Sunday, August 30, 2009
Jungle Vision may have looked a little neglected last week before my monster post on Friday night but it wasn't for lack of blogging.
I've just been spread a bit thin.
Since the WBRU News blog launched in 2007 and re-launched in 2008 I've seen how time-consuming an endeavor it is to not only post content yourself, but to create an infrastructure that operates without your constant attention.
It was the perfect outlet for me and my fellow interns to show our multimedia range with some brand name credibility. But it also risked running up against our responsibilities for the paper.
We started strong and then the blog completely fell by the wayside for about two weeks. With all the paper's top reporters on vacation we were being asked for a lot of copy at a time when nobody in Greece wants to pick up their phone... probably because they're on an island somewhere.
One day I looked at the blog and it was just depressing; cluttered theme, lameduck posts pointing people to the paper website, a general lack of captivating content.
So I overhauled the theme one weekend and one day when I was in editorial limbo I wrote up a lengthy post about a prisoner on hunger strike by reading all the various newspaper reports and anarchists blogs supporting him. Maybe the reporting was more cited than original. But for crying out loud this guy hadn't eaten in 40 days! It was a story we weren't getting into print and my research saved interested readers from having to visit all these blogs themselves.
From that day forward I spun something onto the web everyday. A post on Greek wines. A recap from a press conference for a swine flu center. These posts often allowed me to get out material that got cut in the print copy that I still thought were important.
Problem was, those posts took time away from Jungle Vision.
The situation got worse when the fires hit. Sadly, it was a boon for the Athens News blog as Erinn Unger and I spent the weekend posting based on other media reports and people's uploaded content on twitter. But there just wasn't time to report for the paper and the blog and update Jungle Vision until I stayed up to the wee hours of Saturday morning.
Athens News was suddenly getting over 100 visits per day. Jungle Vision, 3.
A friend who just arrives in Athens, Chris Duffy, and I were talking about our blogs last night (like all the cool kids do). He's had some success with his a) because South Korea has the best internet in the world b) because he posted everyday so people knew coming to his site that there would be something new.
Meanwhile, I'm stuck between three portals (if you include the Jungle Journal) and when I write here, like this post, it tends to be really lengthy.
I don't have some kind of neat resolution to these issues. But hopefully when my research grant begins in earnest I'll be able to post more consistently about my topic "Prevailing Faith."
PHOTO: A utility worker looks up at a pole felled by the fires.
Friday, August 28, 2009
I didn't actually go into the Attica fires per se. I spent the weekend blogging and tweeting about the events based on other news reports all the while reassuring my friends and family that I was still less than well done.
When I came into the office on Monday I found out that I was as well-informed about what was going on as anybody else. The fires, unfortunately, started the night our weekly comes out and we don't exactly man the fort on the weekends. To make matters more interesting, two of our top reporters are on vacation.
So our editors sent me , an intern, to report and a Greek staffer, Anastasia, also 22 years-old, to translate in the fire zone. What followed over the rest of the week is arguably the biggest story I've ever been a part of.
Day one: where's the fire?
We had explicit orders to find "victims" i.e. Greeks that had lost their homes to the fires. There were two facts our editor didn't mention but that underpinned this search. For starters, Greeks often don't take out home insurance. More importantly though, many of these lands have burned before and it's illegal to build on burned land. But because Greece lacks a comprehensive land registry plenty of illegal homes have gone up. These two tidbits likely explained why TV reports had captured so many people battling the flames with garden hoses. That and many of the people who died in the 2007 fires were trying to evacuate. Most of their neighbors who stayed home survived.
It took about 20 minutes of driving before we found that woodland moonscape that has become all too familiar in Greece since 2007. The branches of blackened trees reach up from the ground like fingers from the devil, made all the more eerie by the clear blue sky.
I first saw this sight in February 2008 during a trip to the Peloponnese, ironically a week after my visit to now-burning Mt. Pendeli. It shocked me at the time. This time I was ready for better or worse.
We pulled over to grab some shots at the first safe opportunity. More striking than the landscape were the objects caught in the flame's crossfires; a boot, a spray can of some kind, a toilet. Singed pinecones littered the ground. Smoke rose from a few pits.
Finding destruction to nature wasn't so difficult. As we continued on the cliff-roads to Marathon we saw a gray-scale world with the artificial lake of Marathon below the same shade of blue as the sky above. We couldn't help but notice the sheer randomness of the devastation. For instance, Greeks construct miniature shrines on roadsides to commemorate loved ones who died in accidents there. In the midst of this barrenness we saw a white shrine completely untouched. 100 meters away another one was completely torched; a second tragedy.
Tracking down these "victims" was a much harder task than we realized. Other media outlets had it easy. They were on site when there were giant red and orange flames destroying the houses. By the time we got there, the winds had died down and firefighters were turning the tide. We didn't know it yet, but only about 60 or so houses were completely destroyed by the fires and another 150 damaged. Considering about a dozen towns were affected, we were looking for needles in haystacks.
Outside of Grammatiko, I saw a brown horse with a black mane galloping on a property to the left and then noticed a house nearby that was damaged. Walking up to the property it looked like one I could have seen on the way to the Jersey Shore. The owners didn't appear to be home. Unfortunately their dogs were. We found it prudent to press our case elsewhere.
Anastasia zigged and zagged her Citroen C1 through the ribbon developments of Grammatiko. Everywhere we looked we saw plenty of gorgeous Greek estates. Just no fire damage.
Finally at the last strand of the ribbon we saw it. The fire damage had come down the mountains and totally surrounded this new-age style house. There had to be a story there. We knocked on the door and were about to give up when a woman popped out the back door. She invited us in and started blurting out her story to Anastasia in Greek before I had the chance to ask if we could record. The homeowner told her story again. She had been at work Saturday when the fires came. At first she joined in with her neighbors to try and save her house. Eventually she retreated with just a towel to cover her face. When she came back a few hours later her house was still there. Sure she was happy to have her house, "But I came her to be with nature and raise my kids," she said.
Day 2: The needle in the haystack
On Day 1, we tried to find "victims" near the origin of the fire. For Day 2, we thought it best to go to the sites that looked the most dramatic on TV a bit further south. Better yet, the City of Athens had opened up its Agios Andreas campsite for the certain flood of refugees.
We called ahead to make sure they actually had refugees. They wouldn't tell us how many were there, but assured us that we could have an interview. We did get interviews, with the Deputy Mayor and the camp's director who organized volunteer runs to fight the fires. But there were no refugees. Last I heard there still weren't any because Greeks who lost their homes either went to their "first house" or stayed with relatives.
At this point we had a decision to make. Head to Rodopoli, which looked hammered on TV or Pendeli, in the heart of the mountain. We opted for the latter.
En route, we watched a water-bombing run and found Kardia "Heart" Park. We pulled up to take a break and see if we could shoot stand-ups for a web video. We got the shot and I wrecked my second pair of pants in as many days.
We decided to check in with our editors -- one non-victim, and one non-refugee camp in the bank. "Victims, man, I want victims," our editor kept saying over the phone.
Look, it's not that easy, malaka.
As I assured him that we still had tricks up our sleeves something I saw made me hang up the phone and tell Anastasia to stop the car.
To our left was a row of typically Greek, orange roof-tile estates. To our right was a bus stop straight out of a Tim Burton movie. The stuffing was literally coming out of it. I never knew bus stops had stuffing.
Zeus didn't zap the bus stop and anarchists weren't likely to strike this deep into the woods (which would probably cause one of these massive fires). The fire had to have come through here and if everything on the left was fine, whatever was on the right had to be scorched. Sure enough there was a driveway about 50m away from the bus stop.
I walked right into an Iraqi Kurd village. In Greece.
A man named Hemen Mohammed acted as a spokesperson for the village. The story he wove went like this: the Kurds saw the fire on Pendeli. Municipal and state firefighters battled it. The Kurds figured airplanes and helicopters would come eventually and take care of it. They didn't. The flames crept down the mountain until they got to the village. Grabbing their documents, their napping neighbors and children the Kurds piled into their cars and drove off. As Mohammed said, you can drive a car away. You can't drive a house.
This --now-razed -- village was about the size of a football pitch with two rows of houses on what would be the sidelines. The houses were a combination of sheet metal, plaster and concrete. My editors would eventually ask if it looked like a shanty-town. Well, by the time we got there it sure did. But each of these houses, about 30 m2, had a bedroom, bath, kitchen and washing machine. Is that a shanty?
To add irony to injury, the Kurds said a Greek firetruck watched their village burn while the Kurds were helping Greeks protect their houses... by splashing pool water on the houses. They told us to ask the neighbors ourselves. Unfortunately, I was thoroughly lost at that point. Ironically, I may be a Greek-American eligible for Hellenic citizenship, but their language skills obviously had me beat by a mile.
Their kids were also born in Greece. When we first saw them they were playing in the cars. That's when we found out that they sleep in them too since there are only two houses left out of the original 27. Many of the Kurds have to sleep outside on cots or carpets. They say the municipality asked them to "get the f out" and that they wouldn't be allowed to rebuild their homes of 10 years. The mayor was "too busy" (somewhat understandably) to comment when we called the next day, his secretary said with a groan upon hearing we were journalists.
Apparently this story wasn't enough for our editors. They wanted Greeks. So we were ordered to check out Agios Stephanos where the mayor had pleaded with TV stations for the government to send water planes and then said "It's too late. It's too late" when the city was ordered evacuated on Sunday.
We didn't see a damn thing there. Doesn't mean something wasn't burned. But we didn't come across it.
So our wanderings carried us to Rodopoli, a kind of bizarro world that summed up these Attica fires. We found a street that had been entirely scorched by the fires. One house was entirely toasted, the occupants clearly no longer "at home." Perhaps the most pathetic sight, a baked turtle crouching over a hose reminded us that the lives most affected by the conflagration weren't Greek or any other nationality. Other houses were clearly damaged. We asked the residents if we could talk. They looked at us with a smile but said, sorry we're exhausted as they kept sweeping away wreckage.
The farther we went into Rodopoli the stranger it got. The first street we stopped on had been scorched while the ones to the right and left were fine. Okay, feasible. But on the next stop there was practically a checker pattern of destruction. Better yet, in one neighborhood park all the trees were burned. In the middle were three benches. One was just a heap of cinders. The other two were perfectly intact, with barely a fleck of red paint missing.
Luckily we found one woman willing to talk to us since we weren't a TV station and none of her friends would be reading an english-language paper. Even she was a weird case. Her two-story house hadn't even a scratch. Yet her koubara's house was torched on one side and so was an empty lot on the other. Right outside that lot was a stack of unwanted couches. Apparently the flames thought they were an ugly shade of green too.A weird feeling came over me as we finished up the last interview. An autumnal breeze swept through the neighborhood carrying with itthe aroma of pine sap and bark I'd smelled years ago on my first scouting trip to the pine barrens. Amid so much sadness, it was an odd place to feel at home.
After countless kilometers and 14 hours of driving our journey ended and the real work began. The next day we cranked out the copy at a painstaking rate. Where Anastasia took the lead on the interviews I picked up the pace on the writing. We went together sentence by sentence. Consulting each other, playing with words, checking facts, bouncing ideas. We inevitably had to cut out about 300 words from it. But at the end of the day we beamed when people said it was the top article of our fire section.
It turns out we did go into the fire - the fire of professional journalism, not Attica.
Sunday, August 23, 2009
This all had relatively little to do with me. But I did get these pictures.
I also took a lot of video which I hope to edit in the next day or so.
The real dramatic video, however, came from the Greek news networks. They showed people battling raging flames by their homes with garden hoses and buckets. Reporters did stand-ups in front of burning houses. It's all been either incredibly brave or remarkably foolhardy.
So far, no casualties.
For my part, I climbed Lykavitos with a fellow Athens News intern (who has a much better camera) to see what we could see. But this bear was not going over the mountain (or mountnin as I used to say) be it Penteli or Hymettos. Right now, that's definitely above my pay grade.Hopefully the fires will blow over soon. The political fallout is not likely to.
There are serious questions here about why these fires were able to flare up after 70 people lost their lives in 2007.
Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis appeared on TV in a helicopter surveying the scene, dressed in jeans, a white short sleeve T-shirt and a blazer. Opposition leader George Papandreou went with the more American politician look with jeans and a blue button-down shirt and stayed on the ground talking to firefighters and residents fighting the flames. Style is a matter of taste, but which one will look better in public opinion?There are also ecological and economic concerns here. More scorched earth means poorer air quality, lost ecosystems potential for erosion, etc. etc. Among the many houses burned were olive orchards, a crucial Greek export.
I'm of course still a newbie here on the Greek reporting scene and expect to learn a lot from watching the media response. On the Athens News front, we interns tried to keep our blog updated and made sure to re-post tweets from people uploading content on Twitter. As we interns were trying to keep things up-to-date as our generation is expected to do, we found older hands also infiltrating the web like former Athens News editor John Psaropoulos who wrote as many posts in the last few days on his blog than he had since he started it late last month.
But that's no surprise.Among the sad lessons so far from these stories is how the media benefits from bad and breaking news. We've gained 30 followers on Twitter since the fires started and got more hits on our blog than any day since we started (a bit over 100). Part of the reason is that we snapped out of our summer malaise and started throwing up new content left and right (much like Psaropoulos).
I'm curious to see what kind of attention our web efforts will get if any. Will we be thanked for vigilantly following the fires and cultivating our audience? Or viewed as heretics for producing content away from print? The answer may say a bit about the direction of media in Greece.
A week or so ago, one of my fellow interns pointed out this page on the BBC's website for sharing your horror stories speaking a foreign language. Having already written extensively on my struggles, I decided to show the humor of the various gaffes I've made too.
Last Friday, we filmed this video in the offices.
If you're interested in an inside look to how we make these videos, it's not simple but it is cheap.
First I set up my digital camera and the goofy candy-cane colored tripod I got with it. Then I place my digital recorder somewhere nearby to get better sound. When we're done, I convert the files from my camera with ffmpegx into a format that will cooperate with iMovie. I cut up the video in iMovie and then clean up the audio from my recorder that goes with it in Audacity. Match up the sound, throw in some headers, export the movie, then upload it to YouTube.
It's an extremely roundabout process. But so far it works.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
"You can't have a camera."
That's what a photographer told to me as I walked out of a press conference christening the first of seven "New Flu" inoculation centers in Athens.
It was just the latest in a series of encounters that reveal a peculiar attitude toward cameras in Greece. The reasons, as far as I can surmise, are a combination of privacy concerns, job protection and fear.
Bringing a camera to the right place at the wrong time could mean you'll take shots from police, anarchists, immigrants, everyday Greeks and other photographers -- of the painful variety.
This case with the photographers was fairly straightforward employment preservation.
In Athens, apparently, it's illegal to take photos if you're not a member of the photographer's union.
"If we let anyone come in here and take pictures," the photographer said. "we'd be out of a job."
Now I know what you're thinking. Tell that to the folks crawling all over the Acropolis from the US, Japan, Sweden and who knows where else.
The law has its limitations both in terms of statutes and enforcement. My sin was that I walked into a beehive of photographers and cameraman (I counted over ten tripods) who were not only getting pictures within a medical facility but (which I didn't realize until a friend translated my tape for me) they were also asking the Health Minister questions about the political climate with opposition party PASOK pressing for early elections, the political story of a dead month in Athens
If I took a picture of an isolated interview subject, no one would care. But these photos were going up on the news wires for the newspapers (including Athens News) and these guys were getting paid to be on this site. If a punk came in and took a couple shots with his dinky digital camera and supplemented his video sound with a voice recorder for a fraction of the cost, what would be the point of the photogs?
I was initially taken aback and so were my colleagues when I told them. (Ironically I got the whole interaction on tape.) But these rules aren't actually that different from the ones I've seen in the states. When I worked in Washington, DC, for instance, interns and reporters couldn't shoot or edit their own stories. With one-man bands (reporter/photographers) taking over local TV news in the states for economic reasons, the rule probably makes stations think twice about whether to downsize their photographer force if they're going to have to pay the union.
And to be honest, photographers who focus on getting the picture are more likely to get good shots than people whose primary focus is on fact-gathering and writing (usually). My shots looked like garbage and the only one I ended up using was from a public sidewalk. Having these union rules may be irritating, but they likely ensure higher quality photos.
This professional v. amateur tension is by far the most benign of the photo issues.Privacy
There are laws on the books that protect Greek citizens from having their pictures taken without their consent. And Greeks intend to uphold them.
Recently, someone wrote to Athens News about how taking a perpetrator's photo while breaking the law can be we worse than the original crime. The same group of motorbikers had been rumbling down the letter writer's streets during quiet hours (another sacred protection Greeks hold dear). The letter writer took photos of the people in the act and took them to the police only to be told that not only could the authorities not act on the photos because the culprits had to be caught red-handed, but that the photographer in question could get in trouble.
A lawyer confirmed that the photos taken could not be used in a court of law as evidence even if a law was being broken.
Google ran into similar problems with the law when it tried to bring Google Maps "street view" to Greece (see CNN and BBC) in May of this year. The Hellenic Data Protection Authority told Google to halt its operations until it provided more information on how citizens' privacy rights would be respected.
So why is a person's picture, visible to the world already, lumped in as a "fundamental human right" alongside with sensitive data?
Part of the explanation is likely cultural. Not in the sense that graven images are blasphemous or anything like that. After, the iconoclasts lost that fight a few years back. Perhaps Greeks just don't want to be treated like they're in a fishbowl by gawkers from all over the world?
The other likely reason relates back to photo evidence. Greece, unlike the United States, has experienced monarchy and totalitarian rule. I haven't found any evidence of it yet, but I would have to wonder if picture-taking is like the polytechneion rule: police aren't allowed to go into university buildings due to a past incident and likewise photos from individuals cannot be used as evidence for some historical reason.
I can kind of appreciate the legal protections. When I was in high school, a new train line opened up from Camden-Trenton, New Jersey. My whole school took a field trip to the Aquarium on it. If I remember right, a photographer asked my name and I gave it. What I didn't know what that the photog had a shot of me drinking a soda on the River Line, which at the time I didn't realize was something like a $200 penalty. Sure enough, there I was front and center, sucking down a cold Coke. Luckily the cops never came knocking.
Oddly enough, there seems to be a double-standard when it comes to law enforcement. Athens set up security cameras before the 2004 Olympics and is now using them as a crime deterrent, which has been rather controversial.
For now though, it seems the police can take a citizen's picture without prior knowledge but another citizen, can't.
Ultimately, people worry about having their picture taken due to fear of retribution, legal or otherwise.
When a colleague and I reported on a church-run food hand-out migrants gritted their teeth or shouted and tried to wave us off. We had to assure them we wouldn't use their faces. Most of them are in Greece illegaly and might not receive the same treatment as Greek citizens. The places they came from like Iraq, Palestine and Afghanistan that don't or didn't have such privacy protections. Plus, who knows who they are running from?
We worked around these restrictions by photographing people's hands and shooting video of one Somali man's chest while we interviewed him.
But some environments are a bit more hostile than a group of immigrants.
Greek riot police are notorious for not taking too kindly to photographers during riots.
One blogger based in Thessaloniki, who calls himself Teacher Dude, was given a dislocated shoulder and a series of bruises for taking pictures of riot police there. He then posted the photos of the police and is wounds on his blog.
To be fair, colleagues tell me they've seen anarchists break their fair share of cameras and photographer bones.
And the riot police have plenty to fear too. Although the police may have started the cycle of violence by killing a 15 year-old boy (and of course union rules didn't prevent the mobile phone video from being re-broadcasted) but more police officers have been killed since December 6, 2008 than rioters. The recent rise of terrorist groups have to make them hesitant to show their faces, even behind a helmet.
To put it simply, a picture is worth a thousand worries in Greece.
Note: I opted not to use photos in this post to hopefully emphasise how stark a story is without images and of course to be a bit ironic.
Way back in early July I took my cousins and a family friend to Mt. Vesuvius to see the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
Since then, I've stubbornly tried to reconfigure my iMovie to accommodate the video from my camera. No luck. I then got a copy of the old version of iMovie. Pretty much as roundabout a process, but with more (cheesier) options for subtitles.
The trip itself was without a doubt the sightseeing highlight of my time in Rome. I've wanted to visit these cities frozen in time since probably before my 12th birthday. Documentaries of them sparked my interest in the Classics and Latin.
Unfortunately, I planned out our routes to and from the various sites, tickets, food, etc. But I did not plan on charging my camera. So the video and the pictures all had to be taken, camera died, turn it back on, take another.
The result is a wider variety of shots, all from files about 2 seconds long.
Last Italian postcard should be Rome...don't know when I'll get to that or if my hard drive can survive the editing.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Monday, August 17, 2009
Sunday, August 16, 2009
August 15 is the biggest holiday for the Greek Orthodox in the summer. As in, the only day they go to Church.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
After some extreme hesitation, I've decided to open up a Live Journal to complement the efforts of Jungle Vision.http://junglevision.livejournal.com/
I want this blog to be the hub for my journalistic and academic work on the subjection of immigration and the church's role with it. It will include videos, photos, poignant observations and links to or copies of my articles and writing on the subject.
But fact of the matter is, much of this experience is just living in the culture of Athens. I want to share that, and perhaps selfishly, preserve these moments for myself. I DON'T want to clog up this blog that I've worked really hard on with those musings. My content comes in bursts on Jungle Vision because I think it through thoroughly. But at times I do just need to get some of these stories out.
So the "Jungle Journal" (don't be fooled by the URL) will host the vignettes, often comical, of life here in Athens for an American. It may also include random hissy-fits about blogging such as how blogger, live journal and flickr all crashed when I tried to upload photos to them...
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
I keep my digital camera strapped to my hip wherever I go in Athens whether I'm working for the Athens News or heading to the super market. Right now it's a little sparse because I haven't filtered through my photos from the last couple of weeks. But you can see the best of the photos I take over the next few months in the right side bar thanks to flickr.
In this first slideshow, I tried to show shapshots of life here in Athens generally, but especially the places where you can see immigrants at work, and, occasionally, at play.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Saturday, August 1, 2009
So without much fanfare or clearance from the editors at the Athens News my fellow interns and I have embarked on a project to show "Who's doing good" in Athens via videos on our blog. Many of our readers are interested in philanthropic endeavors and it seems to me like a good, non-hostile environment to stretch out our multimedia legs.
We started with a group called Nine Lives Greece. I first heard about them through a service-learning course I took at College Year in Athens (CYA or DIKEMES). One of my classmates joined this group and helped feed cats each morning at the Zappeio and National Gardens.
The City of Athens has a number of programs to address the needs of the dog population, which has dwindled in recent years for better or worse, but, according to Nine Lives, not many for cats. This group feeds a "colony" of about ninety cats, as well as traps cats to have them spayed or neutered, and vaccinated. That way, they stay looking as healthy and happy as the Athenians and tourists around the Acropolis.
At the moment the group has about 20 volunteers, 10 of which are regular feeders, etc. Seven of those 10 are expats. Not exactly a smoking gun, but you can see possible evidence that those coming from outside of Greece are more used to volunteering than those inside Greece.
This video was a bit of a bear to put together. As you can tell, it's pretty low budget. iMovie, iPhoto and Quicktime don't automatically recognize .AVI files, the most common used in digital cameras. I found a codec to make my videos work in Quicktime but that hasn't carried over to iMovie and iPhoto. So I have to run all the video through a converter. Next, my version of iMovie doesn't have a real robust timeline. So video editing is fairly straight forward, but tinkering with the sound is less than a precise science.
All and all, Erinn and I started working on this video at 12:45pm and didn't finish until 8:05pm. In between, there was lunch and lots of other tasks for the Athens News, but still at least 4 hours of that time was strictly dedicated to converting files, taking notes, writing a script, voicing the script, matching up sound from a recorder to the sound from the video, etc. etc. It's almost enough to make me want to invest in a more robust program like Final Cut...but not quite.
There is, of course, a little bit of an ethical quandary here to our series "Who's doing good." After all, is any group "purrrfect?" Probably not. There are likely many Athenians who wish Nine Lives did not do anything to the cats since feeding the cats encourages them to stick around and makes them dependent and taking away their reproductive ability is a hindrance on their freedom.
Perfection aside, there are plenty of people in Athens who are at least trying to do good and who fill otherwise unmet needs. Other people should know about them. Many are foreigners and this raises the question of "imposing Western values." When it comes to that issue, I'd say if those cats could talk they'd probably say they purr-fer being healthy and fed than hungry and at-risk.