By Harry van Versendaal
Two black IKEA-style chairs sitting empty on a balcony overlooking a bombarded apartment building, a black Mercedes, partly covered by a tablecloth in an empty lot next to a derelict building, a tangle of trees sprouting through the floorboards of a bullet-riddled church.
Demetris Koilalous does not pretend to be a documentary photographer. “My style of photography is intrinsically connected to the way I see the world. A beautiful landscape, for example, does not interest me — I don’t even lift my camera,” he says, sitting on the sofa of his colorful apartment in the northern Athens suburb of Halandri.
This jagged juxtaposition of the mundane with the war-torn is what the 50-year-old photographer seeks to bring out in his photo exhibition of present-day Lebanon currently on display at the Museum of Photography, located in a former warehouse designed by Eli Modiano in the northern port city of Thessaloniki and the only Greek institution exclusively dedicated to the medium.
Koilalous spent 18 hectic days last year in the Land of the Cedars on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. He was on a photographic assignment commissioned by the museum which sent five professionals to the Middle East as part of a Greek Culture Ministry program. Featuring some 200 images shot in Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Qatar, Lebanon, Palestine and Saudi Arabia, “Oriented and Disoriented in the Middle East,” will run through May 13.
Intrigued by the delicate balance found in Mideast societies, Koilalous went to Lebanon intentionally seeking out places that would illustrate a country on the brink — “a rather European preconception,” he admits. Carrying a Canon DSLR camera, he looked for places where battles took place, where massacres occurred, where people were driven out of their homes, places that formed the border between different minorities.
“At some point during the second day, I was in the center of Lebanon and I happened upon this church that was totally pockmarked by bullets; you know Beirut, it’s all cement, ruins, torn-down houses, rebuilt houses, there are really modern buildings and not much green at all. And so suddenly I see this incredible anarchic greenery. It was an old church, it didn’t have a roof, and when you walked inside it was like walking through a forest. And that’s when I remembered another photographer’s project called ’Paradise Lost.’ And it just kept going through my mind that there is a lost paradise over there. This country that’s living its very own anti-paradise,” he says, explaining the inspiration behind the somewhat awkward project title.
Conflict-prone Lebanon is split along sectarian lines that dictate not only politics but also living arrangements and standards of living. The 15-year civil war that ended in 1990 cost an estimated 150,000 lives while many more were wounded or displaced. Originally fought between Christian militias and leftists allied with the Palestinians, the conflict triggered a wide array of clashes as Syria, Israel and others stepped into the fray. Social peace remains fragile and contemporary events are so disputed that school history books stop at independence from France in 1943.
Understandably, time pressure was not the only problem Koilalous had to deal with. Security guards were constantly monitoring his movements and the photographs he was taking. He was armed with documents from the Greek Embassy in Lebanon, the Museum of Photography, and Greece’s Culture Ministry. He also had written permission from Lebanon’s Information Ministry, police force and military to take pictures in public spaces. But often he would find out these were not enough.
“There’s this hotel called the Monroe with a great view of the sea where I wanted to take a shot. So I showed them all my papers. The guy responds that the paper says I am allowed to take pictures inside Beirut but nothing about overhead shots,” he says, explaining that it was not army officials but private security guards that would give him the most trouble.
“If I were his cousin he would have let me in — just like in Greece. But because I took the legal route he wouldn’t let me. Some people find an excuse to exercise the little power they have left. A security guard trying to impose his own interpretation of a ministry document in order to legitimize his position.”
Born in Athens in 1962, Koilalous initially studied urban planning in Edinburgh and geography at the London School of Economics before gravitating to photography. It was only after he started to teach the craft about 10 years ago, he says, that he began to take good photographs. First noticed thanks to the dreamlike quality of the black-and-white panoramic landscapes of “Deja vu,” showcased in the 2008 PhotoBiennale, Koilalous has steadily evolved with more sharply focused work. His open-ended “Growth” project, a rather lyrical commentary on the changing landscape along Greece’s national highways, has shown him to be a good master of color and symbolism.
Koilalous keeps no secret of his wide range of influences — from the activist photojournalism of Sebastiao Salgado and the iconic images of Magnum master Josef Koudelka, to outsider photographer Diane Arbus and Joel-Peter Witkin, to Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth of the Dusseldorf school. “It’s a lot of contrary things. But I gradually came to appreciate the simplicity of photographers like [Andre] Kertesz.”
However, as his experience working as a teacher has shown him, no amount of quality influences and hard work can match a generous dose of talent. “The outcome is a matter of hard work, but instinct is a question of talent. There are people out there who can see through walls. It’s incredible. Some things can be cultivated, particularly some stereotypes — but instinct cannot.”
Skeptics often complain that contemporary art, particularly its conceptual genre, has lowered the bar to the point where actual talent is made redundant. If you want to succeed, the argument goes, make sure you have good market connections. The argument seems to strike a rather emotional chord with Koilalous, who is ready to defend his more conceptual counterparts.
“I am not denying the fact that the market defines things to a certain extent, but it’s bulls**t to say that art is determined by curators. The price of an artwork is one thing, its value however is quite another. It’s good that a photograph can sell for a lot of money. The more people want a photograph, the more its price will rise. Something that nobody wants to buy will never sell,” he says before going on to deconstruct a couple of Gursky photos from a Dusseldorf school photo book.
The German artist’s “Rhine II,” a picture of the gray river under gray skies, last year fetched a record 4.3 million dollars at a Christie’s auction in New York. The image, described by Gursky as “an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are,” was digitally manipulated to leave out elements that bothered him. Many found the photo “overrated.” Writing for the Guardian, Maev Kennedy called it a ”sludgy image of desolate, featureless landscape.”
“It’s immature to say that Gursky, whose works hang in MoMa, Berlin and the Tate Modern, is a creation of marketing. Only someone with an inferiority complex would claim that.”
It’s not easy being a pioneer. If you want to use photography to talk about new things, Koilalous suggests, you have to overcome the huge obstacle that is reality. As a photographer who is an artist, you have to make use of what is commonly perceived as reality and illustrate it in a subjective way, but still communicate it to the audience, he says. “This is an important part in photography that you need to get used to.”
One of the “anti-paradise” pictures depicts a pair of empty armchairs flanking a little round table with decorative objects — including a statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle. His intent, Koilalous explains, was not a comment on religiosity or kitsch, but rather an allegory on the absence of dialogue in the divided country. “This is what I am trying to say. I am not sure if this will resonate with the audience at all. But I want my images to make people think twice.”