Voula Papaioannou began working as a photographer during the 1930s, concentrating at first on studies of landscapes, monuments and archaeological exhibits.
The outbreak of war in 1940 marked a turning point in her career, as she was intensely affected by the suffering of the civilian population of Athens. Realising the power of her camera to arouse people’s conscience, she documented the troops departing for the front, the preparations for the war effort, and the care received by the first casualties. When the capital was in the grip of starvation, she revealed the horrors of war in her moving photographs of emaciated children.
After the liberation, as a member of the photographic unit of UNRRA (United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), she toured the ravaged Greek countryside recording the difficult living conditions faced by its inhabitants. She often exceeded her brief, immortalising the faces and personal stories of ordinary people in photographs that stressed dignity rather than suffering.
During the 1950s Papaioannou's work expressed the optimism that prevailed in the aftermath of the war with respect to both the future of mankind and the restoration of traditional values. Nevertheless, her photographs of the historic Greek landscape are not in the least romantic, but instead portray it as harsh, barren, drenched in light, and its inhabitants proud and independent, despite their poverty.
Voula Papaioannou's work represents the trend towards "humanitarian photography" that resulted from the abuse of human rights during the war. Her camera captured her compatriots' struggle for survival with respect, clarity, and a degree of personal involvement that transcends national boundaries and reinforces one’s faith in the strength of the common man and the intrinsic value of human life.