In this interview and dialogue, a pair of Greek photographers, Panos Kefalos and Dimitris Rapakousis, discuss their photographic approaches as well as the boundaries of documentary work with Ioanna Chronopoulou. The conversation happened in the context of the photographers’ latest exhibition “Saints & Outsiders.” The show was organized through the 2nd Medphoto Festival and is being held in Rethymno, Crete. It is running at the city’s Cultural Centre from December 2 to December 19, 2017.
In “Saints,” which was previously published in LensCulture, Kefalos entered into the intimacy of an Afghan family living on the streets of Athens and revealed both tender and difficult moments from their daily struggle. In “Outsiders,” Rapakousis tells the story of a different group of outsiders: a group of Roma people. In both cases, the photographers manage to get admirably close to their subjects and help show us a different world.
Ioanna Chronopoulou: Your projects both share common ground and yet strong differences are also evident. Is there a dialogue between these two stories?
Panos Kefalos: Dimitris’ photographs make me observe the details through colour. In most of the frames, I see a subject lacking order, but there is an underlying sense of harmony and order. I see a clear synthesis despite the chaotic context. Since most of his pictures don’t concentrate on one thing in particular, I understand he is searching for something.Thanks to seeing his work while it was being set up, I realized that my gaze could not focus on one point, but I was looking for details within the space. While he begins by talking about one man in particular, he is also talking about the environment in which man lives.
IC: Based on these observations, how does his work relate to yours?
PK: There is a huge difference between the two, and this is the nodal point. My work is in black and white; the environment doesn’t dominate the picture but exists as a claustrophobic motif. My photographs could be anywhere. Mine are marked by high contrast, and I focus on particular details. In many ways, my work follows an opposite path than his: you focus narrowly at first and then you see the rest. But through these contrapositions, we can see two different worlds with many shared characteristics, which finally get to meet.
IC: Nevertheless, there are photographs in your work showing the overall environment.
PK: Certainly, but this happens in the context of an associative construction. Through the way I’m photographing, I am trying to remove the depiction of reality and put it in my own frame. General shots or landscapes are being shaped through my world.
IC: Dimitris, what do you see in Panos’ work and how do you think it relates to yours? What is the dialogue between these two stories?
Dimitris Rapakousis: I agree that there is a contradiction, but I consider the works conceptually close. They differ in terms of technique, colour, and intention, but they share similarities as well. Panos’ work is particularly…dangerous. Many photographers have tried to follow the technique of high contrast, black and white images, but they lack the substance. Technique, in most cases, overshadows the content and the photograph ends up saying nothing.
In Panos’ case, he demonstrates a strong “Why?” that gives his project meaning. It began when he found some children from Afghanistan in Victoria Square, an area where immigrants gather in the center of Athens. He manages to demonstrate their childish innocence in a violent way, as if the children were mocking what is happening. Thus, he is playing at the limits. Honestly, it could have ended up a bit grotesque. But Panos achieved complete control over what he does.
This relates to my work because we are each talking about two groups who live on the margins, Roma on the one hand, immigrants on the other. I worked in a settlement and followed their rules, their values and their traditions. Panos has done the same thing with a group who dwell in a foreign country, live in ruined houses, exist in places where they wouldn’t want to be, yet manage to survive in their own way. I consider this to be a very strong link between us.
IC: Another connection between your works is that you both tried to capture your subjects’ daily lives. In spite of the situation they are in, these people are vivid and your pictures reveal positive moments in their struggle to survive.
PK: That’s what I find important: that both our tellings overflow with life. The people I worked with don’t feel the security and warmth of a home; the same is the case in the Roma settlement. It is immensely taxing to live like that: to never feel the concept of a home.
I remember Jimmy [a Roma man, and the instigator of Rapakousis’ series] talking about the bulldozer—the sound and the fear of this destructive machine. Even though they are nomads, they also have feelings of belonging somewhere. They want to make their own choices about when and where they relocate and not be pushed around by others.
DR: But it is difficult. A Roma person who has grown up this way, who wants to escape this reality and move into ours, can have trouble coping with the transition. Not least of all, they are going to experience tremendous racism. So it is often easier for them to remain on the margin, rather than getting involved with painful integration.
IC: One might expect that these people do not share our habits, our daily routine. But you show us that, after all, we are very much alike.
DR: Photojournalism may have contributed to our having false impressions regarding how “different” they are. The nature of the images demanded of photojournalists means they have to be present only when something extraordinary occurs. This is their job. So often, they do not have the luxury to show what is really happening during “normal” times.
Panos and I do not practice this kind of photography however. In my case, I feel the need to get involved, even losing my boundaries sometimes. In this project, I spent a lot of time with the people I photographed, which made it possible for me to convey their everyday life. In the end, I wasn’t on a quest for something extravagant, but their lived reality.
IC: How did you get them to open up, to trust you and let you into their lives?
PK: I worked on this project for three years. I started at Victoria Square and moved closer from there. First, working with the children, and then more people admitted me into their homes and places of prayer. It is important how one handles this. I did my best to be straightforward with them. I wasn’t always shooting; I was trying to build connections and find out what I had in common with these people.
DR: It took a long time for me, too. Many Roma are suspicious of photographers—and they are probably right. Most everyone going there wants to take something from them, so they want something in return. At the beginning, they were asking for money. Six months went by but I insisted. What was so important for me to recognize was an anger I sensed against me: not towards me personally, but the society I represent. If I had left, I would have confirmed their feelings towards us. So it became my duty to stay.
IC: Do you believe that you managed to become part of this community?
DR: To quote Susan Meiselas: “The camera is an excuse to be where I don’t belong.” Yet when you are holding a camera, you are also keeping a distance. Today, I certainly feel more part of the community than before, but there will remain a gap. After all, have you ever seen anyone going to help the Roma without a personal interest? Whether as a volunteer or a photographer, each person who gets involved with others has to find their own “Why?”
PK: Another connection between our two works: a need to confront something in ourselves that we were attracted to. I feel that both works demonstrate an internal quest. We are within these pictures. In my case, “Saints” is a psychobiography of my own childhood. Through this work, I was able to re-witness my own experience. I was reminded there is love within all this wildness and violence.
DR: We all have to face our fears eventually.
IC: For both of you, the final parting must have been hard. Going back to places you photographed for two or three years and finding no one.
DR: In my case, suddenly, one day in 2012, by orders of the state, everything was taken down and when I went, it was all gone. I wasn’t missing the images—I was missing the sounds. It was emotional for me to have listened to sounds that I would never hear again. I also saw Jimmy’s dog, a huge dog, skinny and dying.
Βruce Davidson did some work in Harlem which really helped define me. He used to say about his subjects that he felt like he was a part of them. In his going to Harlem, or Panos visiting Victoria Square or me exploring Jimmy’s impermanent home, all of us are asking the same questions: who decides what is a ghetto, who defines the margins—and why do we accept them? If we have a curiosity to go out there—and to find ourselves in the process—we also need to ask ourselves: what are we going to bring back and show to the world?
—Panos Kefalos, Dimitris Rapakousis, interviewed by Ioanna Chronopoulou
Editors’ note: In its goal to discover and promote new photographers, the MedPhoto Festival is once again hosting the MedPhoto Award, Greece’s first ever international photography prize. This year’s award will be granted to a photography project (final or in progress) selected by an international jury. The top prize consists of €3,000 to support the work. The deadline is December 17, 2017.