Documentary, Interviews

Mean streets

Greek economic woes have scuppered the post-war dream of the small, family-run shop, finds Georgios Makkas

On 25 January Greece goes to the polls, for a snap election called when the parliament failed to select a new president at the end of 2014. It looks like Syriza, the far-left, anti-austerity party has the clear lead, and the outgoing prime minister, Antonis Samaras of the centre-right New Democracy party, has described the vote as a referendum on Europe.

Whatever the outcome, the economic crisis of the last five years, and the austerity measures put in place in 2010 after the IMF/Eurozone’s €110 billion bailout loan, have radically changed the country. Greece has been in recession for six years and around 3.9m people – more than one third of the population – now live below the poverty line. At the peak of the crisis unemployment stood at 25%, rising to 60% among the young; now an estimated 50% of young people are unable to find work (figures taken from The Guardian’s report). These figures are comparable to America’s Great Depression of the 1930s and have left a visible mark on the landscape, as Georgios Makkas’ series The Archeology of Now shows. “Tens of thousands of small business have already closed, and many more are about to close,” he writes in his introduction. “The Greek economy has shrunk by 25% in the last five years, and this is very visible in the cities where every second shop has closed down.”

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His images records some of the places affected – small, family-run businesses which have already shut up shop, or which are teetering on distinction, in Athens, Thessaloniki and Ioannina. Makkas started the project last Autumn when, living in Athens, he realised the city was rapidly changing. “I was just going about my everyday business, taking shots with my iPhone to make a note of how things are,” he says. “Then I posted a few on Instagram and suddenly had hundreds of followers.”

Some of the businesses were on the way out anyway, as Makkas concedes – one shot shows a copper pot-maker’s whose owner died three years ago, for example, while others show video rental or printer ink specialists overtaken by the march of technology. But many show apparently more viable businesses, such as butchers, tailors, and candlestick-makers, and speak of a wider malaise. “Regardless of the crisis, there would be changes,” says Makkas. “But the crisis has made a huge difference. In parts of Macedonia [of which Thessalonki is the capital] 60-70% of the shops are now closed.”

“Shops where generations of merchants had run successful businesses are disappearing and together with them the post-WWII Greek dream – the family run shop – is coming to an end,” he writes. “In some cases bars and fast food restaurants are opening, but usually the spaces remain empty.”

Ironically, Makkas has also been affected, moving his photography business from Athens to London in the face of a fast-diminishing editorial market and what he describes as “ridiculous rates of tax”. “Hundreds of thousands of people have left, especially young people with no children,” he says. “From my social circle, about half have gone already.”

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