On my Mind: Remembering Yannis Behrakis and the Art of Photojournalism
I learned about Yannis Behrakis’ untimely death through his haunting, Pulitzer-prize -winning images of war, power, desperation, loss, and courage in the face of impossible situations republished in articles paying tribute to him. There’s love in there too, particularly for innocent people who get caught up in the conquests of others. The repeated images of disaster on my newsfeed following his death reminded me of the brutal repetition of grim images in Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series. You may very well have seen Behrakis images before, but where?
I confess to you that Behrakis’ is a case where I knew the art better than I knew the artist. As I watched the unfolding of Greece’s debt crisis, Behrakis’ images like that of the riot policemen engulfed in flames in the center of Athens shaped my understanding of events unfolding in the city where I lived, which Behrakis also called home. His work and that of other photojournalists blend seamlessly into the story of the reporting to the point where their craft turns invisible. Their names are a small line of text under the title image they created that lured us to click in the first place.
But more than the clickbait aspect, it is the memory of an image that affirms the power of the image and the image maker, the visceral reason for the click that bypasses the intellect in search of the heart. What strikes me in Behrakis’ work are the glimmers of hope and persistence in the face of the impossible. We learn about isolation when we see it at its worst, and we’re inspired by the human spirit when we see it at its strongest. The image of the Palestinian man carrying flour back home through the devastated village of Mughraqa, Bangladeshi evacuees carrying their belongings through Ras Jdir, Tunisia, Syrian refugees floating in a lifeboat under the blood moon after its motor broke down off the Greek island of Kos.
These images and others teach us about the great forces that shape our world today. Behrakis’ images and those of other great journalists are often the entry point of world events in our minds and imagination. The point of view on his subjects was also important. In one haunting image during the wars in what used to be Yugoslavia, Behrakis depicts an ethnic Albanian man lowering the body of a two year old boy who had been killed in fighting into a coffin. Behrakis commented that it “almost looked like his spirt was leaving his body for the heavens.” Images like his not only answer: What happened? They also answer: What was it like to be there? The former is important in reporting, but the latter keeps us human.