In Greece, the commonly asked question, “Where are you from?” reaches into a far deeper and more resonant space than in other cultures. If uninitiated, you might answer in the standard way: by telling the other person where you live currently or maybe where you grew up. But by doing so, you invite the inevitable follow-up question, “No, no, where are you from? Where is your village?” In other words, “What are your roots?”
What the questioner is really hoping to ascertain is your “καταγωγή”—a word that translates roughly to origin, descent, lineage, parentage. In how many other countries are you asked about your ancestral lineage within one minute of meeting somebody?
To better understand this demand, it is important to realize that in Greece, family wealth comes from the land. Not necessarily the products of the land—the rocky Greek soil not always being the most fruitful or giving—but rather an inherited sense of ownership and place that is carried from generation to generation. For centuries, even if a Greek family did not have great means, it was essential that the ancestral land—most often in a village or on an island—was passed on to and then cared for by the children.
In another time, all of this would make for interesting, if quaint, anthropology. But Greece has spent the past eight years undergoing an extraordinary economic, political and social crisis. One rarely-discussed dimension of the crisis is the eradication of the traditional avenue for wealth transfer—property value. The point isn’t to shed a tear for some troubled landlords, but rather to recognize that the very fundament of centuries of family lineage has been pulled out from under a peoples’ feet in less than a decade.
All of this deeply informs an understanding of Greek photographer Kostas Kapsianis’ series, “A Common Story.” These pictures—shot over the course of three consecutive winters in the seldom-touristed northern reaches of Greece—trace Kapsianis’ roving journeys to the semi-, or wholly, abandoned villages of these rural areas. Although Kapsianis focuses on individuals and on specific vistas and landscapes, this is not just a question of a few abandoned towns, but rather the wholesale destruction of the value of the land itself.
To produce the work, Kapsianis felt, from the beginning, an undeniable urge to travel alone. He has been propositioned by several friends (and several photographers) to accompany him on his travels. But to enter the kind of atmosphere he is seeking, to fully pursue his own desires and curiosities, he recognizes that he can’t photograph with others around. While working, he is constantly thinking, an interminable, internal dialogue with himself and his own past. Ultimately, he must leave himself open to discovery and surprise. Deeper than any plan or intention, he finds that the subject itself pulls him forward; he must follow his own road to discover what’s at the end.
Not surprisingly, the project has personal roots for Kapsianis: like many Greeks, his father left a village (in the Peloponnese) after the Second World War to find his fortune in Athens. Although he never returned, Kapsianis retains a tie to the village, even going back himself from time to time. Last year, for example, he spent New Year’s Eve in the village with its sole resident—a woman in her nineties who lives there seasonally, in the summer and for the holidays.
Meanwhile, in the north, where Kapsianis made his work, the current situation is more complex. Some villages have emptied out, while others are filled with relatively recent residents. Indeed, the inhabitants of the most populated villages today are not Greeks but 2nd or even 3rd generation Albanians, who crossed the border decades ago in search of a better life and then stayed once they had settled. As Kapsianis discovered, these people are also trying to find their identity—not considered Greek by the older residents, not considered Albanians back in their homelands. They are searching, like so many people in Greece today, for where they belong and where their future lies.
Another unexpected layer of complexity is the way in which the countryside that Kapsianis photographed has become Americanized, globalized. Sex shops, giant dance clubs, and (empty) big box stores dot the landscape, making once-ancestral homes seem foreign even to those who remain.
But these hulking structures prove to be the exception, not the rule. More than anything, a ghostly silence reigns. For the people who have managed to survive, they can only marvel at how quiet everything is. The question on everyone’s mind, as the elderly woman in Kapsianis’ home village attests, is: Where are the young people? What comes next?
In spite of the intensely personal and internal nature of his journey, Kapsianis believes that he is telling a universal story. Using the word “common” in his title is no accident. While Greece’s economic troubles have been in the headlines for years, Kapsianis’ aim is not to address the country’s crisis at all. Rather, he hopes to tell a tale that goes back much farther and has been repeated many times throughout history. Namely, the story of people moving and populations shifting; that ongoing, ever-present capacity that we all have for change, and with it, our hope for something different just over the horizon.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like one of these previous features: Moving Athens, a video that celebrates the beauty of the city and countryside even in the midst of Greece’s economic crisis; In Waiting, interiors of public institutions in Greece that exemplify a nation searching for its identity; and 12 Views of Greece Today, a collection of projects that, together, give a long-term view of the country’s culture and crisis.