn’t take close-ups; it was always a face in its proper environment. As far as research is concerned, all the reading accumulates in you without you knowing it, together with all the things you see.

Describing your encounter with Dinos Christianopoulos in the book, you say that photography is like choreography. Would you care to explain?

You have to move a lot, be agile. You can’t set up your tripod in one spot and the person across from it and say, “That’s it.” You need to try different things and make the person move as well. You’re a bit like a choreographer.

Ultimately, is a photograph a construct or a moment?

Isn’t it both? I imagine it’s both.

Finding peace in troubled waters

Hanan (left), now a swimming instructor, seen with her younger brother Sidar at a community pool in Wolfsburg, Germany.

By Harry van Versendaal

At 17 Hanan has already managed to conquer one of her biggest fears: water. A Yazidi refugee from northern Iraq, she nearly drowned in 2015 when the overcrowded rubber dinghy she was in was swallowed by waves on the perilous crossing from Turkey to Greece. Five years later, now working as a swimming instructor in Wolfsburg, Lower Saxony, Hanan is teaching her younger brother the basics of strokes, before his memories of trauma rise to the surface.

“I came across a newspaper article which said that a large number of refugees drowned in public pools in Germany because they did not know how to swim,” Nele Dehnenkamp, a freelance documentary filmmaker, says during a Skype interview from her home in Berlin.

“I thought, so many people, particularly young children, cross the Mediterranean and they don’t know how to swim. It must be so horrific for them to overcome this fear,” she says, discussing her short documentary “Seahorse,” which is being screened at the ongoing Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF23).

Dehnenkamp, who has a background in sociology, began researching community pools around the country that are tailored to refugees. That’s when she came across Hanan. With her graceful and collected demeanor, the wide-eyed girl with the long dark hair immediately stood out among her noisy peers, she recalls. Auspiciously, the girl was keen to open up about her experience.

“I did not have to convince her at all. Hanan has a very strong interest in telling her story because, for her, it’s a way of healing. Every time she tells the story, it gets a tiny little bit easier to do that,” the director says.

Brutally persecuted by Islamic State (ISIS) militants, thousands of Yazidis, an ancient religious minority, were forced to flee northern Iraq. Hanan, together with her grandmother, her mother and her five siblings, spent a year at various refugee camps in Turkey before landing on the island of Lesvos in the eastern Aegean. They managed to reunite with her father in Germany a few months later.

“Greece is very present in her memories, because when she saw the Greek shore, she knew she’d survive. This feeling of survival is in her very much tied to Greece,” the director says. “One of her biggest wishes is to actually return to the place that she first set foot on in Europe, and swim in the sea,” she says.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees used Greece as their gateway to Europe in 2015 and 2016, until the European Union struck a deal with Turkey designed to stem the flow. Thousands have died on the crossing.

Trauma

Survival and the challenges of assimilation are two of the themes that play strongly in the subtext of the 16-minute film, where Hanan and her young brother Sidar are seen communicating in German. The predominant ones, however, are memory and trauma.

“Trauma… there is a lot of horror tied to it, but also beauty,” Dehnenkamp says. “It comes from coping with trauma and managing to overcome it. It also lies in the pride Hanan takes in having been through all that and having learned how to swim,” she says.

The film’s title was originally inspired by Germany’s first swimming badge, Seepferdchen (Seahorse), which is recognized across the country as proof that a child can stay afloat in the water – like a seahorse. While researching the project, she found out that the part of the brain named after the Greek word for seahorse, hippocampus, because of its shape, is its memory center.

“It struck me that memories which are stored and archived in the hippocampus are usually tied to very strong emotions. Traumatic memories are connected to the amygdala, which is the area associated with fear in the brain. Extreme emotions, like the fear of drowning, are recalled more easily and they will most likely stick with you for the rest of your life,” she says.

Six years after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s famous statement “Wir schaffen das” (We will make it), which marked Germany’s open-door policy to refugees at the peak of the influx, Dehnenkamp is annoyed that most of her countrymen seem to understand the crisis as something that occurred in 2015 and is now over. “This is simply not true. For the people who crossed the sea, these memories will stick for the rest of their lives,” she says.

“This is, in a way, what I really wanted to show with this film: Going to a public pool in Germany to learn how to swim is the most everyday thing that you can do here. It’s what everybody does around the age of 6. But the child sitting right next to you may have a very good reason to be afraid to get into the water,” she says.

Germany took in around 1,000 Yazidi refugees under a special relocation program in 2014. It is now home to the largest Yazidi population outside of Iraq. According to a study published in 2019, almost 80% of Yazidi women in Germany said they had been raped by ISIS fighters; and half of them said they became pregnant as a result of rape.

Dehnenkamp says the country’s political class is mostly reluctant to acknowledge that the refugee crisis has had a long-term impact on German society. Doing so, she explains, would be recognizing the psychological trauma that many of the newcomers have endured.

“People have this idea that, ‘OK, you survived this life-threatening trip so you should be fine. You’re here, you’re safe.’ But it’s more complicated than that. And I think politicians have not yet taken that into account,” she says.

Empathy

In 2015, shocking images of Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi’s drowned body lying face down on a Turkish beach placed worldwide attention on the refugee crisis. The photograph also “haunted” her mind, Dehnenkamp says, describing it as one of the main events that galvanized her into action. Today, she is optimistic that projects like her documentary can have a similar effect on other people.

“I do believe that building empathy really helps bring about social change. I do hope that when people watch this film they will understand that an escape to Europe is not just a several-hour trip across the sea, but a lifelong challenge that you have to cope with,” she says.

“I cannot undo what she went through,” the filmmaker says of Hanan. However, she hopes that the documentary can serve as a platform for Hanan to tell her story. “She feels that all the ordeals she went through went unnoticed. And I don’t want her to feel that way,” Dehnenkamp says.

But the refugee girl is not the only one looking for healing, it seems. Dehnenkamp admits that watching the little boy Sidar, seen in the film hesitating in his orange floaties on the edge of the pool, gives her a feeling of guilt. “I feel guilty for letting [the refugee drama] happen as a European society,” she says. “It takes me back to the image of Alan Kurdi. Children are the most innocent beings out there; they should not have to go through all this,” she says.

Dehnenkamp says the traumatic memories currently hidden inside Sidar’s brain could well surface over time. “One day, he’ll probably ask, ‘Why did I have to go through all that?’” she says. “I have no answer to that. The least I can do is to document this and make sure it did not go unseen.”

You can visit the film’s official website (in German), with details on Hanan’s journey to Germany, here.

‘I do believe that building empathy really helps bring about social change,’ Berlin-based filmmaker Nele Dehnenkamp says. [Dominique Brewing]

Urban explorer weaves a fresh narrative for Athens

kauffmann

By Harry van Versendaal

Defined by Athens, Nikos Vatopoulos has certainly worked hard to give something back to the city where he was born and raised. His prolific work as a journalist, writer, amateur photographer and urban activist has influenced contemporary perceptions of the Greek capital.

Vatopoulos would be the first to agree that Athens is not by any measure endowed with the picture-postcard beauty of its European counterparts. Fraught with contrasts and contradictions, this sprawling metropolis resists any straightforward classification.

“I used to be a staunch aesthete, offended by Athens’ shortcomings,” Vatopoulos says. “But I have since broadened the criteria by which I consider something beautiful or ugly. I am interested in what is interesting and in why something is there in front of me and in whether there is a way for it to go away if it bothers me,” he says.

The shift seems to convey a quasi-existential understanding that the aesthetic and cultural mess that is Athens needs to be embraced if one is to ever feel comfortable here. It’s an admittedly more mature and pragmatic outlook, more in line with the ideal of a city as a living system, a constantly changing whole that resembles an incubator of narratives and emotions such as those captured in his latest book, “Walking in Athens.”

The 181-page volume, recently published in English by Metaichmio, is a collection of articles written for Kathimerini newspaper where Vatopoulos is chief cultural editor. Vatopoulos, a keen-eyed street wanderer-turned-archaeologist of the present strolls the capital’s emblematic boulevards and meandering backstreets documenting robust and humble buildings, neat houses and crumbling ruins. In the process, he chronicles the succession of human lives, cultural changes and civilizational shifts. It is a gentle albeit thoughtful exercise.

Born in downtown Athens in 1960, Vatopoulos moved toward adulthood as the city’s urban and social transformation was in full swing. It was a highly optimistic period which however bequeathed the capital with a controversial architectural legacy (though one that the writer does not shy away from). Now standing at what appears to be the close of Greece’s brutal 10-year crisis, Vatopoulos refuses to give up his optimism about Athens. The financial meltdown has naturally left deep scars on the urban fabric, yet it has, at the same time, impacted the urban mind-set in a positive manner.

“The new generations that come to the fore will come to see this crisis – with the worst of it seeming to come to a close after a 10-year cycle – as a major rift in the city’s evolution,” he says. “It is important not just because of its absolutely obvious downward spiral but also because a large part of the residents of this city redefined their relationship with the urban environment.”

What compelled you to write these pieces? Was it a quest for a beauty or the desire to make a record of things that are being lost?

It was mostly an effort to understand this city, I would say. Even though I was born in Athens, grew up in Athens and my entire life is intrinsically linked with this city, I always felt there was room for me to go even deeper in understanding how it has been shaped and what makes it tick. I suppose that curiosity was my trigger, an enormous amount of curiosity about Athens, which obviously comes with an enormous amount of love. I want to understand it because I love it, so I think that this article series was the next stop in my relationship with Athens. I wrote about more obvious subjects in the first few years, but the series later led me to discover the unseen city – that is what interested me most; locating those reserves of a bourgeois culture (note: Vatopoulos uses the world “astiko,” which he defines as a kind of bourgeois, metropolitan culture, but without the baggage of class) that are usually not so apparent. If you don’t go looking for it, this treasure won’t just appear of its own accord. And I believe that Athens has a stock of buildings that basically illustrates its cultural evolution and is right there; we just have to see it to incorporate it into the city’s greater narrative. Athens’ modern story is enough for me; I am very interested in it.

In your book you talk about a new watershed in the city’s history: before and after the economic crisis. Do you believe this outlook will prevail in the future?

I do. I believe it has been a major watershed. I am part of a generation – like many other generations, of course – that has been defined by 20th century milestones. I believe that as the events of the 20th century move into the past, the new generations that come to the fore will come to see this crisis – with the worst of it seeming to come to a close after a 10-year cycle – as a major rift in the city’s evolution. It is important not just because of its absolutely obvious downward spiral but also because a large part of the residents of this city redefined their relationship with the urban environment. This is the important part, the psychological shift. And this, of course, has left a mark in the form of neglect. But apart from this, I believe the crisis gave the city space for a new beginning and in this regard I am somewhat optimistic about its prospects.

Where does that optimism come from?

Well, it’s partly who I am as a person, always positive and open to things, but I do believe that there is a critical mass of young residents that care about this city. Even those who cannot invest in the city in any way – be it economic, educational or in some other way – are ready to be useful as citizens. This may not be visible yet, but there is a greater proportion of mostly young people who want to be part of the city’s evolution than there was in the past. They also have a much sophisticated point of view.

What would be the glue to keep this city together – if it even needs such a thing?

Abolishing stereotypes, re-establishing the notion of Athens in a way that entails civic pride and inclusiveness. I believe that there needs to be plenty of social space in the new narrative for Athens; space for identity-shaping and for the city’s residents to redefine themselves. It is futile to approach Athens in terms that belong to the 1990s; it is unrealistic. Athens needs to develop a metropolitan identity, but with social cohesion – that is the most important thing.

Speaking of cohesion, is the absence of aesthetic cohesion a boon or a bane for the city?

I have vacillated in this regard. I used to be a staunch aesthete, offended by Athens’ shortcomings, but I have since broadened the criteria by which I consider something beautiful or ugly. I am interested in what is interesting and in why something is there in front of me and in whether there is a way for it to go away if it bothers me. On a recent tour of Neapoli and Exarchia I made an unplanned stop in front of two buildings from the 1980s that are, objectively, extremely ugly. I told my group: “Observe these buildings, because they too are a part of Athens’ reality. In order to understand Athens we need to also make room for them in our minds.” This is regardless of whether we like them or not, but this is an entirely different conversation.

Do you think that Athens struggles under the weight of its history? Does it need a new identity in which its Classical heritage is simply a part rather than a symbol of unattainable heights?

I believe in Athens’ continuum and I think it has been very bad for the city that new Athens has been cast as the result of the “darkness of the Turkish occupation,” a chasm that is nothing more than a notion, a construct of the modern age that rejected centuries of the Ottoman era (calling it post-Byzantine no less – another outrage) and which completely overlooks the period of Frankish rule (I bet only a handful of Greeks know that Athens once had a Catalan administration), etc. There is, however, a very interesting trend toward seeing Athens as a historical continuum, from the pre-Classical age to the present day, with fascinating peaks and troughs, of course, and all of which contributes to what we see and mainly to what we feel about Athens.

What gives you greater pleasure: a new, beautiful structure or the restoration of an old one?

I have never thought about it. I will say the former; the construction of a beautiful new thing. This is the greatest vote of confidence you can give to a city’s future. New beautiful buildings mean that people are envisioning their lives in this city in a much more succinct way. By no means do I dismiss the latter, though.

Which is your favorite Athenian street?

Patission. It may be because I grew up there, but I think that it exemplifies Athens’ urbanization in a very distinct way, while it also gives me this combination of joy and sadness.

Do you feel uncomfortable when you see a tourist walking around the “wrong” parts of Athens? What is this city’s biggest problem?

I used to, yes, quite profoundly. I am more relaxed about it now. But I also think that a lot of foreign tourists have changed too. I see many – and I don’t mean the mass tourism lot that’s obviously here just for a good time, which is also fine – who are interested in what is going on around them, who are not looking to stay in their comfort zone or for the obviously beautiful. I recently saw two tourists who weren’t lost walking along Liosion Street – they were having a wander and the look on their faces was very interesting.

Has any particular urban regeneration project from among the many that are put forward every so often caught your attention?

I believe the Rethink Athens project really should have been carried out. I think it would have helped Athens, added a lot of trees and fixed Omonia Square, which is a major issue. We Greeks are very swift to say no and very reluctant to sit down and talk.

Nevertheless, I read that the new mayor invited you for a discussion about the city. Did you make any suggestions?

Yes, we had dinner, but it was part of a busy schedule of many meetings with Athenians. What I told him – and he appeared interested in the idea – was about rooftops, which also have to do with the climate and with the city’s appearance. I think it’s a major issue. If you look out at Athens from Lycabettus or the Acropolis, you see that there has been no thought given to how rooftops could contribute aesthetically and ecologically. The many options provided by technology (you can have swimming pools, gardens, new-tech tiling, etc) in combination with incentives and tax breaks could transform Athens completely within five years.

You have already published dozens of articles, books and albums, organized exhibitions and founded the now-defunct Saturdays in Athens urban activist group, all about the capital. What else can we expect?

I want to keep writing books. I’m working on one now that will be published this fall, again by Metaichmio, which is my take on 23 Greek cities, an essay on the country’s undervalued urban space. I am an amateur photographer and would like to have a show, while I would also like to write a big book about Athens that would be about the city and people from my generation, about buildings and books, people and movies.


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