Alkis Konstantinidis on covering deadly wildfire near Athens
In late July, a deadly wildfire swept through a Greek resort, trapping people in cars and on the edge of cliffs in the seaside town of Mati, killing 91 people. Reuters photographer Alkis Konstantinidis, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 as part of a series of images on migrant refugees, was on the ground photographing the fire and its aftermath. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, he offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he covered the story.
Q. Can you discuss a bit what it was like covering this story? What was your working day like?
A. Summer wildfires are frequent in Greece, unfortunately, but the fire in Mati was unlike anything we’d ever seen. I was covering a wildfire west of Athens with RVN colleague Vassilis Triandafyllou when we learned about another fire burning at an extremely fast pace on the other side of the city, about 60 km away, near the seaside town of Mati.
It took almost three hours to enter Mati, while shooting pictures along the way and trying to find a way to approach it as access was blocked. The area was covered in thick smoke, there was no electricity and the only source of light was from rescue and police cars. We didn’t know exactly what was going on, but it was not long before I saw the bodies of four people in the street and realized how serious the situation was.
The roads were full of cars that were burnt completely, and some had crashed into one another as people tried to escape to a tiny nearby beach. At the beach, it was chaos with fishermen, rescuers and police trying to evacuate survivors on small boats.
The extent of the destruction only became clear in daylight. The following morning, Mati looked like a ghost town. Most of the houses were completely burned down. A group of 26 victims, some of them embracing, had been found in a field and rescuers were going around looking for many missing. I revisited the area every day for the next few days to document the aftermath of the fire.
Q. What were the challenges in covering this story?
A. The biggest challenge was trying to stay focused on covering a story that involved the unexpected loss of so many lives. Every corner of town told a story of loss. Beyond that, you can never fully predict how a wildfire will evolve or how the wind may change so you have to be on alert all the time. Sometimes it’s hard to even see where you’re going. I had to move around carefully to avoid being trapped by a new front or a blaze rekindling or being hit by debris and electricity cables.
Q. What are some of the most memorable stories you’ve covered?
A. Greece’s economic crisis and Europe’s refugee crisis, two very different stories which unfolded around the same time in Greece, have definitely left their mark. When the Greek economy collapsed, there was a constant feeling of uncertainty among Greeks who protested against austerity measures, the closing of the banks and high unemployment. At the same time, and under these circumstances, nearly a million refugees, mostly Syrians, arrived on Greece’s islands on boats, searching for a better future in Europe.
Q. Why do you like being a photographer for Reuters?
A. I like that it is a daily challenge: You never know when you will be called to cover a major story, and you always have to be ready for it. It might sound like a cliché, but I still feel a high sense of responsibility to bring a high level of photojournalism to millions of people around the world.
Q. If you could go anywhere in the world, what would you most want to photograph?
A. It’s impossible to choose one place. I believe that wherever there are people, there is a story to be told. And whenever a story needs to be told, I want to be there to document it and share it with those who are not able to be there.