Greece has long been famous for its ruins, attracting history buffs from across the world eager to see what once was. But a new show from Jamie McGregor Smith raises the intriguing idea that the country’s well-documented economic problems could create a new generation of shrines to the contemporary crisis. Jamie travelled round the sites used for the 2004 Athens Olympics documenting their alarmingly rapid descent into dilapidation and his photographs perfectly capture a haunting sense of loss (although it is worth noting that some commentators in Greece have been quick to defend the Olympic legacy). Given the socio-political context of modern Greece, each picture is rich with narrative but it is testament to Jamie’s talent that he lets the camera tell the stories without chasing heavy-handed poignancy and symbolism. We caught up with him to find out a little more…
How challenging was it to gain access to the sites you wanted to photograph?
Many of the Olympic centres are vast, surrounded by acres on concrete car parks. There are many points of entry and open areas surrounding the stadiums. As a public venture, the sites are not guarded by private security companies so gaining access was easy. I actually walked straight into the empty Olympic Stadium, explored, shot and left without anyone asking me any questions. Turns out the Athenians are pretty laid back on the whole!
It’s wonderful for photographers and something you would unfortunately never find in Britain. I only hope the freedom they allowed me isn’t repaid by a potentially negative portrayal of their economic and political decision making.
There was one interesting occasion when I was photographing the Helliniko Kayak Slalom Centre and realised a security Alsatian was patrolling alone below me. It kept my undivided attention for so long, I hadn’t noticed the security man in an electric golf buggy coming up behind me. After a brief encounter I admitted my mistake, showed him how I’d managed to get in and I was sent on my way.
“I actually walked straight into the empty Olympic Stadium, explored, shot and left without anyone asking me any questions.”
Jamie McGregor Smith
How did the people you met in Greece look back on the 2004 Games and its legacy?
Most of the Greek people I met weren’t interested in the other sports apart from football and basketball and were indifferent about the state-of-the-art sports facilities that had sprung up. The positive legacy for them was gaining one of the best metro systems in Europe and a new motorway and airport which had managed to relieve the choking road network that has marred the city of Athens for decades. In this sense, it sounded like the games had had a positive legacy on the city.
However, people are under no illusion that the cost of this was a national debt crisis. This coupled with the problems with the European markets meant they were under immediate pressure to pay back the (mostly German) lenders. We have all witnessed the anger which has spilled out against their government since they agreed to bow to centralised European pressure and revoke sovereign control over their economy.
What do you hope this project tells Londoners about the games?
Thankfully we had a stable government and a very enthusiastic team planning our games and its legacy. I’m optimistic we won’t see the same white elephants on our landscape in the coming years.
I really hope the project makes Londoners realise how privileged they are. With access to health and leisure facilities never being better, I hope they these images illustrate how pride and lack of foresight can waste an epic amount of energy and opportunity.
For many though, these parks will remain unaffordable. Once they are handed over to commercial control, I’m concerned they will not be accessible anymore.We need to lobby our local councils and make sure the Olympic commercial extravaganza we’ve all witnessed, doesn’t continue with current residents being priced out of their homes and unable to take advantage of their new publicly-funded local facilities.
We have all paid for the Olympics to be here, the majority of us didn’t get tickets. Huge corporations have gained unsurpassed positive accreditation, let’s make sure they are not the only winners.
Borrow, Build, Abandon – Athenian Adventures in Concrete and Steel is at the Print House Gallery in Dalston from September 7 to October 3.