We drive past them every day here in Greece. Proskinitaria: those miniature churches on the side of the road that contain icons, candles and photos – and that fill us with such a sense of loss and sorrow. Photographer Paul Cohn spent 18 months documenting the very Greek cultural phenomena of these roadside memorials on a quest to decipher the messages they still contain. His photographic collection “Εις Μνήμην Κάποιου” (In Memory of Someone), has just been published by Insider Publications. Here, Paul explains what motivated his moving journey.
On the sides of the roads in Greece, one often sees one or more proskinitaria, miniature churches made from stone, marble, metal, or other materials and often containing icons, candles or photographs.
I was driving with my wife in Mani, on the Peloponnese, heading to the Vlychada cave, one December afternoon in 2014, when I truly saw my first proskinitari. Until that day, I had driven past many of them without giving them a second thought, but there was something about the starkness of this particular shrine, standing lonely against the backdrop of water and gray light, that filled me with a sense of loss and sorrow. I felt as though someone had left an important message for someone else, and it was still waiting to be delivered.
Proskinitaria originally were erected to provide holy protection for a site, but in modern times they typically mark the site of a road accident where someone either died or miraculously survived. I met one man who was lighting a candle at a proskinitaria who explained that he had lost control of his motorcycle at that spot four years earlier. He was hospitalized with serious injuries, but he survived, so he returned to that spot each week to thank the Holy Virgin. But others have not been so lucky.
According to data from the World Health Organization, Greece reported 1,385 road fatalities in 2010, or 12.2 per 100,000 residents – the highest of the 28 countries in the European Union, and nearly twice the EU average. The proskinitaria bear witness to this data. Sometimes one finds a single proskinitari on a dark stretch of road, but frequently there is a cluster of them: eight proskinitaria along one hilly 3.5 kilometer length of road near Nemea; six at the side of a seemingly navigable bend of the Tripoli-Sparti highway; three at the edge of a sharp curve of the same road further on; and so on.
While proskinitaria mark the site of a death or a narrow escape, few of them contain any further detail – a photograph and a date, a name – that indicate who is memorialized at the site. More frequently, the proskinitaria say nothing to the passerby, and it is only the survivors of the people who remember the incident (“a woman with her child died … there was a collision”), and who come to light a candle at night or refresh the flowers that keep the memories of the victims alive.
In this respect, the proskinitari represents a contradiction of memorialization and anonymity. When I was growing up, I lived across the street from a cemetery, and there was a mausoleum engraved with the epitaph “To live in the hearts of those we leave behind is not to die.” What happens, though, when the people who erect and tend to the proskinitaria themselves pass away? That first proskinitari in Mani was the beginning of an 18-month quest to create a photographic study of proskinitaria, to somehow decipher and share the messages they still contained. I undertook this project not just because I am moved by the confounding namelessness of these memorials, but to prevent the final death that happens that happens when the memorial itself begins to rust away and no one comes any longer to light a candle for whomever that proskinitari represented.
We cannot know who these proskinitaria commemorated, but – if even to stave off our own fear of being forgotten – we should remember that they reflect the lives of people who were on their way to someplace they were loved, and that they were worth remembering.
Paul Cohn is a photographer currently living in Athens, Greece. His work has appeared in Mapo magazine, the Times of India (online), and in numerous group and solo shows in India, Greece and the U.S.A. He also has photographed for the U.S. Agency for International Development and various nonprofit organizations in India and Greece.
“In Memory of Someone” is available for €19.99. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to order your copy. The book will also be available in Greek bookstores soon.