Go past this corner any time that you’re on Sifnos and you’re more likely than not to see someone there with a camera. To be sure, there are other places on the island that are photographed more often – the monastery at Chryssopigi, the church of Eftamartyres outside of Kastro, the fishing-boat-filled bay at Heronissos among them. But you can see from their gear, those who photograph this spot are hardly the casual snap-shooters among us. They have come on a mission.
It is right here, you see, that the famed French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, shot his well-known Ile de Sifnos, 1961, a photograph of a little girl running along an alley from the right side of the photo toward the left. Determinedly on her way to somewhere, she emerged for just a second from behind the foreground buildings and into range of Cartier-Bresson’s waiting lens. Considered a master of candid photography, one of the early practitioners of street photography, and most often associated with the phrase, the decisive moment, he once said, “Photographers deal in things which are constantly vanishing, and when they have vanished, there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.”
Not for lack of trying, though, and that is what all of these camera-toting visitors are doing there. I’ve done the same thing right here myself, and many times more than once, and I recognize their efforts to place themselves in the master’s footprints.
It is also why I well understand those always puzzled looks when they realize how challenging a quest this really is. Because, as much as it seems that this is a place where little changes, in this corner actually a lot has. The little girl, of course, if 55 years on she’s still here. The wide stairs are gone – What stairs? you’ll say if you’re looking at my photo – and a sloping walkway has taken their place. Walls have been rebuilt and replastered and the door on the right has been straightened. Funnily enough, the story goes, it leads nowhere now. The owner of the building decided it was no longer needed and put a solid wall in its place. The municipality which had the broader, ahem, picture in view, made him replace it and it is now just for show.
But stand here for a while with your camera, as I have, and Sifnian life will pass before you much as it did for monsieur in 1961. A motorcycle will roar round the corner, shrieking children will dart here and there after a soccer ball, and an old woman in black will pick her way toward you and to the church that is behind your left shoulder. Even better, come without your camera, say, “Kaliméra,” to everyone who walks by, and revel in the smiles and so much more that will come your way. You can trust me on this.
“In photography,” Cartier-Bresson also said, “the smallest thing can be a great subject.”
And I’d say much the same thing. In travel, it’s the quietest of spots and the smallest of moments that can bring the greatest rewards.
Sharon Blomfield is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle and, new in spring 2019, Sifnos Chronicles 2: more greek island tales. These books are available at To Bibliopoleio, The Book Shop in Apollonia, Sifnos, at Tithorea, a Greek food shop in Rockwood, Ontario, Canada and on Amazon.