I don't care if I don't take even one more picture, I just want to be okay with myself

Kostas Tsironis: A photojournalist who works in Athens as a freelancer for foreign press agencies.

Submitted by Uncreative on April 17, 2010

I said I would never give this story to the international media because I got no support from them in December, but I'll speak to you. I like to speak about it person to person.

On Saturday when the murder happened I was drinking with a friend of mine, it was his name day celebration. I was a little drunk when I got home and I heard on the news that they had killed Alexis in Exarchia and there were big riots, so I took my cameras and I went outside to walk and cover it. I wasn't responsible for the coverage but I did it on my own initiative. I spent the first nights at Nomiki, which had been taken over by the demonstrators, and early in the morning I left, went home, slept a bit, sent some pictures to the newspaper I was working for, and went back onto the streets. Three o'clock was the big demo. It started at four. The demo was headed for the headquarters of the Greek police, and I was at the front.

When the police and the crowd started fighting, I wasn't wearing a gas mask so I was affected by the tear gas and I went away from the riot, back behind the police lines. I was in the flower beds puking because of the gas.

Then I stood up and I saw the first policeman holding his hand up, making like he was shooting a gun. So I took out the camera to take a picture, and I saw the gun, the real gun, that another policeman was holding. He was threatening the demonstrators. This was less than a day after Alexis was shot, and here they were drawing their guns again. They did not know I was there because I had been down below the flower beds, puking. The whole thing happened in two seconds. I held down the shutter, took about twenty pictures - this is one of those professional cameras that takes pictures very rapidly - and then I left immediately. The area is full of police, and I remember that they saw me as I was taking the pictures. I thought I had to find a way to escape the police lines and get to the demonstrators, where it was more comfortable for me because I knew I would be able to get back home and not disappear somewhere.

I did not say anything to anyone about the picture. After a quarter of an hour a lady came to me and introduced herself as a journalist from a Greek radio station, it was supposed to be the station owned by the same corporation as Eleftheros Typos, the newspaper I was working for. I did not recognise her. She asked me if I knew about a photographer who had the picture of the cop waving his gun, and I knew she was a cop.

I then asked a colleague to accompany me to my motorbike so I could leave. We went to the newspaper, I had the memory card with me, so I had to think about the situation and decide what I was going to do. I couldn't send the picture to a press agency due to my contract with Eleftheros Typos so I found the chief editor and talked to him in his office. I asked him two questions. First: "If a photojournalist has documentation, during these days with all that is happening, of a policeman pointing a gun at the demonstrators, what would you advise me to do?" He said, "This is a big story, and of course you have to publish it". So I asked him if the newspaper would publish a picture like that and he said of course, its breaking news. So I told him I had this picture, I printed some copies for him, and he told me not to tell anybody. So far I had only gone to his office. No one else knew about the photo besides me, my one colleague, the chief editor, and the police of course.

He said he'd have a meeting with the other editors of the paper and they'd talk to me later. I said, "If you don't want to publish it let me publish it somewhere else." He said, "No, you can't do that, you are working for us." So that was the first time I thought he would probably want to keep it and not publish it. After their meeting, he told me they couldn't run the photo in their Monday edition, because they were not sure it was a real gun or whether the policeman was pointing it at the demonstrators. I told him, "I was there, I saw it, I know it's a gun, I can give you a bigger print with better resolution so you can even read the guns' serial number." I gave him the print and he said, "Okay, we'll see tomorrow, we'll have to call an expert to make sure it's a gun." I left thinking that was the end of me, I'm not going to work as a photojournalist in Athens again. I did not want to hide this picture, I wanted everyone to see what was happening in Athens.

He called me at midday on Monday, while I was working, and the expert confirmed it was a gun and that you could see what type it was. And that you could see a shell casing, in other words that it was loaded. And in the last picture you could see one of the policemen is pointing at me. So the editor said it would be published on Tuesday, and told me to give the story so the captions could be written. And I left. There was rioting again, much harder than the first day.

I came back around eight o'clock in the evening and I saw the art director. He showed me the front page, and right on the cover was my picture with a caption. This was the main story for Tuesday. It continued on the inner pages. I remember it even had the exact time of the incident, down to the second, 18:36:36. I remember reading that off my camera. He asked me if I wanted to put my name below the picture. I asked him what he advised, and he said that if i didn't want to have problems with the police, I shouldn't include my name. But the police all knew who the Eleftheros Typos journalist was covering the riots.

I was editing my Monday pictures when I heard the art editor screaming. I asked him what was happening and he said the chief editor just called him up and told him to remove the picture and the whole story. This was ten at night. That's when I knew I was trapped.

Later the pictures appeared in the international press and Indymedia, and now Eleftheros Typos is suing me, saying I released the photo.

On Tuesday morning the photo was not published on the front page but it appeared in the inner pages because they knew it had already gotten out and they did not want a scandal for suppressing it. At midday they called me up and fired me, allegedly for breaking my contract. I left the equipment and left the newspaper. No one said goodbye, it was very funny, I think they were afraid. The president of the Press Photographers Union of Greece was a colleague of mine, we worked together. He was the one who was supposed to defend my rights and he did nothing. He was also the guy telling me to publish the pictures.

For me, that's when the party began. I had to think about what was happening. I was fired, but it was OK, I didn't care, because you cannot sell yourself for money or because you want to have good relations with the government. So I was free then, I could work however I wanted and publish whatever pictures I wanted. And that day an independent Internet news site, Television Without Borders, called me up for an interview. I told them the story and they published it. The next day everybody knew about the story. These were the first days of December - really mean riots and a tough situation - so I started feeling afraid for myself. What would happen with the police? I have to work with them sometimes. Sometimes I work with the demonstrators, taking pictures if they let us, but I don't like to work with the police because they hate us. I have many photos of them ready to hit us or break our cameras.

Well, once I had my camera broken by a rioter. This summer I saw him on the beach on one of the islands, and I recognised him. We were both naked. I said, "You broke my camera, you bastard!"

I was very afraid during December. I did not know what was going to happen next. Every day became more violent, and there was more police brutality. With all these stories of journalists dying and their bodies being found ten days later... I was waiting for that. You were expecting anything. We might have another murder. Or another cop might start shooting, or some protesters will take out a Kalashnikov and start shooting, which actually happened.

Around Christmas I could not log into my Gmail account. When i contacted Google they told me how to log in and change my password. They said my password had been blocked because in the previous days there had been 50,000 attempts to crack it. They said they didn't think my email had been broken into but that whoever was responsible wanted to disable my email account so I couldn't communicate through it. I was also maintaining a blog through this email, so I couldn't upload photos or communicate via email during this time.

Until I got fired I was taking pictures and thinking how I could protect myself. Once I was fired I was just living what was happening. I was part of the demos. It was my purpose to be out there every day on the street, it was something like a liberation. I had been trying to strike a balance between my eyes and the public's eyes, but after I was fired I did not have to keep this balance. I was able to take sides, to define my position.

I don't believe that if you have the camera you show the truth. you show your truth, what you believe. So I don't want to say that working as a photojournalist I show the one and only truth. I can tell the truth with my eyes, with what I see and what I do. So for me holding a camera was like participating in what was happening. I don't want to say that if the cops see me with a camera they wont gas protesters or beat protesters or take out their guns or do all the other things they do.

I don't believe that the mass media will liberate us, even though I work for them. But you know in Greece we've only had private television for twenty years, before that it was only national television. I have witnessed all this period. When the first corporate channel broadcast I was twelve years old. I've seen the way they treat news, the way the try to manipulate people. I studied sociology, and before I saw the media from the outside, as an observer. Now I work for them, and what I believe about the future is that free networks can spread news and information, and this happened in December in Athens. If there is a possibility for real news to spread around, this should be the work of the free networks and not the work of the big news corporations. But in this specific circumstance, the way the picture got out was through AP and AFP. In this case, it was good that the international media published the picture. But I can still criticise the way that they work, especially in circumstances like Iraq, with embedded reporters. For example AFP spread my photo worldwide, but they did not announce worldwide that I was fired. They had to keep a balance. I don't believe mass media will change the way we live for the better.

The most interesting part of the story is not about taking the picture or how they fired me, the interesting thing is what happened afterwards, when the police called me to testify and I went to the headquarters of the MAT because they were conducting an investigation into who pulled the gun. They called me up, I went there, I saw two fat policemen sitting there, and they said, "Ah, I know you, I've seen you at demonstrations." They offered me coffee, and their first question was, "How did you make this picture, how did you manipulate the image?" They wanted to make the investigation in order to close it. They did not ask for pictures because in the pictures you see the exact number of the policeman on his helmet and they did not want to know who it was. They took it easy on me because they didn't want to make a real investigation. After two hours of writing and erasing, they asked me to swear on the bible. That's what the policemen regularly do but I was not obligated to so I refused.

I left the building but they had forgotten to ask me to sign my statement. Now, while I was inside the building they were calling me by a fake name to protect my identity. But as I was leaving, I was in the street and there were dozens of riot police getting ready to board their bus and got to where the riots were happening. So I was waiting among them, and one of the policemen came out yelling my name, "You forgot to sign your declaration!" in front of all these armed riot cops who knew the name. And he brought me the paper to sign the street. He gave me a pen, took a riot shield for me to write on, to use as a hard surface, and I signed it against the shield. I wished I had a picture of that, for myself. In any case, they identified me to all these riot cops by calling me by my real name, as though to say "Now you'll recognise him in the streets."

Of course the police knew me from the past. Two years ago, the first week I went to work for Eleftheros Typos, was during the student movement, 2006-2007. One day outside the Polytechnic I took a picture of a rioter throwing a Molotov that exploded in the air. He was in motion so his face was blurred and therefore he could not be identified. It was a very nice picture. At the newspaper they said, "Oh, what an amazing picture, congratulations, we'll put it on the front page." I wondered what was going on, because it was just a picture of a guy throwing a Molotov. Anyways, they published it on the front page, just like they said. Two months later, May 2, I was in the office the day after covering the First of May, and the phone rang. It was a policeman asking to speak with me. They said they wanted to show me some pictures and asked if they could come. I said, "Do what you want." They must have been outside the building because five minutes later two guys come up. They showed me the front page from two months ago, and said they were conducting an investigation and wanted to know if I had another frame where it was possible to make out the rioter's face, or his belt, or the type of shoes he was wearing, or anything that would help them arrest this guy. I said, "You're joking, coming to the newspaper asking for this. that's not my job."

In the meantime, I was looking for other people to be witnesses. The chief editor, a different guy than the one in December, came in and asked what was happening. I told him, and he kicked them out and the next day published it in the news that two policemen came to ask for pictures to make an arrest and we kicked them out. We don't give pictures to police. The background to all this is important. Eleftheros Typos was a hardcore right wing newspaper when Iana Agelopoulos bought it. She's the rich person who brought the Olympics here, she was on the organising committee. So she wanted to give the newspaper a democratic face. What happened with the policemen was a very good opportunity for them to show that they were not the same newspaper as in the past. It's interesting to see how the editors and owners of the news use the news to show what they want, to give themselves a democratic profile, and other times they cover it up to protect government interests.

In December many left wing journalists from left wing newspapers told me, "Come on Kostas, this is not a big story, who do you think you are, Che Guevara? You have to talk to the mainstream media about this story, and not talk on the internet about these things."

I don't care if I don't take even one more picture, I don't care if they kick me out, I just want to be OK with myself. I had an opportunity once in a lifetime to say that, and I did. If I had hidden the picture I could have made a lot of money, getting paid not to publish it.

I'm also the only photographer who has photos of one of the immigrant detention centres. Previously I had tried all the legal means to get photos of a detention centre and I never could. But one day I was invited to take pictures of a new detention facility on one of the islands. I wondered what was going on. The first guard we met there tried to block our entry, and then the person accompanying me took out his phone and said, "I can call up the ministry right now and next week you won't be working here anymore." So the guard let us through. It was all very strange. I had half an hour to take pictures. It was a newly constructed camp, like Guantanamo, with three policemen guarding 600 immigrants. Everything was electronic.

The story came out on Tuesday, and on Monday, the day before, Greece got a fine from the EU for one million Euros a day for bad conditions in the camps. Then I realised, "Oh, that's what I was doing there." To show that it was very clean, state of the art, and the prisoners have telephones and everything. Because the government already knew it would get the fine they wanted to generate some good news coverage.

The funniest day in December was about ten days after I was fired. I was in a bloc... I don't want to say "black bloc," but... it was like a black bloc. I was taking pictures and one of the protesters came to me and told me to leave because they didn't know if I was a policeman. I laughed, but I did not want to say I was that famous photojournalist, so I left. And as I was leaving I heard them shout a slogan, the same people who had just kicked me out. "It was unjust to fire Kostas Tsironis, Cops, Pigs, Killers!", which rhymes in Greek. Then the next line was, "We're going to hire Kostas Tsironis, Batsi, Gourounya, Dolofoni!" I didn't go back to let them know it was me, because I was laughing so hard. I thought that even if I give up my camera tomorrow, its okay, I've done my life's work now.

Another funny moment from December: one day there was a cordon of police outside Parliament, facing off with demonstrators. One demonstrator goes up to give the police flowers, and the media all swarm in to take the picture. But the cop refused to take the flower. So the police chief came up to him and said under his breath to take the damn flower, and the policeman takes it, and in that one moment when all the photographers are snapping away at the flower in his hand, he lets the flower drop. He was so confused. There were 2,000 demonstrators waiting to attack, all these journalists like hunters taking a picture when they give him a flower. Its schizophrenic.

I spent New Year's Eve outside the prison. There was a protest. I was there to cover it in case something happened, but for me it was also like participating. And then December ended, well for the media it ended but I don't believe it has ended. December was like a small child being ignored by everyone as they sit around the table, and this was the moment when the child shouts, "I am here, you have to respect me." We are here, you can rob us with credit cards, this economic crisis, you can underpay us, but you cannot kill us, we are here. And they get afraid of that, and you could see that they got afraid. Also the policemen. I don't hate the policemen, I don't want to say that all the police are bad, but policemen in December were afraid. I think that for one moment they thought that the whole society was against them.

In December I got a network of support, friends from school I had lost contact with who got in touch with me and were talking about what had happened. There were people all around me who felt the same way about things, who felt that it was important, so this showed me I was not wrong, and I could go back out into the streets. After I got fired the first thing that came to me was fear, but after I got all this support I was not afraid, I knew it was okay. My best friend told me, "Don't be afraid, this is our story."