Robert McCabe: 'A successful photograph can create the same emotion in our soul as a poem'

I was very lucky to have the opportunity to photograph in the Greek islands before they were overwhelmed with tourists, at a time when life had not changed for millennia and traditions were intact. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that daily life in the islands has changed more in the last 40 years than it did in the previous 4,000 years. When I first visited the Aegean, in 1954, there were, essentially, no motor vehicles, no running water, no electricity, no telephones, no docks for the inter-island steamers. Donkey or mule was the way to travel. The water you drank was what you collected during the winter rains, or that you carried.

There was a beauty and a sanctity in the island traditions that had been handed down over generations, and each island had its own distinctive ones. Some derived from ancient times, others had strong influences from the Franks, the Turks, the Venetians, the English. The wonderful architecture was based on stone, with all the discipline that that medium imposes. Many of these traditions today have been lost, or homogenised. And the old stone architecture has given way to concrete poured in accordance with architects' instructions.

Of course, over the millennia the islands have seen remarkable achievements – the extraordinary artistic creations of the pre-historic Cyclades, with their votive marble sculpture and, later, their wall paintings; the palaces of Crete; the great art and literature of Classical and Hellenistic times.

In 1954 the inhabitants were very poor, yet hospitable beyond all reason. The mayor of Ios gave his bed to my travelling companion and slept on the floor. Visitors were extremely rare and inspired enormous curiosity. If there was one other visitor on an island we would joke that it had been spoiled.

And photography today is very different than it was in 1954, with billions of new images being created every day by ubiquitous digital cameras. Photographers are profoundly challenged to differentiate their work. Maybe Brassai had the answer 40 years ago when he wrote that it was the force of an image that mattered; that there were many photos that were full of life, but which were confusing and difficult to remember. I would add to that the importance of poetry in a photograph. For me a successful photograph can create the same emotion in our soul as a poem.

Greece: Images of an Enchanted Land, at The Hellenic Centre, London W1 (020-7487 5060) from 7 February

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