Since we first published this series on LensCulture a few years ago, it has continually proved to be one of our most popular articles. Something about the project’s distinctive mix of deadpan humor and political, environmental savvy has made it stand out, again and again, for thousands of readers.
So, we sat down with Hannes to learn more about the series. “They might look funny, my pictures” he says, “but actually, they’re not funny at all.” In this short but impactful video interview, Hannes speaks about this documentary project that explores the 20 countries that border the Mediterranean Sea.
What was on the photographer’s mind as he produced this body work, over the course of four years and 20 separate trips all around the Mediterranean? Managing editor Alexander Strecker spoke with Hannes to find out more:
LC: What first drew you towards the subject of the Mediterranean? And when did the project transform from a small idea into a multi-year reality?
NH: Every good project starts with a fascination. For me, the Mediterranean has been such an important region throughout history. Across millennia, it has stood at the crossroads of three continents and countless cultures. It is considered the cradle of (Western) civilization. On this land, we find the continuity of man—an accumulation of history, wealth, power and culture over all of recorded time.
As a child, I learned about the Mediterranean at school and went there on summer holiday. Thus, it was not an exotic place to me—much of the coast on the northern side was quite familiar in fact. But already, that was a good thing! I’ve found that when I want to tell a real story about something, I need to feel a connection to it: I need to be able to relate to my subject if I am to make others relate to it as well.
At first, my focus was strictly on the history of the region, particularly the ancient Roman centers of power. But when I arrived at these archaeological sites, I found myself uninspired. As my work depends so much on chance and coincidence, these controlled sites did not interest me photographically.
Besides, after beginning the series, many, many contemporary events began to unfold in the area. I started in 2010 and in the years that followed, we saw: the crisis in Greece, the Arab Spring all over the Middle East and North Africa and the historic influx of migrants, first in Italy, then later across the Eastern Mediterranean. As my involvement deepened, the eyes of the world were watching this region.
Today, the Mediterranean has become one of the world’s great conflict zones (rather than one of its melting pots). All over, one finds key fault lines that define our present moment: West and East, North and South, rich and poor along with many others.
This tension is what made it so interesting photographically—visualizing the parallel realities that are happening, simultaneously, on the very same coastline. From the opulent, jetset tourism in Monaco to the widespread destruction in the Gaza Strip, it’s a vast area of contrasts which gave me so much material to work with.
LC: The project incorporates several different styles—from Ed Ruscha-like gas stations in Greece to more personal storytelling. How did this evolve? How do you keep the project cohesive in your mind?
NH: I’m kind of a greedy photographer—I like to capture everything that interests me. In other words, I don’t like to limit myself while I’m working. I open myself up to everything and let it in. Afterwards, I can figure out how to make sense of it all.
Still, I was guided by some big topics. These included mass tourism, urbanization and migration. None of this was well-planned or pre-meditated at the start, but the five years of the project functioned as a kind of continuous investigation. Over that time, I made many thousands of pictures and ultimately edited them down to 100 pictures for the exhibition.
But it’s not quite true that my aesthetic is ever-changing. There are some threads in the style that run through all my work. For one thing, I almost never focus on the individual. I’m always more interested in context and environment and, in particular, how human beings relate to and shape their surroundings. I often like to take a step backwards (literally and metaphorically) to look at the scene in front of me with an outsider’s view.
For example, if you look carefully, you’ll see that I often take an elevated point of view when shooting a landscape or a scene, stressing that I am an outsider. This doesn’t mean I am a distant photographer; I feel very close to my subjects. But I choose not to focus on individual stories.
I believe that photography is particularly powerful in its ability to bring together different layers in one still image. Thus, a photograph shouldn’t be too easy to read; it should be open to multiple interpretations. There should be enough complexity and doubt in the frame that the viewer has something to linger over. Personal, individual storytelling is certainly possible within a still image but it’s not how I prefer to work.
Indeed, this was my main criteria while I edited—does this picture only tell what I saw in front of me or does it convey multiple layers?
LC: Speaking of layers, it feels that humor is an important element in all your work. Can you say more?
NH: A big question for me is this: how can I get the attention of my audience? How can I make them look at my photographs? Today, we are all overwhelmed by pictures. Thus, to make a difference as a photographer, you need to find a certain language that appeals to people, something that makes them want to look at your work.
I want to talk about big, important subjects: migration, the degradation of the environment, growing inequality. I’m a concerned photographer but I can’t show misery all the time. It won’t be effective and it won’t communicate the message. So I try to find another way, and I often employ humor as my tool to attract the viewer towards a deeper engagement.
This was well-illustrated in the way I laid out my exhibition. On the first walls, I started with funny pictures, sunny scenes from the beaches of the Mediterranean. People could relate to it. They were attracted and drawn inward. Then, just behind the corner, a different part of the exhibition was revealed: unrest, refugees and the destruction of wars. This was a deliberate tactic. I started by saying to my viewers, “Please, come closer! Have some fun!” But once you look carefully, entirely different details start to make themselves clear.
LC: What were the challenges of photographing in somewhere like Libya vs. an entirely different environment such as Monte Carlo?
NH: I’m always working in the streets, walking day after day. That means I don’t feel very comfortable in conflict zones; I can’t make my photographs when bombs are falling. I went to Iraq just after the American invasion but I discovered that this kind of work just wasn’t in my DNA.
Still, I decided I wanted to go to Libya. I kept the trip very short (10 days) and hired a fixer, which I don’t usually do. I also confined myself to the country’s three big cities. Even so, I ended up getting arrested, on the accusation of spying. I had to spend a few nights in prison, waiting for the Belgians to bail me out. Meanwhile, the police had taken all my equipment and deleted my pictures. Fortunately, they didn’t override the data on the memory card, so once I got everything back, I was able to recover my work. Nevertheless, it was a scary and awful experience.
Monaco, meanwhile, is not a familiar place to me. As usual, I needed to find a way to get close to my subjects, but this was very hard. I tried many times to get on board a yacht, for example. I wanted to photograph these wild parties that happen each night on the harbor. But I had no luck. Finally, I saw a boat flying the Belgian flag. They gave me access for a very brief moment.
Each place presented its own challenge though. For example, in Venice, I found myself unable to make a picture. The city was an open-air museum, but offered none of the urban dynamics I wanted to convey. In Istanbul, one of my favorite cities, I had to travel to the very outskirts, where the development ends and the countryside begins. It was here that I found shepherds leading their flocks in the shadow of high-rises. That’s the kind of picture I was looking for.
When I’m preparing to travel anywhere, I do a lot of research. I look at the internet and read a lot of non-fiction books to understand the history and politics of a place. But once I’m on the ground, I need to find a way to capture the ideas I’m seeking. As I said, I walk and walk all day. If I don’t find my idea after three days, I have no choice but to keep going.
It’s intense—but immensely rewarding—to be searching for something when you’re not sure it’s really there. But when you take your time and allow coincidences to happen, the world continually proves to be much weirder and more interesting than anything you could possibly imagine.
That’s why I give myself over to coincidence rather than trying to stage things. The surprise of finding that great picture out in the world can really make my day (or week…or trip!).
LC: Do you have a favorite story behind one or two of the shots?
NH: One photograph which illustrates my searching process was taken in Spain. I began with the idea of photographing golf in the country, since I know it’s the cause of many environmental problems. To make the photograph even more pointed, I traveled to Spain’s driest region, Almería [in fact, one of the driest areas in all of Europe]. But even there, I had to visit over half a dozen golf courses before I found just what I was looking for. When I found the right spot, I knew that it was perfect and that I couldn’t have found a better place. So sometimes, I have an idea in mind and then need to find that picture out in the world.
But it’s not always like that. Sometimes I see something by chance. For example, another, one of my favorites is the picture of the naked woman with the hawker on the beach, in the south of France. This picture is full of contrasts — black and white, rich and poor, women and men. It’s a good sign that some people find this to be a funny picture while others are disgusted by it. That means it’s very open to interpretation. When viewers have mixed feelings, you’re headed in the right direction.
—Nick Hannes, interviewed by Alexander Strecker