An Award Winning Photographer Reflects On Covering The Crises Of 2015

After years of covering turbulence abroad, Yannis Behrakis was forced to turn his lens to his home country in 2015.

24/12/2015 6:21 AM AEDT | Updated 24/12/2015 6:34 AM AEDT
Yannis Behrakis/Reuters/Corbis
Yannis Behrakis has been covering refugees for decades, and his work this year from the shores of Greece has earned him huge accolades.

Many of this year's most notable news stories converged in Greece, as the country fell into political and financial crisis during a bitter fight over austerity and debt, while the shores of the country's islands became landing points for hundreds of thousands of refugees. 

Photos capturing people clashing with police outside of shuttered financial institutions or scrambling to beaches from rubber boats were seen around the world and drove home the tragedy of these events.

Some of the most memorable images of these crises were captured by veteran Reuters photojournalist Yannis Behrakis. This week, the Guardian named him photographer of the year for his coverage.

The WorldPost spoke with Behrakis about his work, his most memorable shots and what he hopes people take away from his images.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters/Corbis
Over 1 million refugees and migrants entered Europe in 2015, a huge percentage traveling on ill-equipped boats across the sea from Turkey to Greece.

You’ve covered refugees for decades. Does it change your approach that the current crisis is taking place in your home country?

It was difficult, obviously, because it was happening in the middle of a huge political and financial crisis. Greece was not prepared for another big issue. But, it was also a test. I was curious and anxious to see how the Greeks would react to such a big catastrophe.

At the end of the day, I'm proud of how the Greeks handled it. I’m talking about the Greek citizens -- the fisherman, doctor or whoever was on the islands or near the border. They made refugees feel comfortable and welcomed.

A lot of Greek volunteers and people from around Europe have come to help one way or the other. A lot of people donated money. It was humanity that flourished in the catastrophe. 

It was humanity that flourished in the catastrophe.

In addition to the refugee crisis, you also covered Greece's political crisis and forest fires. What were some of the most challenging aspects of covering these stories?

The most difficult part is always your personal emotional involvement. This [financial] crisis has had an immediate impact on my family, friends and the people I know. A lot of my colleagues lost jobs, and we have the highest unemployment rate in the European Union.

In the past I used to be based in Greece and then travel to cover big stories such as war or refugee crises around the world. I'd come back to Greece and considered it a paradise. Then all of a sudden Greece became the center of global media attention, and it becomes hard to remain unbiased and cover the story. 

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters/Corbis
Yannis Behrakis' images have captured some of the most heart-wrenching aspects of the crisis.

When you’re searching for images and for subjects in your coverage, what are some of the things that you look for?

I’m in the news business, covering hard news and breaking stories. I usually don’t have much time to look for the right light, the right face. It’s usually just a bit of instinct and inspiration, looking at the environment around me. The most important thing that I want to do is send a message.

Working for Reuters, you work for the planet. We have a billion people looking at our stories and pictures, so it’s heavy on my shoulders to be in the middle of a big story and know that all these people around the world are expecting to see the right capturing of the image.

It’s an amazing job we do by telling people what’s going on.

I want to make everyone responsible for what’s happening. What I always say is that I don’t want anyone to say "I didn’t know." I want everyone to know there is a small island in Greece that everyone is coming to as a last hope, and that this is happening. Everyone should know about it.

It’s an amazing job we do by telling people what’s going on. 

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters/Corbis
In one of his most memorable shots of the year, Behrakis captured a tender moment between a father and his daughter.

Is there a single image or day from your coverage this year that stands out to you?

It was a very rich year story-wise, and there were a lot of moments. If I were to pick a single moment or picture I would say it was from the refugee story. One image I have in my heart is the picture of a Syrian man carrying his daughter through the rain on his way to the border with Macedonia. He is wet, and he has a plastic cape which in my imagination made him look like Superman when I saw him. He kisses his daughter and it was like he was kissing the human race. It was a pure moment of love and care, and such a pure moment for humanity. This is something that’s in my heart and mind. That's the one, if I were to choose one.

Yannis Behrakis/Reuters/Corbis
Europe's response to refugees and migrants has been a subject of fierce debate within the EU, as nations have shut their borders to stop the migration flows. In this photo, Behrakis captures people begging to cross into Macedonia.

Is there a part of your job that you think people don’t understand or miss?  

There is. Some people ask me, or in some cases it feels like they accuse me, saying "you see these people coming in boats and you take pictures, you should help them."

I explain there are so many people around who help them. I’m here to take a picture because this is how I help them, you look at the picture and you say "maybe I should go there and help" or "maybe I should give money to a charity."

My mission is to let people know what is happening, and I think it’s a very important mission.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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