Voula Papaioannou: Photographer of Life in Greece during the War

Photos by Voula Papaioannou, along with the photographer herself, center. TNH File

Voula Papaioannou, along with Costas Balafas, Spyros Meletzis, and Takis Tloupas, is one of several prominent Greek photographers who came to maturity during the Occupation and Greek Civil War. Her images from the Occupation are unique documents of the period. Her photographs present the misery and pain of the Occupation as part of life, and her subjects are infused with the breath of spontaneity.

Voula Papaioannou was born in Lamia and grew up in Athens. She began working as a photographer during the 1930s, concentrating at first on studies of landscapes, monuments, and archaeological exhibits. The outbreak of war in 1940 marked a turning point in her career, as she was intensely affected by the suffering of the civilian population of Athens. Realizing the power of her camera to arouse people’s conscience, she documented the troops departing for the front, the preparations for the war effort, and the care received by the first casualties. When the capital was in the grip of starvation, she revealed the horrors of war in her moving photographs of emaciated children.

After the liberation, as a member of the photographic unit of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), she toured the ravaged Greek countryside recording the difficult living conditions faced by its inhabitants. She immortalized the faces and personal stories of ordinary people in photographs that stressed dignity rather than suffering.

Iconic images by photographer Voula Papaioannou. TNH File

Voula Papaioannou’s work represents the trend towards “humanitarian photography” that resulted from the abuse of human rights during the war. Her camera captured her compatriots’ struggle for survival with respect, clarity, and a degree of personal involvement that transcends national boundaries and reinforces one’s faith in the strength of the common man and the intrinsic value of human life. Her later photographs continued her unvarnished depiction of life in Greece, never romanticizing the struggles of the people but always full of hope for a better future.

Books featuring her work are available online, including Voula Papaioannou: Images of Despair and Hope: Greece 1940-1960published in 1995 by the Benaki Museum in Athens. The book, by Irini Boudouri, is a catalog of the works included in the museum’s exhibition which ran from March 31-May 5, 1995. Also from the Benaki Museum, Voula Papaioannou: Testimonies from Greece during the Occupation and the Post-war Period from the Photography Archive of the Benaki Museum edited by Fani Constantinou.