Posts Tagged 'photographer'

Yasser Alwan: Photographer with a cause

By Harry van Versendaal

I like getting lost. It’s the best way to really get to know a city,” explained Yasser Alwan as he arrived outside a Thessaloniki bar some 30 minutes after our agreed time. After 17 years in Cairo, the 47-year-old photographer certainly knows the streets of the Egyptian metropolis as well as any homegrown resident.

Born in Nigeria to Iraqi parents, Alwan told me he lived in Lebanon and Iraq before moving with his parents to New York in the early 1970s. His Iraqi-American background was “volatile enough” for him to decide to leave the US in 1992. He said he hadn’t been back since.

Standing in the tradition of documentary art photography, Alwan was in Greece this weekend for the inauguration of “Facing Mirrors,” an exhibition of 130 portraits at the northern port city’s Museum of Photography that is also showcasing works by Middle East artists Gilbert Hage, Youssef Nabil, Hrair Sarkissian and Raed Yassin.

During a panel discussion in Thessaloniki, Alwan, an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime who played an active role in the January uprisings, responded to questions about his work and political developments in Egypt. Here is an excerpt of the discussion.

My images are as artless as possible. Yes, I think about balance and composition. But what I am mostly interested in is honest human contact. I am not interested in spectacle or a visual experience. I am interested in an all-round experience and in celebrating the people I take photographs of.

It’s probably the most produced item in the world today, and it’s the easiest thing to make: a picture. Of, course, it is also the easiest thing to delete. Any picture made for public space — all the print media, television and the Internet — has a life of 24 hours; and then the next day comes and new images are needed. Images made for public use are made in the millions daily. How possible is it to make images that convey more than just a blink of an eye view of the world? I think it’s impossible.

In the days of painting portraiture, when a painter would have a subject sit for him maybe days or weeks, there was a relationship that was established. A painter would come to know a person because of a connection between eye, brain, spine, hand, canvas — and then the connection back to the person, and that connection was happening hundreds of times during a particular sitting. But photography sort of eliminated that necessity. I think photography brought about a change in consciousness.

I have an ethical obligation when I make a portrait of someone, which is to convey something of the truth. And the only way that I feel I can do that is if I spend time with the people, with that environment. I would like you to believe that my photographs from Tahrir are more real [than those that appeared on the media]. I understand that all images are constructed regardless of whether you believe they are more real or not. But I do want to get across that my pictures are more real and more honest. That does not make the art go away. But part of the art is to get you to suspend your disbelief.

Egyptians react quite forcefully to my work, but usually in a negative way. The pictures hurt them but that is absolutely not my intention.

Portraits require a sense of social mobility. Historically, the people who had portraits made of themselves were people who were moving up in the world or who were already at the very top by birth. Ordinary people had no portraits except for minor examples from the beginning of the history of portraiture 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Each person is different. Sometimes I make a picture of someone in an hour and it turns out well, and sometimes I try for months and it never works. Photographing in the streets in Cairo is extremely difficult. You have to remember we live in a police state. I have been in jail many times; I have been taken to the State Security Headquarters just for taking pictures. So the environment is not a comfortable one for a photographer like myself to work in. The state is terrified of images like mine. They don’t want such images to be seen by the population of Egypt because they have a vested interest in controlling the image. Ninety-nine percent of the images that you see of Egypt are the Nile and the Pyramids, Luxor and Aswan — by design. It’s been a very difficult way of working, but it’s the only way of working: that is, to get people to overcome their own fears and prejudices about what a picture is.

I’ve been stopped by the police at least a hundred times in Egypt over the last 17 years. Also people will immediately accuse me of being a spy, I am a foreigner, I don’t speak the Egyptian dialect like an Egyptian. If I don’t manage the situation well it can turn into 15 people taking me by the arms to a police station.

[Women are] an invisibility that I’ve reproduced. Most unfortunately. It is part of the culture that I’ve swallowed myself. It’s something that I am dying to do. I’ve tried to work with women’s organizations to be able to gain access to women, it’s been very difficult for me to photograph the ordinary average nobody who is a woman. I am very able to photograph the upper classes and I have. But the ordinary average woman is much more sensitive about her image and it would take somebody much smarter than myself or a woman photographer.

Religion doesn’t come into play at all in my work. I’m working on a project about the Coptic community in Egypt. It’s an extremely sensitive issue, but that’s where my interest would be, rather than Islam.

I’d like to use the momentous events of January-February 2011 in Tahrir Square. I’ve lived in Egypt for 17 years and I’ve been going to Egypt for 25 and it was beyond my imagination to believe that what happened did happen. The uprising brought the social media to the fore. Videos and photographs that ordinary people have been making on their mobile telephones have been put on the Internet, they are being gathered by the American University in Cairo, which is trying to compile an archive of images, sound and video of the revolution. We have not removed the system. But that’s coming, inshallah. However, there has been a public space that has been carved out in Egypt and that public space is not going to be given up. Graffiti, and most of the graffiti is politically oriented, and some of it very refined, is throughout the streets of Cairo. The Ministry of Interior is now buying paint by the ton and as soon as the graffiti is done they have troops of people to paint over it.

I predict we are going to have another confrontation, hopefully sooner rather than later, but no more than two years from now. And it will be bloody.


Seeing is believing

Photo by Joseph Galanakis

By Harry van Versendaal

When Thimios Gourgouris first caught the news of furious rioting in downtown Athens in December 2008, he reached for his Nikon camera. As the Greek capital surrendered to an orgy of violence and looting sparked by the fatal shooting of a teenager by police, the curious young man from the suburbs took to the debris-strewn streets to document the mayhem.

Three years later, the number of people like Gourgouris have skyrocketed. As public rallies against the Socialist government’s austerity measures — sanctioned by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, the debt-choked country’s foreign creditors — keep coming, more people seem to have set aside the traditional flag and banner for a more versatile medium: the digital camera. Just type “Greek protests 2011” into Google Images and you’ll get more than 5 million results.

This burst of interest in user-generated content is propelled by more than one reason. But, like elsewhere around the world, it is principally born out of public skepticism toward conventional media.

“I want to see with my own eyes what is happening out there. I stopped relying just on the stuff I was being fed by television,” Gourgouris, a tall man with a dark beard and expressive eyes, said in a recent interview.

Greece’s mainstream media have not escaped unscathed from popular criticism of the country’s institutions. Television channels and newspapers — traditionally associated with the nation’s political parties — are seen as pandering to political and business interests.

“I only trust what I see,” Gourgouris said.

Born in 1980, Gourgouris has never belonged to a political party. A former graphic designer who now works as a commercial representative in Elefsina, a small town west of Athens, he dreams of one day becoming a war photographer. The streets around Syntagma Square make good training ground, he jokes. When venturing into the urban scuffles, he wears gloves, body armor and a green Brainsaver helmet equipped with a built-in camera. “Last time a piece of marble hit me on the right shoulder,” he said.

Gourgouris makes a point of sharing all of his pictures on Flickr, the image- and video-hosting website. All his photographs are free to download in high resolution. One of his shots from the latest riots shows a riot policeman trying to snatch an SLR camera from a man standing in Syntagma Square. A woman reacts to the scene while trying to protect a fellow demonstrator who appears to be in a state of shock.

“If I had to keep a single image from the protest, it would have to be that one,” he said.

Protest 3.0

Around the globe, protests are reshaped by technology. Ever-cheaper digital gadgets and the Internet are transforming the means and the motives of the people involved in ways we are only starting to witness.

Last spring, the twitterati hailed the “social media revolutions” in Tunisia and Egypt as protesters made extensive use of social networks to bring down their despotic presidents. Facebook and Twitter played a key role in fomenting public unrest following Iran’s disputed election in 2009. Like Iran, Libya showed the same media are available to the autarchic regimes.

Greece is not immune to social and technological forces. In May, thousands of people responded to a Facebook call by the so-called Indignant movement to join an anti-austerity rally at Syntagma and other public squares across the country. Demonstrators, who have since camped in front of the Greek Parliament, use laptops to organize and promote their campaign through the Net.

When individuals’ behavior changes, mass protests also change. Gourgouris says that whenever he sees the police arresting a demonstrator, he feels that by running to the scene an officer will think twice before exerting unnecessary physical force.

“When everybody is filming with their cell phones, you’re not going to beat the hell out of that person,” he said.

Switching places

Technology is also transforming the news business, as ordinary folk get involved in the gathering, filtering and dissemination of information.

“It’s evolution,” said Pavlos Fysakis, a professional photographer in his early 40s. He says that this type of guerrilla journalism may not guarantee quality, but it is certainly a force for pluralism.

“The news now belongs to everyone. It comes from many different sources, and it is open to many different interpretations,” said Fysakis, who is one of the 14 photojournalists to have worked on The Prism GR2010 multimedia project, a collective documentation of Greece during last winter that is available on the Internet.

If there is one problem will all this input, Fysakis says, it has to do with the diminishing shock factor. With all the imagery out there, he warns, audiences as well as photographers risk getting a bit too accustomed to graphic images.

“Violence is demystified. We almost think it’s normal to see a cop beating up a person on the street. The image is everywhere, as if [the event] is occurring all the time,” Fysakis said.

User-generated footage of the June 29 demonstrations depicted riot police firing huge amounts of tear gas and physically abusing protesters, including elderly men and women.

The apparently excessive use of force by police is the subject of a parliamentary investigation. Meanwhile, a prosecutor has brought charges against the police for excessive use of chemicals and for causing bodily harm to citizens. Amnesty International has also condemned the police tactics.


For Liza Tsaliki, a communications and media expert at the University of Athens, crowdsourced content “is laden with democratic potential.”

“Civilian footage of the riots has widened our perspective and understanding of what actually happened,” she said of the June demonstrations.

A few hours after the protests, the Internet was churning with footage apparently showing riot squad officers escorting three men who had covered their faces and appeared to be wielding iron bars, prompting suggestions that the police had either placed provocateurs within the protesting crowds or that the force was offering protection to extreme right-wing protesters who were battling leftists.

However, an official reaction (a statement by the minister for citizens’ protection that left a lot to be desired) only came after television channels had aired the controversial video.

Trust them not

To be sure, citizen journalism is far from perfect. A lot of the rigor and accuracy associated with traditional news organizations inevitably flies out the window. Ordinary people cannot perform, or are insensitive to, the (meticulous but costly and time-consuming) fact-based reporting, cross-checking, sourcing and editing of newsrooms proper.

A survey conducted in the UK a few years ago found that 99 percent of people do not trust content on blogs and forums uploaded by their friends and the rest of the public.

Lack of verification and eponymity is not the only problem, as input from non-journalists is not necessarily synonymous with objectivity.

Writing in Kathimerini about the controversial video, liberal commentator Paschos Mandravelis criticized social media users for unquestioningly embracing what seems to confirm the views they already hold.

“The T-shirt he was wearing to cover his face, which is usually offered by every protester as a sign of innocence (‘I was wearing it to protect myself from the tear gas’) was, in this case, used as a sign of guilt (‘It’s obvious. These are the hooded troublemakers’),” Mandravelis wrote.

Tsaliki agrees that not everything captured by amateur journalists is necessarily benign.

“Even in these latter cases, a certain alternative reality can be constructed under the guise of the non-mediated experience,” Tsaliki said.

“All you need is a certain choreography, some volunteers and a smartphone,” she said.

But the speed and diversity of social media is hard to beat. After all, it was a Pakistani Twitterer grumbling about the noise from a helicopter that gave the world live coverage of the American raid that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

Before that, it was some blurry footage of Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s murder in Exarchia, captured with a phone camera by a resident standing on a nearby balcony, that fanned Greece’s 2008 riots.

Traditional media have tried to take advantage of the trend, launching citizen journalism platforms of their own — CNN’s “iReport” or Al Jazeera’s “Sharek,” for example. And as suggested by Al Jazeera’s mining of the social media during the Middle East uprisings, the use of citizen-produced material can help commercial networks come across as the “voice of the people.”

“They overtly take the side of the protesters against these regimes. And their use of social media and citizen generated content gives them the ammunition and credibility in that campaign,” blogged Charlie Beckett, founding director of Polis, a journalism and society think-tank at the London School of Economics.

Preaching to the converted?

The Internet has changed the way people organize themselves and protest, but has it really helped expand the reservoirs of activists on the ground? Experts are divided on the issue.

For one thing, cyber-pessimists are right that support-a-cause-with-a-click attitudes produce great numbers but little commitment. Web-powered activism, Tsaliki adds, is still a lot about preaching to the converted.

“The Internet will chiefly serve those activists and groups that are already active, thus reinforcing existing patterns of political participation in society,” she said.

But Gourgouris is confident that simply by recording and sharing the message of a demonstration, you are increasing its impact.

“The world isn’t beautiful. I record the ugliness so I can put it out there and — to the extent that I can — fix it. I am trying to raise awareness. I am saying, ‘Here’s the violence of the people behind masks’,” he said.

As always, some people out there prefer more direct forms of engagement. As photographers zigzagged through the infuriated crowds at a recent demo, one hooded youth shouted at them to “put down the cameras and grab a stone.”

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.

Western blues

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s hard not to feel a wee bit jealous of Nysos Vasilopoulos. The 34-year-old photographer has already had a number of solo exhibitions in Berlin, which he calls home for the past seven years, collaborated with dance and theater troupes there and in Athens, even worked on a short film that has been screened at the International Short Film Festival in Drama. So it comes a bit as a surprise that, when it comes to taking pictures, his main passion and craft, this independent and talented young man has chosen to focus on the more poignant aspects of the human psyche. Melancholy, loneliness and introversion are the words mostly associated with the work of Patra-born Vasilopoulos, whose work has already drawn comparisons to that of Michael Ackerman. “Street Sonnets,” an exhibition of 57 black-and-white photographs shot in Berlin and other European capitals between 2002 and 2009, is currently on show at the Photography Museum of Thessaloniki. Athens Plus met with Vasilopoulos at the premises of this seaside, cozy industrial building.

As a photographer you bear the label of “melancholy” and “loneliness.” Is it something that has been imposed on you, or is it something that you’ve tried to bring out with your work?

No, it’s not something that has been imposed on me. Rather, it’s a statement that I myself have used. In recent years, I have been searching for man’s loneliness, introversion and isolation. Whether I found myself in Athens, Berlin, London or Paris I was searching for man. Not in fancy parties, colors and lights but rather in places where we all exist in our daily lives. In some way, it was a reflection of my own thoughts and feelings about modern man, the modern Western man.

Was it man’s loneliness or solitude? Or, perhaps, both?

Both, yes.

Does art thrive on melancholy?

Yes. I believe art, art at its core, is tough. It won’t pet you, it won’t lie to you. Art is not some big party but something esoteric that we all share. It’s all about who people and how much they work on it.

Do these rough urbanscapes give you what you are looking for? After all, shooting in Athens or Berlin is one thing, while shooting in postcard-pretty Paris or Amsterdam is quite another.

I see what you mean but if you are looking for man you will find man regardless where you may be. A lonely setting can be found in any city. In any western city you’ll always find a coffee-place with a man sitting in a moment of silence, just like my photograph at the El Prado foyer. Funny thing is, this man was joined by three ladies right after I clicked. In a way, that is the illusion of photography. The photographer captures the moment. What happens before or after that moment is a whole different story.

Is photography melancholy by nature? I mean the way it captures the moment that is forever lost.

I think so. You freeze time and you pass it into the future; it’s an illusion. But there is also something melancholy about trying to freeze reality.

Some of your photos appear to have been staged.

Yes, I do stage some of them. When I was younger, I used to say: “Yes, this is a very beautiful photograph but it is staged, so I don’t like it.” With time you realize that this does not matter, because you can stage something or you can have something completely spontaneous and still get the same power. The point is to transcend form and create something that will stand in time.

Are there any photographers who have influenced your work?

Yes, I have delved into the work of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson and [Andre] Kertesz.

You have shot thousands of pictures. How can you tell a really good photograph from a not-so-good one?

My criterion is if a photograph that I shot in 2002 still does it for me today. A good photograph is one that can stand the test of time. But it’s also about you, what you want to say. Sometimes you may use a photograph to test your own doubt toward it. I am not so sure about all these photographs [on display here]. I still have doubts about some of them.

What is your favorite photo in this exhibition?

I really like the one at the Louvre statues. It gives me a melancholic feeling. These statues were made to stand under the sun and we wrapped them in plastic and placed them one next to the other; they look haunted. It’s like people who have lost their freedom.

You have lived in Berlin for the past seven years. Have you ever thought of coming back?

I don’t feel like a migrant. I mean, I can be here and be in Berlin or anywhere else at the same time. I love Berlin; it’s my base, my daily life. That does not mean to stay I plan to live there forever. Just like I got on a plane and left, the same could one day happen again, this time to another destination.


Nysos Vasilopoulos studied photography, journalism and history of European civilization in Athens before moving to Berlin, where he studied film direction at the Berlin Kaskeline Filmakademie. He has experienced with other art forms and collaborated with sculptor Clavie Duson, musician Chris Jarrett and poet Ernesto Estrella.

Living on the edge

By Harry van Versendaal

It was December 2006 when Pavlos Fysakis caught the ferry to Gavdos, a tiny island located south of its much bigger and more famous neighbor Crete, and Europe’s southernmost spot. It was the first of a number of trips Fysakis made in the course of just over two years that also brought him to the Continent’s other three edges: Nordkapp, in Norway, Portugal’s Cabo da Roca, and the Urals, Europe’s traditional eastern boundary. Armed with two analog cameras, his favorite medium-format Mamiya and a German-made Rolleiflex, Fysakis, an athletic, bespectacled man in his early forties, set out to answer a bag of quasi-existentialist questions: What is it that makes us Europeans? What is it that separates us Europeans from the people on the other side of the border? In fact, what is a border and what does it define? More or less ordinary people like Boris, Nils, Artemis, Maja and Sofie provided Fysakis with some of the answers. It’s these people whom Fysakis describes in “Land Ends,” a collection of pictures from the journey that is out now in bookstores, as “the guardians at Europe’s outer edge, which may, after all, just be its beginnings.”

Tell us a few words about the project. How did it come about? How long did it take to complete?

The thought, the concept of borders, of an end, of lands that are estranged from hope and other such issues nagged at me for years. It had begun brewing inside me also through work, as I spent quite a while on a long-term project for Kathimerini on the Greek Islands in the winter, on islands that are cut off from regular ferry service. This project – without it being about the images but more about the questions it evoked – gave rise to the idea. Also because I like to travel a lot, I began to think about borders, limits, places where one thing ends and another begins. When I eventually pinpointed the idea behind the thought process, I began thinking about Europe, about its borders and where it ends. I did a lot of research. Exploring, searching on the Internet; reading books and the history of Europe took as much time as taking the photographs did.

I began the project in 2006. I did shoots for just over two years and it took another year-and-a-half to write the texts and design the book. I traveled when I could afford it. I went to Gavdos four times, to Portugal twice and once to each of the other locations. I made eight trips in total.

What do these locations have in common?

Despite the many differences between all these places, the one thing they have in common is that they are Europeans on the fringes of the continent – you feel something connecting them, this sense of an end, of reflection, isolation. It is not just about them being forgotten, but about them having forgotten everyone else as well. “We have been forgotten here in Gavdos” is not the point. The point is that they have forgotten us and have no connection to Athens.

Is this a bad thing only?

No. It isn’t just negative. Sure, it has its negative sides. We are accustomed to approaching all these places with a negative mindset and immediately focus on the negative. But the fact that they have put some things behind them is not necessarily bad.

Isn’t this project somewhat melancholy?

Yes, it is. Photography, by its very nature, is a melancholy pursuit, as it deals with things that are past, gone. It’s like a game with memory. For most people, memories are a bit vague and you recall the ones you want. Photographers, however, hang on to them.

What equipment did you carry in your camera bag?

I only used analog cameras: a medium-format Mamiya and a Rolleiflex, and no slides, just film. As far as the lens goes, I always use a wide-angle. The entire book is shot with a 50mm wide-angle lens.

What was the selection process for the locations and subjects?

Once I knew the “what,” the “where” came naturally. It all began to take shape in my mind gradually. I have a little notebook where I jot down my ideas before and during a trip: I need a photograph here, something else there… This means that I have a pretty clear idea of what I need and what I need to avoid before I get to a location. I discover everything with time, such as, for example, the kind of light I want.

I have found a uniform light, a pervading, dull light. It is the same everywhere and it brings together all four corners of Europe. I think that it’s the sky above Europe that joins it and not what we see on the ground. I have found weather that is the same. I traveled only in winter, but during a period of winter that is exactly the same everywhere. It is the same in the south and in the west. For example, I went to Portugal during the deep winter because it is very sunny, and I went north in fall and spring [to achieve the uniform effect].

Do you recall some funny moment from this journey?

At one point in Russia, I was traveling with a friend, Dimitris Michelakis, from Ekaterinburg (Yekaterinburg) – on the border with Kazakhstan – to Vorkouta on the other end of the country, near the Arctic Circle. The weather was bad and our plane never came, so the next day we set off to take th e Trans-Siberian Railway. We went to buy tickets but there was only one left. We were running out of time and couldn’t extend our stay any longer. So we got on the train with just one seat between us and traveled 2,000 kilometers, 16 hours. We met this guy, a manager at a big factory, on the way and he took us under his wing when the ticket inspector came by.

Breaking through and catching the wave

How did you make the crossover from amateur to professional photographer?

I crossed the river in 1995 while I was still a student. I shot my first portrait; it was of a film director for Ta Nea daily, a tiny little picture.

What are the challenges for a professional photographer working in Greece?

Making a living is the biggest challenge, having any kind of job security as a freelance photographer. The conditions are far from ideal. Day in, day out, you have to prove that you are still as good as your last effort. Meanwhile, you also need to find time to do those things that are important to you.

How would you describe your style of photography?

It’s very difficult to create your own signature as a photographer, your own photographic identity. I think I have it; I think someone who sees my photographs knows they’re mine. I would define my style as street photography that has its feet firmly planted in classical photography in a more contemporary manner – overall I would say that it is a very classical style of photography.

Which Greek photographers have influenced you?

Nikos Markou and Yiannis Marapas.

Did you study under them?

Yes, Nikos was my teacher.

You come home and study your work. How do you know that one shot is good and another isn’t?

The images I take don’t have any action, so there are no surprises, there is no “oh, he moved; he fell down; I missed it.” My images have a very strict composition and structure; they are based on fundamentals that you have to have accounted for beforehand. The random – even though I believe that there is something random in every photograph – does not play such a definitive role in my work.

How significant a photograph is, however, also emerges from its narrative. What I mean is that I don’t end up with five or 10 important photographs, but with photographs that are each more important than the other, where one leads up to the other. It’s like telling a story, like putting pages with text in the right order so the words make sense. Basically, that’s the trick. I believe that sometimes an image may not appear very powerful – many people have said this to me – but they are important to me because they are part of a narrative. This is the crux as far as I’m concerned: to serve the narrative.

What is your most memorable mission?

The last trip is always the most important. I also get excited when I start thinking about the next trip.

One exciting story is about a mission to Indonesia for the magazine K, where our boat caught fire in the middle of the Indian Ocean and we nearly drowned. Generally, though, I haven’t been in dangerous situations, nor have I undertaken risky missions in war zones and the like, so I don’t have a lot of crazy stories to tell. I prefer to say that I’ve gone on unusual journeys to ordinary places.

Digital lies

Is Photoshop a friend or an enemy?

I don’t really have any strong feelings about it. I use it only so far as I find necessary. If a photograph needs a lot of work, I’ll do a lot of work on it, and vice versa. You have to be careful not to get carried away. I believe that photography happens when the film is still in the camera. The Photoshopping I do is the kind of processing that would happen in any darkroom using analog technology. But, if I do see something that really bugs me in a photograph, I will take it out. If, for example, I see a electrical cord in the image, I will remove it without a second thought.

Isn’t digital processing a bit like cheating?

I don’t think so. It’s a matter of aesthetic. Here in Greece, you often see lousy editing that kills the image. If you use Photoshop correctly, it helps you; it is a tool. It’s like placing a filter on the lens. It’s not cheating. If you put 70 filters on the lens, well, other than cheating, I’d also say its pointless.

Some argue that Photoshop is necessary in order to bring a photograph closer to what the human eye sees. Is this true?

The lens is not inferior. The lens is not there to do the same thing our eyes do. The lens belongs to the world of the graphic reality. You’re not there to record reality. It is a complete myth that the photographer captures a piece of reality and transports it. It’s just not true.

Is photography an art?

Yes. I believe that question has been amply answered. Susan Sontag said it best when she said that photography is an art, but maybe your photograph is not art.

Have you got your next project?

Yes, I do have a project – what I don’t have is money. I want to do something about religion in the Mediterranean.

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