Raw history in the making

By Elis Kiss and Harry van Versendaal

What is history made of if not big and small moments experienced by those who live them? Take the people of New York, for instance, for whom city life is a fast-paced work-in-progress, defined by plenty of highs and lows, especially in the last decade.

Greek photographer Alexandros Lambrovassilis and compatriot journalist Achilleas Peklaris sought to capture the city’s tireless spirit and the result of their joint effort, “Hopes, Dreams and Hard Times,” is currently on display at the Benaki Pireos Street annex.

From Pulitzer winners to those who survived the Twin Towers attacks, through single mothers, war veterans-turned-homeless, Upper East side lawyers, detectives patrolling the streets of Harlem, hot-dog street vendors and Wall Street golden boys, Lambrovassilis and Peklaris record life in the aftermath of  9/11, the election of the first African-American president and a country going through a recession.

While Lambrovassilis points his camera at 150 people living in the city, capturing their portraits in their location of choice, Peklaris’s accompanying texts provide insights into their thoughts and situations.

Now a journalist, Peklaris has also served as a bartender, a kibbutz worker, a speechwriter, and a party promoter, among other professions, while Lambrovassilis, is a trained musician who turned to the medium of photography.

“Hopes, Dreams and Hard Times”, which came about when the two found themselves living in New York working as correspondents for Greek publications, is accompanied by a book published in Greek by Estia publishers.

The duo recently shared their thoughts with Athens Plus.

How did the project come about? Are you capturing moments in history? A country in transition? Do you feel that you achieved your goals?

A.L. Timing was the definite factor of  this project in all aspects. Our own personal timing as persons who could look into matters and at the same time as professionals able to deliver such a demanding project, matched with the historic times we and the rest of the world were witnessing.

A.P. We both felt that we’re witnessing some historic moments for the city – and also the whole American nation. Moments when everybody starts to doubt if the American dream or the American lifestyle are still valid. Or if they have to be redefined. Hard times for the people. Hopes that Obama’s election gave to everyone. We felt that we needed to capture this, in order to understand and realize the historic situation around us. And we feel that we did.

A.L. I feel so too. I think we did achieve our one and only goal. Democracy and equal representation of all social backgrounds and ethnic groups in our sample. We met and talked to almost every different character that lives in this city. From the homeless to philosophers and from bankers to pimps, all were interviewed and photographed keeping also in mind the demographics of NYC so that we came up with a documentary and not a tale of fiction about the city.

Was the project as spontaneous as it feels?

A.L. I would say yes, no and yes, meaning that, yes it was a spontaneous idea, which however came through discussion. No, to the extent that we worked really hard in order to define and then stay with our methods till the end. And again yes because we both approached this whole thing with our individual/personal solid interest in New York and its people. We needed to look and find first of all for ourselves and I guess to some extent we did.

A.P. I would say that I functioned as spontaneously as I do when I randomly meet some new individual out there, in real life, and I try to connect, share and see life through my new friend’s eyes and learn things from each and every new acquaintance. That’s what we did with all 150 participants. We tried to become friends with them, as we do when we meet people in real life.

How would you describe the enduring appeal of New York City?

A.P. New York City is an active energy volcano. Everybody’s running to stand still. Everybody tries to give his/her best. To do more, achieve more, test your limits. History is being made every single second, on many different levels, such as art, science, business etc. It’s the hub of our planet.

A.L. People are coming to NY from every possible place on earth to pursue dreams and ambitions, trying to make something for themselves and to prove to the rest of the world that they made it. This is kind of common sense in NYC that everybody respects. Respect has been and will always be appealing.

Do you feel that the city represents the United States in general?

A.P. Not at all. This is not America. It’s the “New York Republic” or “the capital of the world” and it’s totally different than any other place in the USA. Frankly, I could live my whole life in New York and be happy, yet I doubt if I could live for more than a month in any other state of the country. Maybe Hawaii would be my second choice.

A.L. My second choice would be New Orleans, also San Francisco or L.A., but still New York would be first, simply because New York moves at such a fast pace that I haven’t seen in any other place. This in addition to the city’s ability to incorporate diversities makes this place unique not only in the United States but also in the rest of the world.

The diaspora element is evident in the exhibition. How would you describe the city’s Greek-American community?

A.P.-A.L. After discussing again and again the way we would approach Greeks in the project, we figured out that the Greeks of New York are divided into three main categories. Number one is the immigrants of past generations who all live in their own communities, they’re everyday, ordinary people, with a genuine American mentality and lifestyle, in everything totally different to the Greeks of Greece. Number two is the young people who were born in Greece and moved to New York to study or work and they mostly act like any other European youngster in New York, mixing with the multicultural crowd, trying to keep their national identity on the side. Number three is the world travelling, fortune-seeking, ambitious Greeks (or people of Greek descent), who have no specific origin and they just act like cosmopolitans, having their own unique identity and trying to conquer the hub of the world, in a very romantic way.

Given the speed at which everything happens, do you think that the city and its citizens have already moved into another chapter since your project?

A.L. We need to understand this first before we attempt an answer. New York is a city more than any other city in the world in which millions of people move in and out every year as part of their personal interests in education and career mostly. This provides us with two directions of thinking. The first has to do with the pace that the city maintains given the limited time that one has to achieve one’s goals. Lying on the couch is not one of those goals. The second is that as people move in and out, this keeps the city in a state of constant motion and change and that is one of the main characteristics of New York, renewing and reinventing itself.

A.P. It’s true. I would add that in this particular period, running is not the thing, as the paths have changed dramatically. You need to adjust first and open or create new paths. And then run again, faster and faster, on those new paths. This is the situation in New York today: Adjusting to the changes.

The debt crisis has taken a hefty toll on Greece and Athens in particular. Do you see any patterns emerging here?

A.P. Fear. Pessimism. Insecurity. Embarrassment. Unfortunately, I believe that this is what the majority of people feel today in Athens. We Greeks, just realized that for 30 years now we haven’t adjusted to the European reality and lifestyle, despite the fact that we joined the EU and the eurozone many decades ago. Obviously, we must now do it the hard way in order to survive. So, hard times are here, undoubtedly. It’s going to be rough. Hopes and dreams, though, for the time being are not yet here. I hope they’ll come soon.

A.L. It seems to me that we do not comprehend the seriousness of the situation. We know that something is wrong here but we want to respond to it in our own good time and manner in order to maintain our pride, as we understand it. This might not work in this case.

Are the two cities – New York and Athens – similar in any way?

A.P. Undoubtedly, it’s the same DNA – the DNA of a big city, but New York is a tiger and Athens is a cat.

A.L. Athens has been the kind of place that New York is now. Democracy, arts, science and business have been elements of human life that the city of Athens promoted a few thousand years earlier, with great results too, I think. As to what happens now I would add to the idea of Achilles that cats can also turn out very nasty.

Your work seems to convey an individual-centered interpretation of history, in the sense that it’s people who make history. Is that so?

A.L. I will refer to “The Stylistics” a 70’s band from Philly and to their song titled “People Make The World Go Round”. New York is all about the people and if this comes through as an idea in our work then I can say with satisfaction that we succeeded.

A.P. Who else makes history? In fact, I think that only people do. And what is history? It’s what people face in their everyday life, their feelings, their hopes, their fears. That’s raw history and that’s what we’ve captured in this documentary.

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