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How one weeping man put a face on Greece’s debt crisis

Giorgos Chatzifotiadis sits on the ground crying outside a national bank branch in Thessaloniki, Greece, on July 3, as pensioners queue to withdraw cash. (Sakis Mitrolidis/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s an image that some have said crystallizes the despair felt across Greece, a country in the grips of a spiraling financial crisis.

Giorgos Chatzifotiadis, an elderly man in Thessaloniki, sat down in front of a crowd and cried last Friday after he waited for hours in front of numerous banks to withdraw cash but was unable to do so. Chatzifotiadis was among many pensioners who aimed to take out money on the fifth day of the bank closures, after hundreds of branches had reopened for those without bank cards to withdraw 120 euros.

AFP photographer Sakis Mitrolidis recalled the scene in a blog post on Tuesday, writing that he and reporters from a TV channel approached the man and began to chat. After the 77-year-old explained his story, the journalists accompanied him to talk to a bank employee. “Fortunately,” he said, “they were able to help him.”

"I see my fellow citizens begging for a few cents to buy bread,” Chatzifotiadis told the photographer at the time. “I see more and more suicides. I am a sensitive person. I cannot stand to see my country in this distress. That's why I feel so beaten, more than for my own personal problems.”

It wasn’t until later that Mitrolidis understood what he had captured. “Back in my office, when I saw the pictures on the monitor, I understood this was a powerful series,” he writes. “The composition, the papers scattered beside him, the policeman coming to help, the people watching as they queued, and the old man himself.”

The reaction came shortly after he filed the images. The image above, in particular, was shared widely on social media, serving as a snapshot of a nation's wider turmoil and anguish.

It also reinforced the plight faced by Greek pensioners. More than 20 percent of Greece’s population in 2014 was 65 or older, according to the European Union’s statistics office, up 2.5 percent from a decade earlier.

Mitrolidis worked to find Chatzifotiadis the next day, but wound up speaking with his daughter, who said her parents went to Germany decades earlier but in recent years had returned to be closer to family.

Acknowledging the largely positive feedback, Mitrolidis writes that he doesn’t think of the picture as the signature image of the chaos in Greece. “I don’t see it that way,” he writes. “I think it tells part of the story.”

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