On the Periphery
Nikolas Ventourakis (b.1981) is an emerging photographer originally from Greece who moved to London to study and eventually work. With his series Leaving Utopia included in the main program of this year’s Athens Photo Festival, he seems to have hit his stride. He speaks in this interview with Katherine Oktober Matthews about chasing opportunities, the economic crisis in photographs and being on the periphery of the art world.
Tell us how your migration to the UK influenced your photography practice. Has it made a substantial difference, working as a photographer in another country?
It has completely changed the way I work. Our world views are always informed from our experiences and the environment we live in. London and Athens are two very different cities. Athens is a city full of creatives, yet I can spend my time there doing essentially nothing. The weather is too good, the food is great, the nightlife, the people. It is so much harder to concentrate on doing actual work!
London is completely different. I believe in something a friend told me years ago: London is not a place that someone comes to settle in, but rather, we all make it our temporary home until we find out where we want to move on to. In London you come to do, not stand still, and everyone else around you is doing the same. So you are constantly confronted with world views and ideas different than your own, that people from every country imaginable bring with them. You end up re-evaluating what you know, and you deploy strategies to express your ideas to a multicultural audience. And you can’t stand still, because London doesn’t offer anything. There are a million opportunities but you have to chase them.
Plus London is an art metropolis. You don’t only read about the people that make art, you can actually meet them and have a conversation with them. A photographer you admire gives a presentation at the Whitechapel gallery and then invites the audience to the pub next door to discuss ideas over a pint. You can go to exhibitions and see actual prints and works of art up close. You can be part of discussions, groups, research that might change what art, photography, is.
What are the challenges or benefits that you see in trying to get your work published or exhibited on an international basis, as opposed to focusing locally?
First of all, you have more opportunities. Actually, there are so many of them that you can spend days or weeks sending applications, or replying to open calls. It is a full time job trying to find out what the opportunities are! There is also a great pool of creative people that you can collaborate with, to produce anything from an exhibition to a book.
But this is the challenge too: No matter how big the field is, there are too many people wanting to get in, and they are at least as good as you are. So you have to constantly work hard and try to get better in your art and deeper in your thinking. In a small market like Greece, in the past, you might not feel the need to extend yourself beyond your limits. ‘Good enough’ would be good enough.
The project you have on display at the Athens Photo Festival is a personal study of ordinary scenes and portraits in Athens, showing your own reaction to the financial crisis that has been going on there. What do you hope to draw people’s attention to, by using this approach?
Athens during the 2004 Olympics looked great. The streets were clean and freshly painted, the buildings had all the graffiti removed, people were not searching in the garbage for food and there was no Golden Dawn in the parliament. But, that was only a facade. The system was failing – if it ever worked – and not only in Greece but all over Europe, because I would like to make it clear here that I use Athens and Greece as a more general metaphor for the crisis. It is a setting in my photography, rather than a documentary of the place.
Now with the crisis, all the bad aspects in our society are intensified and can no longer be hidden under the carpet. What I see as a danger though is that, by focusing only on the sensational material – the sudden poverty, the deterioration of the state, the violence and the anger – we make it look like it is an extreme situation, an act of god, like when an earthquake hits. This is not the case for me. The ‘sensational’ images are not showing the crisis, they are showing the results of the crisis.
What is the crisis though? When you show an image of a homeless person for example, you show the image of a tragedy that has happened. But my argument is that, despite the fact that he/she might have ended up there during the crisis and perhaps even because of a direct effect of it, there were people living in the streets before. Society as it is now has proven that it’s not ready or able to save someone from such a fate if things go wrong. So there is something in the system that does not work.
In my photography, I build a narrative using images that don’t show anything really sensational, but give a bleak view of the place, or present a deterioration. Given the current events, it’s easy for the viewer to make the connection that what we see is a result of the crisis, but the truth is I have chosen only places that were like that pre-crisis. Nothing that I show in my project is a result of the crisis.
The title of the project – Leaving Utopia – indicates that there was something idyllic lost as you moved to the UK, and also hints that there’s no way to return, for Greece as a nation, nor for you to return to Greece as your motherland. Do you think that’s true, or is there some irony there? What happens when all that’s left is reality?
Actually it is not about my perception of how things were. I never considered the situation idyllic. Nobody believed that things were perfect in the past. Everyone knew that the system was not working. Still, everyone preferred to look the other way and pretend that it was. It is ironic in the sense that people remember how things were and make comparisons about the situation now and end up with the conclusion that we had a good life that we are losing. People are now facing the Reality as you mention behind the curtain, and they realise that there is no solution to be found, unless we start to question the very foundations of how society is built. And I am not referring only to Greek society here.
In a lecture you gave as part of the Athens Photo Festival, you pointed out that relatively few Greek photographers ever reach a level of international recognition. Why do you suppose that is, and is that even necessary?
I would like to clarify what I mean about international recognition. I do not mean that the work is accepted or is made part of the photographic canon, nor that there is a need for a Greek Struth, Egglestone or Graham. What I mean is that the audience of the work produced should not be restricted within the geographical boundaries of the country. Photography is similar to English now, or like Greek was in the ancient world: Despite all its limitations it is functioning as a universal language that the world is using successfully to communicate ideas, even across borders. So, yes, I believe that it is necessary to aim to be part of the international scene.
I was re-reading the other day the essays written by John Stathatos in 1997 to introduce the catalogue of ‘Image and the Icon: the New Greek Photography’ – which by the way I would recommend to anyone that is interested in Greek photography. In his essay, Stathatos endeavours to describe why photography in Greece faced so many challenges, and one important part in the text for me is when Greece is made clear to be a country which exists on the periphery of the major art centres, and carries many characteristics of that isolation.
The word ‘periphery’ itself includes in its definition the notion of a distance from the centre. An artist living in Paris can easily travel within a couple of hours by train to Amsterdam or London to visit a major exhibition, an art fair or simply to attend a symposium, but the artist living in Greece will have to build an itinerary months in advance, save the money which most of the time will be a substantial amount in comparison to the income that is available, or wait for a similar event to happen in Athens or Thessaloniki.
The effect is that students and practitioners experience the developments in their field from a distance, are not part of current trends, and only very rarely have the chance to actively contribute.
One ends up feeling excluded, standing outside a window looking in, fantasising about being part of the group. And being part of the group is important.
Why is that the case, that being part of the group, or being ‘inside’ as opposed to ‘on the periphery’ of the art world is so significant? Is it necessary for new photographers to be a part of the established art world, or are there other ways of building something different or new?
Any artist has to know what the established art world is, in order to create the ‘New’.
Something is new or different only in comparison to something else that already exists or has existed. In the past, Greek photographers were made aware of the developments of the contemporary established art world with a huge delay, so how could they even decide if they wanted to be part of it or to change it?
There is the additional problem that, no matter how anti-establishment an artist might want to be, once the establishment takes an interest in your work, then it’s very hard to not play their game. So, when you are just starting out, you can supposedly be free from the market, but after your first show in an international festival or in a commercial gallery, you are part of it. Supposedly the internet is a very good platform for artists that would like to remain independent. I am curious to see how this will develop in the next five years.
What do you see happening among Greek photographers now that really impresses you?
I love the sense of urgency that they (we) have. It is a now-or-never mentality that has grown because of the crisis. Everything we knew about our lives is being overturned and that led to the realisation that, since we are losing everything, we have nothing to lose anymore. You can see that in the way that the new generation is eager to collaborate, produce, question the previous establishment.
What advice would you have for other emerging photographers trying to get their work noticed?
Work tirelessly on your projects and do not be afraid to show it to other people. Especially colleagues and friends. Show it to as many people as possible and don’t be discouraged if you don’t get that major offer for exhibition or representation right away. There will be 9 negative or neutral reactions to your work for every positive. Plus the opinions of those that don’t like your work are just as important as those that do like it.
And don’t try to be original. No one is original and the hunt for originality is a chimera. Plus, you won’t impress anyone by telling them that you are being original. Your first and foremost concern has to be to please yourself, to work on something that you love and feel close to.
This interview with Nikolas Ventourakis was for GUP Magazine. We talk about chasing opportunities, the economic crisis in photographs and being on the periphery of the art world.