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Interview with Niko J. Kallianiotis

“I miss the days when my newspaper photo editor on occasion turned to me saying: ‘This sucks. Do you have something else?’ Direct, honest, comical, but that criticism helped me grow.”

Niko J. Kallianiotis

Image from the project "America In A Trance" by Greek photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis
© Niko J. Kallianiotis

Niko J. Kallianiotis, why did you become a photographer and what does photography mean to you? What do you want to transmit with your pictures?

I am originally from Greece but have lived in the United States half of my life.

I took the photographic endeavor at a later age and my relationship with the medium became a reality in the United States. I do not come from an artistic background but people, towns and cities, the atmosphere and overall mood of a place always fascinated me; from my grandmother’s village in Greece to Pennsylvania only the topography changes, the feeling and curiosity to experience the moment are everlasting.

For me, it was only about the moment and still is.

Photography to me is a conversation that I initially want to have with myself about a particular moment or experience, past or present and I strive to translate this internal dialogue in images that will resonate with the viewer.

I am not interested in making work that is self-centered and although my work is mostly about me, I want my photographs and their experiences to also be about you.

Your latest project is called “America in a Trance”. How did the idea come about? How did you approach the project? And what have you learned from working on the project?

For America in a Trance, I explore 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 sheltered 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“.

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 past few years, my project has been unintentionally influenced by current events. In Pennsylvania, and throughout the Rust Belt, these former industrial areas transformed into political stages with visual caricatures and photographs that lacked the empathy and understanding of the place.

Coming from another country, this visual representation of this unique region was a vulgar spectacle, which has enhanced and influenced my response. The gap betwen metro and rural America is intergalactic and while I travel and experiencing the moments I always whisper to myself that this might not even be about photography; the experience of infusing myself in a particular environment supercedes the act of making images.

If I wasn’t a photographer I would still go in these towns and that is why plenty of times I have take the drive without a camera, experiencing the place and talking to people.

What’s your favorite photography quote?

“You must feel an affinity for what you are photographing. You must be part of it, and yet remain sufficiently detached to see it objectively. Like watching from the audience a play you already know by heart.”

George Rodger

How would you describe your photographic voice and creative process and what’s important in order to develop one?

My photographic voice is heavily influenced by my internal curiosity and concerns, which oscillate between a personal and social level.

This inner desire and anxiety to understand and cope is swayed by the realities of the world, the trivial instances that subliminally pierce your heart and become important.

I don’t know if one can call this a creative process, but the process of actually experiencing a place by throwing your preconceived ideas and political affiliations in the sewer, and actually try to understand a place, is like an extraterrestrial who lands on Earth for the first time.

Now that I think about it more, my creative process solely depends on not having a creative process simply because any process would change the circumstances.

What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need and What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?

Besides the usual assertions of having the passion and drive to photograph, I strongly believe that understanding what works and what doesn’t in a single photograph or a project is an imperative asset.

Most photographers love their work and do not accept criticism very well, and that in combination with the constant bombardment of visuals on social media, together with the “value” of “likes”, has fallen prey to the pernicious belief that photography is never objective.

True, but I also dare to dream and firmly believe that photography can be objective and that the trap or, might I say, the obsession of subjectivity has become a calamity in evaluating a single photograph or project.

I miss the days when my newspaper photo editor on occasion turned to me saying: “This sucks. Do you have something else?”

Direct, honest, comical, but that criticism helped me grow.

What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?

Although I tend to work on projects, I highly value the power of a single photograph. Whether perceived as a single image or part of a project, what makes a photograph great for me is in its power to transcend. I once said during a conversation with a friend that a photograph for me is like a woman, (or a man).

Objectively speaking, when you approach someone with the intention of getting to know them better or establish some form of relationship you strictly go by looks. But looks (aesthetics and formal qualities in a photo) don’t really cut it.

There needs to be depth, chemistry and room for an equivocal and enticing narrative because out of all these people, you took the initiative to approach that one person.

A photograph that merely relies on how things look but omits how things feel will never get you that important first date.

Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?

Life and its unique and ever evolving experiences that involve the past, present, and the ones I have not come to witness yet but have an defiant desire to incorporate them in the memory archive.

You can say that this is the reason that I frequently revisit places I have been to many times.

What photography book would you recommend?

I truly enjoy reading and I have many favorites but if there were one book that I would recommend to someone it would be “The Ongoing Moment” by Geoff Dyer.

The book is an intimate reading encounter that delves beyond the surface of the photographic medium with a prose that is eloquent and soaring.

Which advice would you give someone who’s just starting as a photographer?

Photograph what is of interest to you and start by making images in your back yard, your community.

Many photographers who start out aim for “exotic” and visual interesting places to photograph, which usually results in images that merely scratch the surface or are highly subject driven.

Photograph your town, your neighborhood and shoot from the heart. Leave those preconceived ideas behind and have the curiosity of a newborn or a kitten, with the latter driving us nuts.

Image from the project "America In A Trance" by Greek photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis
© Niko J. Kallianiotis
Image from the project "America In A Trance" by Greek photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis
© Niko J. Kallianiotis
Image from the project "America In A Trance" by Greek photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis
© Niko J. Kallianiotis
Image from the project "America In A Trance" by Greek photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis
© Niko J. Kallianiotis
Image from the project "America In A Trance" by Greek photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis
© Niko J. Kallianiotis
Image from the project "America In A Trance" by Greek photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis
© Niko J. Kallianiotis

More about Niko J. Kallianiotis

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Niko J. Kallianiotis teaches at Drexel University in Philadelphia and Marywood University in Scranton.

He is a contributing photographer to The New York Times and a member of OramaPhotos in Greece.

His first monograph, America in a Trance will be published by Damiani, Italy, with a schedule release date September 2018.

Follow him on Instagram for daily project updates.

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