"Accusing The Victims Of Being The Perpetrators"
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Drawing attention to a growing humanitarian crisis that is festering in the shadow of an economic meltdown, and to the current state policy of protecting public health by penalizing rather than treating the vulnerable social groups that have been branded as transmitters of disease. Our duty as photojournalists is to observe pain, record and witness the truth, hoping that governments and communities can solve the problems.
"In photojournalistic reporting, inevitably, you’re an outsider.” / Henri CartierBresson
Accepting the inevitable nature of the outsider, I have nevertheless devoted the past 3 years in understanding and documenting the growing public health crisis that has overtaken the city of Athens, Greece.
In May 2010, Greece signed a three year agreement with the IMF, the European Commission and the European Central Bank, imposing stiff austerity measures, and deep budget cuts in an effort to prevent the bankruptcy of the state. Inside Greece, the financial crisis resulted in a tremendous change in society’s socioeconomic status – in the way the society is structured and the way it operates. This project began as an attempt to illustrate the emerging problem of homelessness in a country which has seen a rise in the number of homeless by 25% in the last two years alone. Only in Athens the number of people living in the streets is estimated to be over 27,000 individuals.
While investigating the homelessness in the streets of Athens, I discovered a tremendous change in the social/urban landscape: the sudden increase of drug users and the open, widespread, daytime use of narcotics in the streets of Athens. The depth of the urban disintegration there, shows the complexity of the problems Greece faces as the country heads into another year of economic contraction and it is a warning to other European countries affected by crisis, about how swift the fall can be when a tipping point is reached. Where there isn’t a stable social structure these things happen. It’s all related to the crisis. This is what we live with every day now in the city center.
My involvement began in the simplest human interactions: offering medicine, treating infections, offering food, clothes, blankets, even offering to to pay for overnight stays in cheap hotels in order for them to have an opportunity to have a shower, a bed, watch TV. My hope was that this break from their daily routine, might trigger a change and offer a way out.
Behind the numbers and the statistics, behind the debt versus GDP ratio that have been the focus of the Greek crisis, there are those who are living out on the streets in extreme, harsh conditions. There is a great humanitarian and social cost that is being overlooked when attempting to understand and resolve the Greek crisis. The ultimate goal of this project is to draw attention to a growing humanitarian crisis that is festering in the shadow of an economic meltdown, and to draw attention to the current state policy of protecting public health by penalizing rather than treating the vulnerable social groups that have been branded as transmitters of disease.
According to data from the Hellenic Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an estimated 25,000 drug addicts in Greece with more than 10,000 among them identified as intravenous drug users (IDU), mostly concentrated in the city of Athens.
Over the last two years there’s been a rapid increase of HIV positive diagnoses among intravenous drug users. For the first time in 2012, the rate of HIV infection of intravenous drug users has surpassed the rate of infection of homosexual men – who until recently were the group most affected by the HIV epidemic in Greece.
Until 2010, HIV infections among IDUs were 10 to 15 per year. In 2011, this number jumped to 206, while in the first half of 2012 an additional 522 cases were reported. This represents a total increase of almost 1,500%
* IDU = intravenous Drug Users
** MSM = Men who have sex with men
There are no official HIV or STI prevalence estimates among sex workers. Reports of sex workers tested positive for HIV in 2012 indicate that nearly all of them were concurrently injecting drugs and were selling sex to support their drug dependence.
There is no record of behavioural surveys among sex workers in Greece. Estimates from TAMPEP’s (The European network for HIV/STI prevention and health promotion among migrant sex workers) report state that the demand for unprotected sex is on the rise. This is also the case for male sex workers in Greece, where there is an increased demand for sexual services with growing numbers of male migrants participating in the sex selling industry. KEELPNO’s outreach staff indicate that the majority of street based male sex workers are: under 18 years of age, migrants, and are selling sex for three to five Euros to a mostly Greek clientele
Most of the diagnoses are made in Athens and more specifically in the capital’s center. The economic crisis has obviously affected the pattern of drug use, but the Greek drug market has adapted fast to the changing economic reality. A “fix” is sold in the shape of a tiny ball weighing no more than 0.01 grams forcing users to buy eight to ten shots per day to support their habit. As a result the profit for the dealers remains high, despite the low price of each dose, ranging from 5 to 7 euro, while a flood of lowerquality drugs have led to an increase in the rate of daily injection per user per day. The rise in daily injections, combined with the inability of drug stores to continue offering free syringes (as in past years) have led to an explosion in the use of shared syringes.
Needles and syringes are mainly distributed in Athens through outreach workers who provide 'kits' containing needles, syringes, and other drug preparation equipment to users, free of charge. In 2012, there were about 120,000 syringes distributed (according to ECDC data). This corresponds to approximately 15 syringes per user per year, a grossly inadequate number when compared to the WHO recommendation of providing 200 syringes per user per year as an effective measure towards containing the HIV epidemic. There is no needle and syringe distribution through pharmacies.
Treating addiction and keeping people in a therapeutic community costs six times less than the cost of confinement, yet the government has continued to cut social spending without taking into account the humanitarian and social cost. As traditional safety nets fall victim to the economic crisis, a growing sense of despair is spreading among drug users who are losing any motivation to turn their lives around, contributing to the rapid increase in the number of HIV and Hepatitis C infections.
In May 2012, things took a turn for the worse. A healthcare provision applied by the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Citizen’s Protection, led to the widespread arrest of women and transsexuals street workers suspected of being intravenous drug users. HIV tests were forcibly performed and in the cases of positive diagnoses, they were charged with premeditated grave bodily harm. The arrested women and transsexuals were then placed in custody and their photographs were posted on the internet. Though the stated goal of this provision was the protection of the most vulnerable social groups, its effect was the exact opposite: the stigmatization and marginalization of society’s most vulnerable, demonizing and accusing the victims of this health crisis of being its perpetrators.
I don’t want my pictures to be "comfortable" - to offer peace of mind. In the contrary, I seek to disturb that peace – and to make people question. And if the text and pictures are shock or provoke, it is because they remind this which you chose to forget, or deliberately ignore. They takes you where you have no right to be, make you the intruder and observer. They will make you confront a reality that will make you realize your fears and your endurance.
I think our duty as photojournalists is to observe pain, record and show them to the others, and hope that governments and communities can solve the problems.
At best, there's a kind of grim satisfaction that perhaps I brought some attention, and focused people's attention on these problems. Perhaps it brought some relief. But its shifting sand that keeps moving.
*part of the presentation of my research over the epidemic spread of HIV in Greece, among IDU users in the 28th Annual EPIIC International Symposium on “Global Health and Security” in the Institute for Global Leadership - Tufts University, Boston, USA. ( 21~24 Feb. 2013) Session's topic: "Bystanders, Perpetrators and Survivors: A Global Health Perspective on Sexual Violence". Following EPIIC’s symposium, the outcome of this research presented in the international conference “Ethics and Aesthetics of Epidemiological Photography” September 14, 2013 University of Cambridge, CRASSH, UK. Session’s topic: “Documentary Approaches”
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