Greek photographer John Voulgarakis might have had several lives already - but they were all around photography. Both professional photographer, archeological photographer and teacher for many photo workshops, he has seen it all and yet, still defines himself as a "constant learner". In this interview, he talks about his true love for the LC-A camera, mentions the affect of the Greek crisis over the artistic scene and invites us for a trip in the streets of his beloved Athens.
Hello John! How are you? Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
Hello everybody and many thanks for the opportunity to talk about photography through your channel. I am John, or Yannis in Greek, a photographer based in Athens, the famous sunny city with the Parthenon in its centre. I could call myself a very lucky person, because I am one of those happy people whose profession is also an obsession, an everlasting hobby. Since 1997 I have photographed a lot of different “subjects” for a living and at the same time I have tried, with various kinds of imagery, with life documents and optical “words and phrases” to express myself and communicate my feelings through the art of photography. This ongoing work, being a pro on the one hand and trying to make a body of artistic work on the other, also made me realize my irresistible urge to pass on my love for the medium to others. I guess it sounds complicated and indeed, it is to find a balance in this narrow space… So very shortly, I am both a Leica user and a fanatic Lomographer.
How did you first get into photography?
After graduating from high school I went to study Graphic Arts, but after completing the course, I found out that it was too boring for me to work in front of a computer. During that time, one of the most interesting classes that I had attended was photography. As a person I always liked to move around, meet new people and places, live the moment. I had found a way to keep this fraction of time forever alive, in my pictures, using the camera I had recently bought with the money I got from selling my favorite vintage motorcycle. I started shooting films after films and something good started to come out, as André Kertész had correctly quoted some time ago. Then, one day a good friend of mine, after looking at my photos, told me about a very good photographer he knew that needed an assistant for his studio business. The moment I started working there was like I had entered a big enormous Fantasy House filled with infinite doors that led to magical rooms with hidden creative secrets and treasures … I realized then what I now know for a fact, that a lifetime is a very little time for someone to explore the vast universe of this alchemic and technological craft. Indeed, I stepped inside and I never left, I am still wandering inside the corridors of this place that I now call home.
What is your favorite camera?
LC-A … LC-A … LC-A ... Small, big, wide or narrow. I have four of them, three 35mm and one 120. I love this “black box”, it gets me where I want to be …inconspicuous, direct. In the streets or in whatever situation you are in. This stealth “puppy” can be in your hand all the time, you just point, estimate focus and shoot. Let the camera do the math, exposure is not your problem. The law of attraction that you need to establish with your subject is always there. The rendering of light that this camera does is amazing, the colors, the feeling, the atmosphere. It’s a timeless dream machine that makes you feel free.
One of your series is called “Everyday Athens”. Is street photography something that inspires you?
Yes, for sure. There are a lot of amazing photographers, masters in the art, that have affected with their inspiring street photographs my own work. I also enjoy walking with a camera in the streets of a city. It’s like going to a theater to see a play that you don’t know a thing about, everything will be revealed during the performance, the possibilities are endless and you’ve got a chance to tell the story. “Everyday Athens” is a reminder for me that the ordinary is extraordinary - at least life is.
What is it like to be a photographer in Greece? Can you tell us a bit more about the artistic scene there?
I believe that being a photographer is the same everywhere. Photography is a universal language, an optical communication with no boundaries. "A picture is worth a thousand words" a famous idiom that refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image or that an image of a subject conveys its meaning or essence more effectively than a description does. For Greece at this moment in time there is a single word that dominates, and that is crisis. Economic crisis, refugee crisis, social crisis, crisis everywhere, so it couldn’t be different for the artistic scene. The main theme that photography documents and struggles upon is crisis. The human condition, the repercussions of war, of ideologies, of religion, of politics. These are now the “context” of an ongoing discussion for photographers as well. My thinking is that this environment has given a creative boost to Contemporary Modern Greek Art and has made Greece an interesting place for an artist to explore how reality and fiction divide and mix, how modern life sometimes feels like a “void”.
When it comes to shooting, are you more of a spontaneous photographer or a planner?
I am both and everything else that I may need to be, so to give form to what I have pre-visualized in my mind. Depending on the subject matter and my own feelings at that moment. I will choose in advance the kind of approach that I will use for a specific photographic project that I work upon and if it doesn’t “work”, I will shift and try again. In the end, I am a constant learner, I don’t always know… I just do.
You worked as an archeological photographer. Are you interacting differently with the subject of your photos depending on if it is a human-being or an inanimate one?
I feel like a Star Wars Jedi on the matter. I get it, there is a force that connects all living things. For me, this extends also to the inanimate ones. There is something that remains...an eternal echo. Of course, depending on the subject, you may interact as a photographer differently, maybe use this or that camera, a more appropriate equipment for the matter, other techniques or lighting, but that feeling of unity of a living life force is everywhere and in everything for me. For example, if you are photographing a manuscript from the 15th century, I believe you won’t have a good approach if you don’t feel that you are holding something that is more than an artifact, more than just an item made of paper, leather and ink. For me, one must understand that it’s a vessel that preserves the energy of all those people that made it in the first place, hold it, read it, preserved it in time. All of it so that today, we can dive in the knowledge it holds. In short, for me it goes down to simply feel and connect to what you photograph, no matter what it really is.
What have you been up to in 2017 so far?
I have a new photographic project that I’ve been working on for some time now, and I suppose it was time to edit and put together into a narrative aspect. I want to tell a story and I have already started to work towards it. Also, I am getting in touch with galleries and art spaces, hoping to organize an exhibition for this work at the end of 2017 with a photo book to accompany its presentation. Finally, I also had in mind, due to the success of the previous collaboration with Lomography Greece for the Analogue Dreamers exhibition, to do another seminar in 2017 with their support, on the use of instant photographs and Lomo'Instant cameras and I’ve already started with their help to put it together. Time will tell.
You are also teaching photography. What is the most important advice you are usually giving to people starting in photography?
Digital technology is a tool to make life easier. Cameras today can do more than we ever wanted. They can photograph almost on their own - but that’s not photography. High definition cameras in the streets photograph us all day long - but that’s not photography. We need inspiration, we need to feel and sense what we photograph - not to have extra and extra pixels. The photographer makes the picture, the camera just executes. Be a better photographer, a better human - and that needs both efforts and time.