20 June 2018
20 June 2018 - Written by Lucia De Stefani
Winner of the PHmuseum 2018 Grant New Generation Prize, Greek photographer Panos Kefalos chronicles the lives of young Afghan refugees and their families finding temporary shelter from war in Greece.
What games do children play? Searching for one another with eager laughter, they play hide-and-seek in the luminous corners of their uncharted world.
With a bashful but persistent glance, Greek photographer Panos Kefalos explores the new lives of these young Afghan immigrants who found refuge with their families from the war in his homeland of Greece.
Everything started in Victoria Square, in downtown Athens, where Kefalos first noticed the children and spent time photographing them at play in their new social setting.
“I was attracted by their games,” Kefalos explains. “It was the first thing I saw and I started by intuition taking photos of them, knowing that I wasn’t just trying to capture an image of their everyday day life but the shade of my own childhood as well.”
As the photographer explained, Saints, his work that won the PHmuseum 2018 Grant New Generation Prize, seeks a spiritual and emotional connection but quickly follows different impulses: a profound, at times incomplete, bond between him and his youthful subjects; or at times between the young immigrants and their new home of Athens; or between Kefalos and “the lingering shadow of my past,” through his very own childhood memories.
The work soon expanded beyond the limits of a defined collection: a subtle reflection on the notion of childhood and the contingent dynamics confronting these children. Their freedom, the photographer explained, had been sullied by the horror of a war that displaced them from the security and innate playfulness of a peaceful childhood.
“These kids are coming from a country that has been in a state of war for years, they have experienced many extremely stressful events, even during and after the hard and dangerous journey to Europe seeking for a new land, a new home.”
Embracing a growing momentum that allowed them to become acquainted with one another, Kefalos grew closer to three Afghan children in particular and their families. Stripped of a chronological narrative, the photos don’t tell a unified story: mostly, they become a free association of images, reflections of the way the encounters developed, Kefalos says.
Visiting them often, Kefalos captured intimate moments, at once personal and universal: an image of ultrasounds during a prenatal test; two teenagers curled up in a tender embrace; the eyes and fingers of curious kids mapping the cutout window of a toy house, the unlimited trajectories of their imagination amplified.
“Bonding with them made me relive moments from my early life, and now as a grown-up who has lost the childlike innocence, I achieved to recall memories from my past through this connection. Everything begins in childhood and it is, in a way, the mirror image of adult life,” he says.
Bodies and lives intertwine in each frame: a girl falls asleep against a boy who still glows from the exuberance of his playing, the feet of a mother peek into the frame too, a protective presence: in a single image, the essence of their lives: precarious and vibrant.
Even when no humans are portrayed, the images brim with life: blackened pans signify the ordinary routine of shared meals; a slanted tree trunk, a natural element on the kids’ pastoral horizon, offers support but also an ideal alcove for hide-and-seek again, is this the free-spirited pastime of vivacious child’s play or something more serious?
“Games most of the time reflect the children's inner self and this is what I saw in those kids; an emotive world popping up through their play. This is how games used to be for me too,” Kefalos says.
Finally, the “saints” bring a double atonement: we witness the lives of these refugee children up close, a perspective we often fail to consider, but Kefalos also draws from his own childhood of radiance and uncertainty. This project, while freeing Kefalos from his personal fears and leading him to deeper truths, also carries the fundamental lesson of a compassionate look into the lives of others.
Three years in the making, Saints finally became a book in 2015. By then, none of the people whom Kefalos had photographed remained in Greece. They had all left that unfamiliar place for a new destination, equally unknown, to find a new life, to thrive a little more.