Focus στον Niko J. Kallianiotis (Nίκο Γ. Καλλιανιώτη)

-Make work from the heart and photograph your interests, life experiences, fears, and concerns. As a personal rule, I do not travel with the intention of photographing - with the exception of the state of Pennsylvania and places I lived before (in this case Greece and New York). This does not mean that I dont make work when I visit places, but I do not intentionally travel to other countries with the intent of developing a long-term project. I am an adamant believer that if you can make a powerful image in rural Pennsylvania, you will most likely be able to make an image in, lets say India...

How did you start your career as a photographer?

It all started when I came to the United States about twenty years ago. I was not really exposed to the medium of photography until I was about twenty and in a way, I think that worked to my advantage, it enhances my hankering to learn, and since then it has been an addiction. Initially, I wanted to be a musician, but that didn’t really work out. In all honestly this question always makes me think back to that time and I have come to the conclusion that the decision was more instinctual rather than empirical. My photographic journey started when I was in college when I started working as a freelance photographer for The Times Leader, a local newspaper in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania. After graduation, I continued working for the same publication until I became a staff photographer for the Coshocton Tribune in rural Ohio. I held that position for about a year and then I became a staff photographer for the Watertown Daily Times in upstate New York.

Who are your favorite photographers and why?

There are many photographers I admire but if I were to narrow it down to a few, I would have to say, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, W. Eugene Smith, and Antonin Kratochvil. It’s not the genre of these photographers which draws me to them; it’s their ability to capture not only what they are seeing, but what they’re feeling. I can feel their passion through their work and their connection to those moments. The book, Exiles, by Josef Koudelka, is, in my opinion, unprecedented. With every turn of the page, you are experiencing the intimacy of the photographer, you are there at the moment; there is absolutely no detachment. There are many others photographers I admire but simply being there, witnessing something and capturing it, these photographers are at the top of my list. Alex Webb, who I was fortunate enough to work with while I was working on my MFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York, is also one of my favorite photographers. His work is totally different from, let’s say Kratochvil, but the complexity and layering of his compositions are fascinating and impossible to mimic.

What was the reason that you decided to leave Greece?

My father made the decision to move to the United States in 1979 for his post-doctorate degree. My mother and I stayed back in Greece, so we were all going back and forth in order for the family to be together. You’ll probably think I am crazy but when I was young I did not want to come to New York City, where my father resided at that time; what kid does not want to come and live in the Big Apple? Long story short, I actually did go in the late 80s but when we went back to Greece for the summer I refused to come back, and I didn’t. Time passed and after a long time I ended up back to the same place I first encountered the country; Astoria, New York. I always visited the city but since the 80s I never really lived there. My project “Bittersweet Apple” is a response to my personal experiences exploring memories of the past while experiencing the present. Although the project and my work in general fall into the documentary style, the project was about my personal experience years ago and a way to reevaluate the relationship I had with the place and not a direct commentary about the neighborhood, although at times that was implied.

How are things at this moment in the USA, tell us the difficulties that you are facing in your daily life, as a photographer, and how do artists/photographers make their living?

You don’t want to know (laughs)! I am sure you are familiar with our current political situation, so in general, you could say that things are a little tense. At the same time, it makes this country uniquely interesting to photograph and I use the medium to communicate and contend with the current situation, both on a personal and social level. I have been fortunate throughout my career, both as an editorial photographer and educator to be surrounded by colleagues that I consider family. I think in general, photographers make a living in the same way they do in Greece or any other countries. The main difference is that in the USA there might be more opportunities, but the competition, especially in places like New York, is extremely fierce.

Here, we present your project “America in a Trance”. You said that this work is a product of love, for both the state (Pennsylvania) and country you have called home for the last two decades or so. Please, let us know your view about this project and also are there any similarities with your birthplace (Greece)?

For “America in a Trance”, I’m investigating and respond as I travel through towns and cities across the state of Pennsylvania, a once prosperous and vibrant region where the notion of small town values and sustainable small businesses thrived under the sheltering wings of American Industry. A mode to promote American values, industrialism provided a place where immigrants from tattered European countries crossed the Atlantic for a better future. An immigrant and naturalized citizen myself, I had always perceived the U.S. differently, mostly from the big screen Hollywood experience and the adventures of “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”. Traveling across Pennsylvania, I imagine these towns as vibrant communities looking towards the hot stacks and brick factories; a past where prosperity was possible on the local scale, and the streets and storefronts were bustling. The bitter irony of towns once so self-sufficient, which contributed to the bottom line of American industrial empire lay in rust, turned into casinos, shopping malls, or simply left to go forgotten with the exception of the hearty locals that soldier on. This project is an ongoing observation of the fading American dream so typified in the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape but widespread across the United States.

My subject choices derive from intuition and the desire to explore the unknown and rediscover the familiar. Through form, light, and color, I let the work develop organically, and become a commentary of place and also of self. The hues work as the constituent of hope, not doom. The work is a product of love, for both the state and country I have called home for the last two decades. While my interest is not in the depiction of desolation, at times it becomes necessary to the narrative. I search for images that reflect, question, and interpret life in the towns and cities across the Keystone State, and the yearning for survival and cultural perseverance. My interest is in the vernacular and the inconsequential, that which becomes metaphorical and a connotation to a personal visual anthology for the photographer as well as the viewer.

Have you any tips/advice for an aspiring photographer?

Make work from the heart and photograph your interests, life experiences, fears, and concerns. As a personal rule, I do not travel with the intention of photographing - with the exception of the state of Pennsylvania and places I lived before (in this case Greece and New York). This does not mean that I don’t make work when I visit places, but I do not intentionally travel to other countries with the intent of developing a long-term project. I am an adamant believer that if you can make a powerful image in rural Pennsylvania, you will most likely be able to make an image in, let’s say India. I am just using this as an example because many photographers fall into this “trap” to visit visually interesting places to make work in order to become successful. Personally, I believe it works the other way around. If you can make powerful work in your backyard you can make good work anywhere. This of course is just my opinion and the way I view things and by no means its meant to discourage anyone.

Let us know what is your opinion about photography in nowadays and in general the social media obsession?

The photographic medium is at its peak right now, considering our national and international issues, and I am sensing a resurgence of “straight” photography, which for a moment seemed old fashioned or considered cliché, especially within the contemporary fine art community putting emphasis more on related media, often heavy on manipulation. For me, the personal rush I get from our medium is to make an un-manipulated image that might comment on an issue or be a reflection of my feelings right when I click the shutter. Changing things or adding elements in Photoshop in the name of art or to portray a message does nothing for me. To me, the adrenaline lies in the fact that you win some images, but lose many. Like life, sometimes things work out but other don’t; you suck it up and move on. You can’t change the past and the moment you make an images everything becomes a memory. Art photography or whatever you want to call it, for me lies in the ability to evoke emotions, portray a message, and make a statement right at the moment of taking the photograph.

Many adamantly abide by the notion that a photograph is not objective and does not represent the truth, so removing or adding elements to improve a photo is acceptable–cropping and choice of focal length is a form of manipulation. I find all this very silly and an excuse for the fact that a photographer has missed a moment did not compose properly or was not attentive to the surroundings. Yes, photography is subjective and it’s not the truth (whatever that means), but what you are showing is accurate; your viewfinder becomes an editing tool and through lens choice, angle and the like, you subtract and collect “facts” and what the viewer sees is an accurate representation of a moment you choose to frame. This fact does not make what you see fake. Removing or adding element in order to improve the image aesthetically or change the message is what is not accurate. Unfortunately, there are many instances of manipulation and rather than condoning it, especially in the documentary/Photojournalism/Street Photography genres, it's accepted under the futile statement that everything is a manipulation.

 

I enjoy social media and frequently share my work and engage in a dialogue with photographers I have never met before. Most importantly I have discovered the work of photographers who create some powerful work but unfortunately that work is not promoted as much as it should; but that’s another conversation.

What is your favorite quote about photography?

“There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph, all photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth”. This is a quote by Richard Avedon and I think it works well with my previous answer. It’s one that I regularly think of; especially when conversation regarding manipulation and objectivity kick in.

Do you have any thoughts to come back in Greece?

Outside of my occasional visits for vacation and to continue working on my “Motherland” project I don’t have any plans at the moment, but nobody really knows. Plus, having experiencing two countries creates a level of confusion; you are not really sure where you want to be. It does motivate you to constantly photograph which I guess is a very good thing.

Let us know about your current exhibition. 

I was honored to be awarded a one-person exhibition by the selection committee for the Northeastern Biennial Twenty-Fifteen. The exhibition will be a collection of forty-two photographs from my ongoing project “America in a Trance” and my journey throughout the towns and cities of Pennsylvania. I am also planning to exhibit the project at OKTO Photography in Thessaloniki in June, and I am also discussing opportunities to show the work in Athens.

Is there any new project that you are planning to deal with?

I also work on a project about Pennsylvania County fairs called “Fair Life, For Now” and this coming summer will be the fourth year. I am hoping to visit every county fair across the state and I think I can say that I might be halfway through. Two other projects I am working on is “Motherland” in Greece and I have some plans for the future.

Please, send a message to our Greek readers who are also, upcoming photographers, and now they are, we all are, facing that terrible chaos in Greece.

First of all, I would like to thank you for sharing my work with the Greek audience. As a first generation Greek, and one that has spent half his life in Athens, what is happening in the country is heartbreaking, but in my opinion, things will improve. I know I am speaking from a distance but I truly believe that. Greeks have a strong history of survival, solid family ties, great humor and true friendships that can carry one through the hardest of times; eight hours of coffee and conversation also is one of our strongest medicines. I would like to make an addition to these invaluable assets; take your camera out and make pictures, make the new contemporary archive of the country and use the medium to contend with the situation; express your feelings by making a visual journal. I apply this way myself in order to assimilate, understand, experience, and sometimes come to grip with the fact that I am not in Athens and my old neighborhood. I am not making pictures to call myself an artist, I make pictures because through them I have come to accept, experience, and loved the country I now call home, with all of it’s faults.

www.nikokallianiotis.com

Instagram: njkphoto

Bio

Niko J. Kallianiotis is an educator and photographer based in Scranton, Pennsylvania. His formative years were spent in Greece, but for all of his adulthood he lived in the United States. Because of his hybrid background he views the world and his surrounding environs from two different perspectives, both culturally and socially. Expatriation was not his personal decision, but his current photographic language is. With photography he is attempting to comment on his cultural dichotomy and simultaneously reflect on the social landscape of the communities and cities he has lived. He is currently teaching at Marywood University in Scranton, PA, and Drexel University in Philadelphia, and he is a contributing photographer for The New York Times.

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