greeceshadows_280The centre of Athens, as I first remember it, was full of life.During the period before the Olympic Games, there was great development. New hotels appeared in order to host the visitors, shops, restaurants and cafes kept sprouting up, it was full of people everywhere. All this happened within a few years. It was as if the city put on new clothes. During the days of the Olympics, the city was clean and well-guarded. You would not see street- merchants, drug-addicts or immigrants, just tourists and people who came in order to have a good time. In my eyes, it looked like another place.

As time passed, the city started deteriorating and gradually recovered its previous character: the everyday life that we all knew, with the junkies, the street-merchants and the prostitutes.

Time passes quickly. The city is now almost fading from sight entirely. Some people have abandoned it due to the crisis. Many shops and hotels have shut down, the centre is now almost deserted. People fear they will get ripped-off, they hear that this happens all the time. They no longer feel like going out and wandering about like before. They fear seeing the poverty, the destitution, the drug-users who care only about where their hit is coming from, and the women selling themselves for sex.

But for me, those people were always there. I found them all there when I first arrived as a 9-year-old child. They were there when I was growing up. and now as everything has changed beyond recogniustion around them they are somehow still trapped in their lives, subsisting in terrible circumstances, in squalid houses with little or nothing to give them hope for change.

The immigrants live in small rented rooms, many of them together. The women prostitute themselves in the streets even for 5 Euros. You don’t want to run into them in the street. Yet, hanging around with them has been my daily routine as I sought them out to learn what is happenning to our once vibrant city. They are sensitive people facing many problems often with tales of ruined families left behind. Sometimes they give the impression that no one has ever cared for them, as if they desparately want someone to talk to, if only for a moment to get away from the misery they are in. For some of them I had the sense that they were almost looking for someone to open up to and let it all out. Like confessing. What made an impression on me was that the people I met were unguarded about their lives, they talked as if they knew me. Sometimes they talked about difficult things, about what they were experiencing, as if they were talking about someone else. It was easier and felt better this way.

I would only take photographs when I sensed that they were comfortable with me and my camera, usually after some time had passed. Sometimes, unexpected things happened that made me change my mind and plans. Other times, things just happened spontaneously, I followed along. Every image has a story behind in and within it, every person has a story to tell. Together, as a work in progress, these images are my story of the city, they show what is left behind when everything else that once made it so alive has deserted it. Yet when others look at my pictures of these people I want them to respect their spirit to survive and see their dignity, as I do.

Enri Canaj

Enri Canaj was born in Tirana, Albania, in 1980. He spent his early childhood there and moved with his family to Greece in 1991,
immediately after the opening of the borders. He is based in Athens and covers stories in Greece and the Balkans.