Niko J. Kallianiotis was born in Greece and is an educator and photographer based in Pennsylvania. His formative years were spent in Greece, but for all of his adulthood he lived in the United States. He started his career as a newspaper photographer, first as a freelancer at The Times Leader, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and then as a staff photographer at The Coshocton Tribune in Coshocton, Ohio, and The Watertown Daily Times in Watertown, New York. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Photography at Marywood University in Scranton, PA and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He is also a member of OramaPhotos.gr and a contributing photographer for The New York Times.
When did you start involve in photography and which was the motive?
About twenty-years ago when I permanently moved from Greece to the United States. Photography gradually became the force to investigate my surrounding environs from two different perspectives, both culturally and socially. I use the medium to recapture and reevaluate my identity and at the same time attempt to assimilate. Expatriation for me was not a personal decision, but my current photographic language is.
Which is the type of photography you concern that represents your work?
I started my carrier as a newspaper photographer and that gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in the communities I lived and work. I treated all my assignments as personal projects and the more I was photographing, the more fixated I became with the traditions, diverse cultures and small town events. From bingo night, block parties, parades and national holidays the newspaper was the vessel to document American society and subconsciously reflect and question my cultural dichotomy. Considering my journalistic background based in the authenticity of the image, and the capturing of life’s moments unfolding in front of the lens, I would abide my work towards a veridical approach together with the fictional tendencies available within the realm of street photography. Most importantly, my work must confer and represent a small particle of what shapes and identifies my personality, but also the plasticity of my community. I strive to show the viewer a glimpse of who I am and leave the image open-ended for interpretation. I am not interested in creating a monologue or contrivance; nor I am absorbed in making a monumental, universal statement with my work. I am using my experiences past and present that happen to be found on the streets I reside; some candid, some immobile, both, very personal and local.
What it is that will make you choose what you will photograph or begin to work with as project?
I am what you can call a “local” photographer. Yes I do photograph in places beyond the city I live but when it comes to long-term projects, where I live, or lived, and the surrounding communities, are my utter inspiration. Although the idea of visiting visually attractive locations with a plentitude of possibilities is in itself tempting, and good practice, I am more drawn to the challenges in more low-key places and the hunt to decipher images that resonate with the character of both the location and the photographer. For example, here in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the practice of street photography is different from New York City. Besides the fact that you are probably the only person with a camera within a fifty-mile radius and people are suspicious and aware of you, there is also a variety of what I call “off moments” as the result of street life that is not as dense and energetic as New York. What is fascinating to me while I am working on my “Electric City” project in Scranton is that I frequently come upon the same people I photographed while I am out doing my errands or going to work. And Scranton is a city of approximately 75,000. I think that creates another dynamic and intensifies my relationship with the place. NYC of course comes with its own set of problems; how do you create a distinct body of work in a place that has been photographed for decades in all of its forms by so many photographers? Having lived in NYC as well the desire to know place and self is the force for my project.
What is a real good photograph for you? Is any photographer that you admire his work and meets your criteria?
A good photograph for me is one that speaks of the photographer’s character and life experiences but at the same time leaves the door open to other interpretations by the viewer to apply their own story and interpretation. Jose Koudelka is one of the photographer that incorporates all of these ingredients. His book “The Exiles” is magical! You can feel and experience the photographer’s background in every single image, especially if you are familiar with his background and lifestyle. So in general I would like the photograph to provide me with the experience of the world but also the experience of the creator.
Your latest project is titled as “Motherland”, which as far as I know, is still in progress. In that you record images of Greece in crises and not only. Would you like to say a few words on this?
As the Greek socioeconomic crisis intensified over the last four years or so, media outlets have disseminated images of despair, and desolation. Some of these pictures cut like a blade for people like me—someone who has spent half of his life in Athens and half in the United States. I questioned, and still do, if this is what Greece has become? Once the center of democracy, civilization, and the arts, the government now forces its elderly to beg for their pensions? Obviously, these doleful images are implicitly related to the current socioeconomic situation and nobody can doubt or undermine their power and value, and the effort of the photographers; but the facts they represent are selective. Simply put, these pictures only represent a fraction of contemporary Greek society. With my latest series, "Motherland" I've strived to depict the crisis with undertones of the hope, humor, pride, and dignity that characterize Greek culture. Under the golden light that plummets over the Athenian plateau and beyond, I tried to document the transformed society that I was once a part of. As I walked the streets of my youth, feeling both familiar and at times alien, I experienced the diverse environs fluctuating between harmony and tension. Most photographic projects are personal, but to me Motherland is as personal as it gets. This body of work resonates with me emotionally and represents quite a significant part of who I am.
Which are you future plans? Do you have a particular project in mind that you are about to start?
At the moment I am in the process of editing three different projects, “Motherland”, “Electric City” and “Fair Life, For Now”. I like to work on different projects at the same time because this keeps me more motivated. Like life, the scenery, places, people, and experiences change, just like life, and photography is life.
Would you like to give a piece of advice to those are just starting their preoccupation with photography?
Photograph what you are interested in and what you are passionate about. Photograph for yourself and not for galleries, museums and competitions. Photograph your life experiences, or the experiences of others, but if you do that, photograph it in a way that you are part of their experience, their life, blend in. That way we can have a solid understanding of you but also understand them. Photography is the ultimate tool of communication and although we leave in a technologically connected world with Facebook and other social media, we are simultaneously disconnected. It is critical that photography should be the connecting link with each other and the vessel to reevaluate our values on every level.
Interview: Nikos Priporas