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After typing ‘Lesvos’ into google, one of the first results that caught my eye, was the following entry titled ‘Everything You Need To Know When Travelling to Lesbos Island’ – if this was EVERYTHING I needed to know, then lady luck was with me.
Clicking into the article, I learn that this is a travel guide written by Tom, hailing from the Netherlands. who’s “biggest passion is obviously traveling’. What follows is quite an extensive touristic travel guide of Lesbos, covering major sites of the island, and accompanied with blue sky-d photos of Tom’s adventures when he was there in October 2017.
The blog post is written very much with the tourist in mind, and includes basic introductions to correct pronunciation of the island, where it is in the world, how to get there, and how to get around.
“The island is not the typical popular Greek island where mass tourism killed the vibe. Lesbos Island is still a place where you can find the authentic Greek laid-back lifestyle. A hotspot for those tourist that are looking to have a drink on the side of the ocean overlooking idyllic bays and pretty calm beaches…The slow paced island life feeling will get to you and I am sure you wont have a problem adapting to it, cause in the end this is a Lesbos holiday should be all about: serenity!”
Within this blog post, there is no mention of how the trip is funded until the very end, ,where it becomes clear that Tom’s trip has been ‘on invitation of Tourism Greece’ – which makes the slant of the blog every clearer.
In nearly every photo on the blog, of which there are many, there is only Tom, or his travelling companion. A couple of photos have a few older people sat around, but otherwise you would think that no-one inhabits the island, and it is a perfect sun-drenched paradise for you to step into.
Tom is clearly writing from an outsiders perspective, is motivated to keep his funders of Greek Tourism happy, and has carefully curated his write up and accompanying photos.It seems aimed towards a younger reader, with sentences such as ‘Such a photogenic pituresque village perfect for Instagram shots with old colorful houses and small wooden doors.”.
Lesvos reads as a place to be consumed, to step out of reality, and to exist in a postcard of “cute” villages and “serenity”.
At the bottom of the article there is a comment from a member of the public, Jackie Smith “I have been told there is a camp for hundreds of refugees on the island. Is this true and if so is it a problem? This relates to Lesbos island.” Tom replies, “I did not see them, I heard about it while on the island, but it is something tourists will never get in touch with unless you really wanna find it yourself”.
In another travel guide, ‘Goats on the road ‘Lesvos, Greece: Our 5 Day Travel Guide’, written in the same year – July 2017, the author Dariece Swift, after stating the “Adventure lovers, history buffs, and nature seekers rejoice! The third largest island in Greece will delight you with its endless activities, ancient sites and stunning coastline.
From the mountainous pottery-filled village of Agiasos in the south and the ancient towns of Petra and Mithymna in the north, to the Petrified Forest in the west and the neoclassical architecture of Mytilene in the east. Lesvos Greece truly has something for every style of traveller and is one of the best places to visit in Greece.
However, in the paragraph immediately after it, Swift states
“As with its neighbour, Chios Island to the south, tourism in Lesvos was hit hard during the recent refugee crisis. Because of the island’s proximity with Turkey, this was one of the first stops refugees made when fleeing their war-torn homes in search of a better future in Europe for themselves, and their families.
Foreigners flooded the shores, with the people of Lesvos island helping out in every way they could – providing blankets, shelter and food, plus assistance with registering these people at the administration centers.
In return for their kindness, the generous residents of Lesvos Greece have suffered economic hardship with many international airlines, tours and cruise ships stopping service to this beautiful island.“
So refugees are mentioned, represented fairly in that they are fleeing war torn countries, but framed as a drain on the islands economy and negatively effecting the tourism there.
In this article, Swift does speak of interactions with residents going about their daily life, but again shows photos largely void of people, apart from themselves and fellow tourists. The article is accompanied by a 14 minute video documenting the trip and telling you about sites. With over 12000 views on YouTube, the wider lens actually shows it as a place that is lived in rather than stylised framed photos; cars line the street, other tourists lie like slabs on deck chairs, a man feeds a cat some fresh fish. We hear no other voices apart from the two tourists however, everything is through their eyes and interpretation.
Again this article is reinforces the idyllic island life narrative, overwhelmingly positive, describing touristic activities, top sites to see. At the end of the article we are told that they have had complimentary flights, accommodation and tours provided, but that “As always, all opinion and thoughts remain our own”. The reader realises this is a business of monetising travel, as with our previous article.
Searching for a representation of Lesvos from over 10 years ago, I come across a report in UK newspaper The Guardian, from May 2008, ‘Sun, Sea and Sappho‘, in which columnist Julie Bindel goes to investigate reports around three residents of the island, or Lesbians, have a submitted a legal chalennge in and attempt to stop the queer community of Greece from using the term lesbian to denote a sexual preference.
Bindel discusses the history of the island and Sappho, the ancient poet who wrote about her love for women, and from which in the 70s lesbians began to visit Lesvos. The article includes quotes from many local residents and tourists, and it is clear Bindel used her journalistic skills to interview several people and build a picture – as well as more wide ranging research around the history of the island.
What struck me about this piece, were the echoes of language in speaking about ‘invading’ lesbians, and that of refugees in current representations:
“Not long after this debacle, there were calls for the lesbians to be “fenced off”, out of the public eye, when they visited Lesbos. The head of the island’s hotelier’s association at the time said that the women can be “rude and wild”, “look like men” and “offend the locals.” But things have calmed since then.”
“This square,” says Firth, referring to the area with the two lesbian-run bars, close to the Sappho statue, “used to be inhabited almost entirely by local families on Saturday nights. There would be an uproar when women, after a few drinks, would lose their inhibitions and start snogging and sitting on each other’s knees.”
The article shows hope for the newest residents of Lesvos, describing how after the initial change, and the person behind the label was allowed to be seen, attitudes changed:
“Eventually, the villagers grew used to the lesbians, and in turn, the women less confrontational. “Some of the villagers knew I was a creative, and one of them asked me if I would make a sign for his shop,” says Firth. “Soon, I was doing them for loads of the small businesses, and we became friendly at last.”
This quote shows the continuing challenge of representation, how a narrow view can cause damage and misrepresent:
“Mercia Powis moved to Lesbos from the UK five years ago, and now runs a successful estate agency. “The Candy Bar debacle, and the documentary” she tells me, “it destroyed the image of this island, and the image of lesbians who come here. The women were portrayed as “louts, ladettes, and sexual predators”. Was it an accurate portrayal? “Not far from the truth,” admits Powis.”
From this article I searched for Sappho, trying to see if I could find something older, as I wasn’t having much success in finding earlier writing, films or photos, or indeed articles from a perspective that wasn’t ‘other’. I suspect my IP address, and english search terms was skewing the representation I was getting.
I discovered a painting by Simeon Solomon, a queer english painter alive from 1840 – 1905. One famous painting, ‘Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene’ painted in 1864, depicts Sappho in embrace with Erinna, with blue sea in the distance, surrounded by delicate animals and a musical instrument. I would like to ask Solomon if his interest in Sappho stemmed from his own sexuality, and what he was hoping to convey to a nineteenth century artistic audience.
Feeling lost on Google, I went back to representations I had found in initial searches which addressed the influx of refugees since 2015, and chose three which struck me:
First, whisky brand Johnnie Walker’s ‘Storyline’ film series ‘Ode to Lesvos – 2015’, a series of 6 films, offering five snapshots of residents of Skala Sikamineas, a village on the island with a population of 150, which saw 300,000 refugees pass through during 2015. The film were beautifully shot, saturated in colour, and saw short subtitled interviews of around 1min 40 for each of the subjects, describing how they had helped refugees. There was a longer film which combined all the stories to create a 4 min 33 overview.
Playlist of all films: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLxitlhQXKCQyzUWycTBoQ_7zvuYr22lj-
The videos are clearly edited to convey a certain emotion, with soundtracked music setting an emotional tone, and very short soundbites from the interviewees carefully selected. There is no doubt the help they gave is admirable, but again, we do not see or hear from any actual refugees, it is a situation described through a lens from a Scottish distillery, from the mouths of Greek villagers.
The main film, published in September 2016, has nearly 4.5 million views, with 4000 thumbs up, and 2600 thumbs down. Comments below range from admiration for the help the villagers gave, to anger at the refugees for being on the island, and in Europe in general. Comments pages on the internet are often ugly boxes of extremes. The films are part of Johnnie Walker’s Storyline series, ‘an ongoing series that aims to find and tell the world’s most inspirational stories of human progress’. They wanted to shine a light away from the ‘tragic aspects of the unfolding human drama’, and instead focus on “the inspiring response of islanders who opened their hearts to the refugees and whose positivity drove them to rescue people from the sea, give shelter, and provide food and water.”
It is a campaign partnering with Mercy Corps, an organisation helping people survive and thrive after conflict, crisis and natural disaster. The title card at the end of the film with Johnnie Walker’s tagline ‘Keep Walking’, and ‘drink responsibly’, plastered feels galling however, and the audience is very aware you are watching part of a marketing strategy. The Johnnie Walker brand is owened by global drinks comapny Diego, and reading an interview with Johnnie Walker’s Global Brand Director, Guy Escolme, in October 2016, we learn that they are a brand having a ‘sense of purpose to inspire personal progress’. Their series hoped to inspire and fuel conversations about topics that are important”.
We do not know from the campaign who made the films exactly, who interviewed the villagers or who edited them. The refugee crisis is depicted as finished, a neat event ready to be pilfered for marketing material.
Another film on YouTube shows slam poet Emi Mahmoud performing at the 2016 Nansen Refugee Award ceremony. After visiting Lesvos in 2016, she wrote ‘Bird Watching on Lesvos Island’. Mahmoud’s primary purpose through her work seems to be to highlight the plight of refugees and disadvantaged communities. Born in Sudan, she has lived in Yemen, and now resides in the US. She is a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassdor, and was on a trip with them in Greece.
“When an island becomes a door, who will answer?”
Finally I find the voice of the refugees, through the community centre One Happy Family – run with refugees from the main camp Moria. On their website you can hear podcasts created by refugees, watch films and discover a whole host of content elevating the voice of the refugees; showing them as multifaceted human beings with agency.
Their latest newsletter depicts in numerical detail the number of arrivals and departures on the island, we read about projects running within the centre, the story of staff members from the camp, and how to support the organisation.
Newsletter link: https://ohf-lesvos.org/?mailpoet_router&endpoint=view_in_browser&action=view&data=Wzk4LCI1YTQzMmMzNmVmMGMiLDAsMCw3OSwxXQ&fbclid=IwAR1kfozyPWU3LUXvlLrSzIR_Sjmnk9hY4877e4FRFg_srex22js8wLK1fts
I am overwhelmed from my digital journey to Lesvos, with overriding narratives of idyllic island, lesbian paradise and refugee hell clashing and vying for my attention. As is always the case, each individuals representation of the island is specific to their experience, their motivation and who they spoke with. I feel that my search was limited in that I was only reading english-language offerings, and though I spent much time trying to find older representations, or academic writing, I was not sure where to look, or was not successful. My lens was narrow, and therefore shaped my own frame significantly.