Posts Tagged 'Benaki'

Long-buried photographs document divided Europe ahead of watershed moment

East Berlin, DDR, 1987

By Harry van Versendaal

There is a thinly disguised self-portrait of Constantinos Pittas embedded in one of his photographs currently on display at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos Street annex in Athens. The 29-year-old’s skinny silhouette and dark curly hair are reflected in the left-hand corner of a shop window as he presses the shutter release on his pocket-size camera. It’s Prague, 1986.

There is a road-not-taken existential quality to the selfie (before it was a word). Pittas would soon put down his camera and box up this and thousands of other negatives shot during that time.

For a good 25 years.

“It’s strange, I feel sad and happy at the same time about this. Sad because you realize that ‘this was my talent’ which I had to give up so I could do other things for a living. If I had kept going I would probably have amassed a serious body of work by now,” says Pittas, now 59, before guiding a group tour through the exhibition “Constantinos Pittas: Images of Another Europe 1985-1989.”

Between 1985 and 1989, he drove a now-iconic blue Pony (which he also slept in) across 17 countries, capturing street scenes on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. He would spend the autumns in Athens doing odd jobs to save money and set off again in spring. Over those five years, Pittas, a self-taught photographer, went through about 650 black-and-white film rolls, producing some 25,000 negatives.

“I always thought that this was a very personal project and that no one would take any interest in it. I was neither doing photojournalism, like recording the end of the Cold War, nor was I doing art photography,” he says.

“It was something personal, a momentary madness that I just needed to pursue and I saw no point in touting it afterward or trying to build a career on it,” he says.

As the Berlin Wall crumbled into souvenirs and history on the Continent accelerated, Pittas settled down, got married and had children. He had a go at several jobs, including teaching as a mathematician and founding a small advertising business, to make a living.

One day in 2014, he came across his old camera. It prompted him to look for the negatives from his Europe project before posting some scanned images on his Facebook wall.

And so it began.

“In the next couple of years I uploaded more than 600 photos. I realized there was a whole bunch of people out there who were keenly interested in this,” he says.

Besides outside interest, a more profound motive was at work.

“There was something that made me feel a bit bad about myself. It was as if I had locked up all those people I had photographed in the basement for so many years. I felt that I could no longer keep them to myself. It was a mistake,” he says.

The project was put back in motion.

Pittas carefully picked out nearly 100 of the images and released a photo book using a self-publishing platform. One of the 1,000 copies ended up in the hands of Costis Antoniadis, a professor of photography at the Department of Photography and Audiovisual Arts at the Technological Educational Institute of Athens. Antoniadis was a catalyst in introducing the work to a broader audience. He first helped Pittas organize an exhibition on the island of Kythera, and then curated the current show, a selection of 155 images.

The Benaki collection is street photography at its best – natural, opportunistic and artfully composed. Clean and pure, as if they were preserved in a time capsule, the images document a bygone era. Although Pittas did not intend to make a political statement with his work, the impact of the Eastern Bloc’s jailhouse habits is evident in the pictures, particularly the oppression and poverty of Ceausescu-era Romania.

It was not quite what he had anticipated. Like many Greek university graduates in the years following the country’s 1967-74 military dictatorship, Pittas, who has a degree in civil engineering, had the delusion that things in the Eastern Bloc were much better there than they actually were.

“It was an absolute shock. You could see the imprint of totalitarianism on people’s faces. You could see the differences between East and West Germans, one people divided by two political systems for over 40 years,” he says.

Pittas experienced strong-handed tactics firsthand. Twice he was detained by police and had his films confiscated. However, his small-sized camera – a German-made Minox 35 GT, one of the smallest full-frame 35mm cameras ever produced – made him invisible most of the time, allowing him to capture a few risky shots, including a black leather jacket-wearing senior Politburo member that can be viewed at the exhibition.

Despite the disturbing asymmetry between the Soviet bloc and Western Europe, in the eyes of the young photographer there were resemblances that pointed to a European family of sorts.

“I always thought there was something underneath. That the Portuguese university professor and the Polish farmer have something in common. It was something that I did not see when I traveled outside Europe. Maybe this feeling was fed by my idealism and my fascination with Mitteleuropa,” Pittas says.

In the late 1980s Europe was approaching its watershed moment, but, Pittas admits, this was certainly not something you could feel in the air.

“Anyone can be a prophet in hindsight. With the exception of Poland and the Solidarity movement, the rest of Europe at the time was in a state of total inertia. If someone were to say in 1986 that the world would turn upside-down in three years’ time, they would be regarded either as a madman or a great visionary. There was no way you could sense the change that was to come,” he says.

As the communist system started to implode, Pittas felt it was time to wrap up his project.

“I had this naive dream of bringing Europe together in one book. However, Europe was now reuniting on its own, it did not have to wait for me. My plan was dead,” he says.

“I was also very tired,” he says.

Listening to Pittas explaining his work to a small group of visitors at the exhibition, you see a man with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I was never interested in making a name for myself. I never felt I had something to prove. But it is still a joy – and this certainly does not classify as vanity – even at this age, to feel that there was a meaning to it all. It has given me a great deal of satisfaction,” he says.

Pittas has resumed his old hobby. He again relies on a humble (though now digital) pocket camera and always shoots from waist level. “You don’t change your style,” he says.

Going down into that basement, Pittas seems to have found much more than he was searching for, including a part of himself.

“Constantinos Pittas: Images of Another Europe 1985-1989” runs at the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos & Andronikou, through November 20.

A monument of beauty and beatitude

By Harry van Versendaal

It will be dwarfed by the Manhattan skyline, but it will hardly go unnoticed – particularly at night.

Construction of the National Shrine, a Greek Orthodox church and nondenominational bereavement center at Ground Zero, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, began in December last year. When the long-stalled project is completed two years from now, it will feature a dome-shaped structure clad in a hi-tech translucent skin of white Vermont marble that will glow softly in the dark.

Calatrava has said that the 35-million-dollar design, which was picked from over a dozen proposals, was inspired by Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Savior – both in Istanbul. Evidence of those influences can be traced at a new exhibition at the Benaki Museum, in central Athens, showcasing sketches, drawings, plans, photographs and audiovisual material from the ongoing project.


Looking at the 3-D renderings, architect Magda Sgouridi sees the Spanish architect diverging from his trademark compositions.

“His architectural vocabulary is significantly different here. The slim and refined mechanical structures that look upward toward the sky have here given way to a substantial bulk pushing down in the direction of the surface,” she said.

It is a gleaming, modern design that will, of course, be better evaluated once the monument – and, very crucially, the interior – is completed. But in the case of Saint Nicholas, concept comes before form.

“It will be a beacon of faith, of all faiths. A beacon that will serve as a New York landmark and, at the same time, as a New York boundary with the open sea,” Sgouridi said.

Dark chapter

Heavy in symbolism, the only non-secular structure at the site will replace the nondescript 19th-century church – a former tavern – that was destroyed as World Trade Center’s South Tower came down in the 9/11 terrorist blitz. No one was inside the building at the time.

The new monument will overlook the 9/11 Memorial, sitting at the intersection of Liberty and Greenwich streets, on land once occupied by the Deutsche Bank Building.

Construction was stalled by marathon negotiations between the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, until in 2011 an agreement between the two sides broke the deadlock.

For Eric Sessions, a Greek-American doctor who was one of the first responders on 9/11, the rebuilding of St Nicholas Church brings to a close a dark chapter in New York history while offering a great deal of hope.

“For Saint Nicholas, the protector of sailors and those who work with the sea which made New York what it is today, this has particular symbolism. For the Greek community of New York, and for all the Greeks who toiled on the waterfront through the years and whose faith sustained the church, this is a great tribute,” Sessions said.

“As a member of the parish which has hosted the Saint Nicholas church since it’s building’s destruction in 2001, this is a great victory and a hope for a future of understanding among all nations,” he said.


Calatrava, now 64, is also the architect behind Manhattan’s World Trade Center Transportation Hub, an awe-inspiring bird-like structure that has been hit by budget overruns and time delays. Calatrava, who is no stranger to controversy, became a household name in Greece ahead of the Athens 2004 Olympics for the design of the much-hyped roof structure over the Olympic Stadium.

In an interview about the project with The New York Times earlier this month, Archbishop Demetrios, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, said that although Calatrava had “done a lot to assist in keeping the budget down,” some overshooting was to be expected.

“We have to have a masterpiece of architecture. It has to be the best,” he said.

The exhibition “Santiago Calatrava: The Renaissance of the Church of St Nicholas at Ground Zero” will be on display at the Benaki Museum’s ( main building in central Athens from September 24 to October 25.

Photographers create ‘unofficial history’ of Greek crisis

By Harry van Versendaal

“Depression Era,” a show of 250 photographs that opens Wednesday at the Pireos Street annex of the Benaki Museum, documents the far-reaching impact of Greece’s brutal economic crisis on the country’s urban and social fabric.

The works presented in the exhibition, which also features a few video installations and a big collage comprising cutouts from print media related to the crisis, are by the Depression Era Project, a collective of more than 35 local photographers, writers, curators, designers and researchers. The photos were shot over the past four years.

The show, which runs through January 11, includes works by Panos Kokkinias, Spyros Staveris, Pavlos Fysakis, Dimitris Michalakis, Eirini Vourloumis and Yiannis Theodoropoulos, and has been curated by Petros Babasikas, Pavlos Fysakis, Yorgos Prinos, Dimitris Tsoumplekas and Pasqua Vorgia.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, organizers said that the project aims to document the social, historical and economic transformation currently under way in the debt-wracked nation as a way of creating an “unofficial history” of recent developments. Among the objectives set out by the collective is to question the mainstream belief in progress and human improvement.

While personal styles may differ, a sense of gloom, defeat and discontinuity runs through most of the 250 images on the walls of the Benaki. A nondescript dystopian cityscape, a half-finished home, a central Athens street scarred by a rowdy protest rally, a suburban villa behind a closed metal gate, contrasted against occasional flashbacks to the 2004 Olympic euphoria and the days of irrational exuberance.

“The project was inspired by the need to forge a new narrative amid all the noise created by the Greek crisis,” Fysakis, who masterminded the project, told journalists.

Parts of the project have already been showcased at the Bozar Center for Fine Arts in Brussels, at the Mois de la Photo in Paris, the PhotoBiennale of the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, and the Ebros theater squat in Athens.

The Depression Era collective and the KOLEKTIV8 nonprofit group which supports it were founded in 2011. The current project is funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos, tel 210 345 3111. Wednesday’s opening starts at 8 p.m. Regular visiting hours are Thursdays & Sundays 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Fridays & Saturdays 10 a.m. – 10 p.m.

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‘Ruins’ – the 2012 HIV sweeps and what came next

By Harry van Versendaal

With her back to the camera, a woman speaks softly and haltingly. Pausing only when emotion threatens to overcome her, she tells a story of anguish and humiliation at the hands of the Greek state.

It was April 2012, during the runup to a tense parliamentary election, when police rounded up hundreds of alleged prostitutes around Athens city center and – in cooperation with state medics – subjected them to forced HIV tests.

About 30 women who tested positive were charged with intentionally causing grievous bodily harm, a felony. Police also posted their names and photos online and appealed to those who had engaged in sexual contact with them to get in touch with authorities for health checks and treatment. The health minister at the time, Andreas Loverdos, said the operation was in the interest of public health. AIDS, he said, had “spread beyond the ghettos and entered Greek society.”

Groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused Greece of violating human rights and medical confidentiality as mug shots of the detainees were quickly reproduced by several news websites and newspapers, often alongside stories about the ticking “health bomb” created by HIV-positive prostitutes.

“Ruins: Chronicle of an HIV Witch Hunt,” a 53-minute film by Zoe Mavroudi that was shown to journalists in Athens on Wednesday, documents the psychological impact of the stigma forced on the prosecuted women and their families. At the same time, the documentary sets out to deconstruct the social causes and political motives that led to the operation. To do so, “Ruins” draws on a number of interviews with two of the HIV-positive woman and their mothers. It also features discussions with doctors, lawyers, journalists, academics and activists who campaigned for their release.

“More than being a case of HIV criminalization, this mass police operation was unprecedented because it was carried out in cooperation with official health authorities,” Mavroudi said during the press conference in reference to the state-run Center for Disease Control and Prevention (KEELPNO) that conducted the AIDS screenings.

Mavroudi, a playwright, screenwriter and actress who is making her directorial debut with “Ruins,” said the sweeps – which took place without significant evidence that the suspects were sex workers or that they had transmitted the virus – marked a “barbaric turning point in the Greece of the crisis.

“The crackdown targeted people who are weak and sick, people who do not engage in party politics, people however who have been mostly hit by the crisis,” said Mavroudi, adding that it was time to dole out responsibility for what happened.

All of the women, the overwhelming majority of whom turned out to be of Greek nationality, have since been acquitted of felony charges and released from jail. Thirteen of them still face smaller, misdemeanor charges. Meanwhile, the legal provision that led to their arrest was repealed for a brief period before it was reinstated by current Health Minister Adonis Georgiadis.

Loverdos, who has since created his own political party, and former Public Order Michalis Chrysochoidis both declined to be interviewed for the documentary.

In contrast to global trends, the number of HIV/AIDS cases is soaring in Greece, with infections among injecting drug users more than doubling since 2011, official data show.

Experts blame the rise on the elimination of needle exchange programs and an increase in unprotected sex as cash-strapped sex workers are tempted to spare condoms in exchange for a better deal.

The documentary was funded by Union Solidarity International, a recently established UK-based organization that uses new media to back campaigns around the world, including in Greece, and Unite the Union, a British and Irish trade union.

“Ruins,” which will soon be made freely available online, will debut at the Benaki Museum’s Pireos St Annex on Sunday at 7 p.m. It will be screened at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University two days later.

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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.

Back to the roots

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard to decide what to make of Pavlos Kozalidis. If nothing else, this 49-year-old photographer is a curious man who lives to click.

Born in Piraeus before moving to Canada, Kozalidis grew up listening to the nostalgic stories of his aunt, an ethnic Greek from Ordu, a town in the conflict-prone Black Sea region, who was forced to migrate first to America and then, having been displaced from Ordu for a second time, to Greece.

When he first laid hands on an SLR camera in the late 1980s, Kozalidis started to travel. Initially he wandered in India and Central Asia, but curiosity about his origins prompted him to trace the roots of his family. Between 1995 and 2003 he traveled from Turkey and Georgia to Russia and Ukraine at least once a year. He did so with scarce resources, mostly riding on dilapidated buses and staying at cheap hotels – a habit that only added to the experience. “It’s better to have a small seat next to a big window than a comfortable seat beside a tiny window,” Kozalidis says in what seems to translate as a life-rule.

Somewhere along the way his work won support from the Benaki Museum in Athens, which in 2008 for the first time made public a small part of the growing material. “Searching for a Lost Homeland,” some 60 black-and-white photos taken during his Black Sea journeys, is currently being showcased at the Photography Museum of Thessaloniki through April 18.

Kozalidis is not a technical photographer and does not pretend otherwise. “I make a lot of mistakes,” he tells Athens Plus in an interview at the attractive brick and steel warehouse building that houses the museum.

But Kozalidis’s candid admission is hard to believe as you stare at this arresting piece of work documenting the lives and customs of the Pontian Greeks who stayed behind.

Not bad for someone who used to steal magazine pictures from his local dentist office.

Keeping needs simple

Do you have a regular job?

No, no. I have my own means, not a lot, but I still have the capability after so many years to do 16 hours third class on a third class bus on a third class road. I don’t need a lot of money. I spend more money every day on film than my hotel room. And I try to stretch whatever I have. I would gladly spend anything I have to buy film or a ticket to travel by road or by plane.

Do you teach?

No, I am not a teacher. I can’t teach people. You can teach somebody the tricks of photography. It’s kind of like juggling. You can learn to be a good juggler, but if there is no heart in what you’re looking at then… it’s like a cold coke on a sunny day. After a while you start feeling thirsty again.

I think everybody wants to see something true, even when you go to see all that art kind of photography; sometimes I must admit I get a little bit jealous of the attention it gets because it’s new. My work is passé, my photographs are kind of “classic.”

Why did you hold on to this material for so long? Why didn’t you publish anything for 20 years?

To publish something you need time. And that time takes you away from the clicking, the development. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I still do. I’m so bad that I used to cut up my negatives and then try to pick out something I wanted. I didn’t go to photography school. It’s sort of something that I picked up and in a way saved myself from myself. There’s two ways, you know, up and down.

I can now carry 36 kilos of film and 10 kilos of camera equipment, plus another 20 kilos in my bag. All the rest,  looking at it, I can do later.

Are you not afraid that it may no longer be relevant?

It’s just a journey. A lot of people are on a journey and they don’t leave anything. At least mine, even if it’s not relevant, is still something. The rest is ego. You want to be like “forever,” your work to be “forever.”

I am not finished with these places; China, Asia, Africa, South America, I am not finished. I’ll never finish. I just did 10,000 kilometers on a third class bus on a road in Africa; the entire trip took four-and-a-half months. And now I am leaving in ten days. I can do it now. But at some point I won’t be able to. That’s why I didn’t show it. Not because I didn’t want to. I mean I want people to see it. It’s wonderful when you come up to me and saw “wow.” It’s nice because it’s really extra. It’s like having a girlfriend and you take her out and everybody goes “wow she’s really beautiful.” It’s really nice because for a long time you thought only you saw her as beautiful. Everything has it’s time. It’s like flowers, they don’t all bloom at the same time. But the thing is… I’ve made mistakes and I continue to make mistakes and I say a lot of romantic cuckoo things. But I am irrelevant, I don’t make these things. I just see some things because they are good photographs. I don’t think I am particularly talented photographically. I just have an ability to get close to people.

Can you tell us about your Black Sea journey? Why did you go there?

It had to do with my aunt and her stories because she was born there. And in the exodus some went to New York, some went to Russia, some went to Japan. It was a big family. She kept telling me there was a house there which still stands now and I just went back. And I would go by road from Athens, I would get on a bus, a Georgian bus, and I would do the whole journey through Istanbul, 3 days, 4 days if it didn’t break down. And then I would meet people and they would speak my grandmother’s language. And that was really cool. And it was like you made friends after 4 days because you wake up and you have breakfast, chicken, sausages, bread, Russian cigarettes, and vodka, vodka, vodka.

Camera is my journal basically. It is my life, but it is also the life of the other people that I see. That’s what I am basically doing. Journaling others but using my own means.

Did you expect to find something specific?

It didn’t start out that way. There was no focal point. At some point you collect and collect and collect and after 5 years of doing it you start seeing things happening. I photograph everything basically. I go somewhere and I photograph everything. I don’t go there with an idea. Sometimes I envy people who do that and they come up with wonderful work, but very few. I just observe. I just look and anything that makes visual sense I go to it. But it has to have spirit, it has to be not happy but dignified.

The subconscious playing with the image

Do you ever stage your photographs or are they spontaneous?

That’s a hard question because it’s full of lies and truths in the sense that any photographer will say “ah everybody stages.” Look at W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay “Spanish village,” it’s basically all staged. But it’s the end result that counts. As for myself… if there were things in the photograph that were still, that weren’t moving, and I put a human being there, a child basically, would I do it? Yes. But in the end it’s how I feel about what I have to show when I am at the table by myself and picking them out, what truths I want to say.

But you do seem to want a human element in your pictures.

This has to be. I read somewhere that every time you look at a photograph, subconsciously you look for a human figure. It’s kind of cool – you just don’t know you’re doing it. I basically have to act when I photograph, because I don’t want them to be looking at me. If there is a scene, I pretend that I am waiting, you know looking at my watch, while also waiting for them to calm down, so that I can enter their space. I try to go close. I don’t know if it is “to tell the truth” and all that stuff. I don’t know what that means. I just go because it’s interesting. I am there. I go to get something to eat and something beautiful appears in front of me. And I photograph, then I move on. And no eye contact.

In the Black Sea project I was cheating simply because I was a Pontian Greek, I was from these people. I understood some of their dialect which helped. I was Orthodox. I was Greece to them. I was Greece coming to see them because they couldn’t go to Greece for one reason or another, which was great because I was the pasha of the village. I was like the Martian everybody comes and pokes at, to see if he knows any tricks. But there was the other side too; all their complaints and all their problems, no doctors, no medicine, no school for their kids. And I did not go there to change the situation, but I lived with them. I ate a lot of water potatoes in those years. It was right after Russia had collapse. There were buildings that had just stopped in time, farming equipment that stood in the middle of the field. German too, no Mickey Mouse Chinese stuff. German, beautiful machinery, stopped. People just left. You would go to a village and you would see a generation of children and then old people. Because the parents had left for Russia, Kazakhstan, Greece.

Without wanting to superimpose any meaning on your work, some of your photos seem to be conveying values, like dignity. People are poor and hungry but they look dignified.

You can show even misery and ugliness in humane ways. There is a photograph of this couch and water that was seeping from the roof and it was kind of beautiful because of the textures and you could see it was a dump and this poor person had to sit on that seat. I don’t need to go down that path. I would rather show a cold child warming its hands. You can see it’s poor but then you can see another photograph of the table with the food, so you know they do have food. It’s where you point your camera.

Black-and-white versus color

Do you take only black and white photographs?

I have a small body of work that is starting up to be color. I started out with color. I grew up in the States and Canada looking at Life magazine and National Geographic. I used to steal a lot from dentist places, I used to have a collection of stolen dentist office National Geographic and Life magazine photos…

Black and white suits me; let’s say you can lie better. With color you know it’s color. Black and white fits me better like a coat. I don’t know digital. I don’t even know technical photography. To go digital would be a quantum leap. I don’t even know mathematics and times tables and you tell me to do equations. I would be lost. And I like the roll of film. I like coming home after being on the street for 8 hours and dropping the film, cleaning and looking at it and thinking… and I would never be ready to see it right away. I can’t deal with this right-away. I need to collect over years. And when you take it out of the water and you have the light and you look through and you kind of relive everything, it’s a whole process, it’s everything.

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