YORGOS KARAILIAS. THERE'S A FRESH BREEZE
by Georges Salameh


Yorgos Karailias born in Athens in 1972 and has resided in Spain since 2010. He studied History (Master on Modern History in University of Athens and Barcelona) and later he begun his formation on Photography, to which has dedicated himself professionally since 2000. He has worked as a photo-editor in Apeiron Photos agency and as a freelance photographer for various agencies, publishers and journals.
Since 2010 he’s also teaching Photography and Visual Arts and has participated in various cultural and educational projects: he was founding member of ART/IF/ACT company, dedicated to the development of cultural and educational projects in Greece between 2010-13; in 2010 he was part of the “Campus20.16” international project, held by the “Caceres2016” committee in the context of the city´s candidature as European Capital of Culture; in 2012-3 he directed the collective photographic-educational project 'Diafragmentos Cc' focused on the social minorities of Caceres and in 2015 he curated the exhibition “In Extremis” for Caceres Foto Festival.
He has conducted several workshops in various photographic associations and cultural spaces in Spain and Greece, including Athens and Caceres Schools of Fine Arts. His work explores new perspectives of social documentary photography and has been exhibited in Greece and Spain and presented at various international festivals (Athens Photo Festival, Cosmos Books Arles, Paris Photo, Fotografia Festival Internazionale di Roma, MedPhoto Festival). In 2010 he was awarded the second prize Cedefop Photomuseum Award in Thessaloniki Photobienale. His first photobook 'EstrangeR' was published by Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg in 2015.

How did your interest in photography starts out? Tell us about your educational path. How or if did your studies impact on your own narrative?

Yorgos Karailias (YK): My interest in photography started out accidentally when I was about 22 years old. Till then I had no contact at all with the medium, at least with its artistic field. I was studying History and my intention was to be a good historian. Then one day my girlfriend at that time came with her father´s FED Soviet rangefinder camera loaded with a 24exp. B/W film. I was supposed to shoot the roll and she would take care of the development and print expenses. I was stunned with all these dials and numbers, nothing to do with my family´s plastic point-and-shoot Kodak camera. The result was pure experimentation, but the virus had been installed. The next year I bought my first camera and we started together a photographic annual workshop at the University´s cultural association, and that opened the path for more workshops. With other fellow amateur photographers we created our first darkroom and some years later a photographic team called FOZ in order to be able to organize our education and promote our work. We were inviting acclaimed photographers, such as Larry Towell and Nikos Economopoulos from Magnum, directors, thinkers, curators etc. It was a happy amateur era but I was still developing my studies as an historian, working simultaneously in research labs and various other jobs. Then in 2000 I decided to leave History and I started working in a Greek photo agency and that was it, the tide had changed forever. Nevertheless, my background as an historian has shaped a way of thinking that has affected my photographic work, like an invisible backbone.

How did your research evolve with respect to those early days? Tell us more about 'boaTmen' & 'Universal States'.

YK: Till 2002 more or less my personal work was a social poetic documentary in B/W, something like a post-Koudelka way of seeing things. As I said it was a more amateur era and gradually I begun to feel blocked, the B/W was insufficient, the visual syntax a little-bit old fashioned etc. So I almost quit shooting personal stuff and I was completely absorbed by my professional tasks as a photo-editor in the agency, doing at the same time various types of corporate assignments as a freelancer. I think that in a way I was accumulating energy and approximately 6 years later—with the assistance of the new digital technology—I was back. I begun to work in color and one of the very first projects I developed was a reflection on my father´s death a few years ago, so 'boaTmen' came out as a result. It was a kind of familiarization with the realms of death in the society of the living and a sociological curiosity at the same time about the funeral services in Greece, mostly covered with a veil of social and superstitious prejudice. I spent some time in funeral offices with the people working there, sharing their infinite time of waiting and trying to understand the complexity of their lives and job.


© Yorgos Karailias from the series 'boaTmen'


© Yorgos Karailias from the series 'boaTmen'


© Yorgos Karailias from the series 'boaTmen'

'Universal States' is a short-time project created in 2010 during a trip to USA, specifically to New York and the Four Corners. My intention was to figure out how much reality exists in the imaginary realm of America that I had in my mind as a consumer of its cultural dominance and global expansion. I used a more photo-journalistic approach in order to match the project's visual language to the mass media´s communicative channel. The result was an anti-touristic essay based on diptychs which emphasized on my perception of the contradicted American reality and of course a kind of deconstruction of the myth.


© Yorgos Karailias from the series 'Universal States'


© Yorgos Karailias from the series 'Universal States'


© Yorgos Karailias from the series 'Universale States'

You were based in Spain for many years, why is that choice and how do you relate this period to Greece and your research in the new perspectives of social documentary photography?

YK: Well, the reason was more emotional than rational, more personal than social, although the prelude of the crisis had already appeared in Greece. Anyway, to put it in a rather banal way, I followed my heart, so I left my job, my friends and family and went to the almost unknown, as I had been in Spain several times before and it was not completely unfamiliar to me. Nevertheless, during the first two years I stayed in close contact with Greece because we were developing various cultural and educational projects with ART/IF/ACT, which in a way gave me the opportunity to watch closely the photographic reality there. And of course all this happened in the Internet era, so it was quite easy to stay tuned to Greece and the rest of the world as well, to read and see a lot of things that were being produced worldwide.
Regarding my research, let's start from a common place: there is a general disbelief about the effect of the traditional social documentary photography, including photojournalism, as a motivational tool of social conscience. I think that there's a certain need to re-connect the visual content with politics and the social fabric in an active way and in every term, from the conceptual framework to the final communication of the work.

You have co-curated an exhibition: 'Grossraum C21' with fellow photographers Yiannis Karpouzis, Yorgos Prinos & Pavlos Fysakis, in the greek national university, tell us more about it and what is the symbolic and aesthetic purpose of this gesture?

YK: It was a collective project derived from a common need to create an intervention regarding the new world order and at the same time a reflection on Documenta 14's presence in Athens. “Grossraum” is a term used by the 20th century German theorist K. Smitt and it describes the “great area of interests and influences” around a national territory. We tried to see and present forms of the Grossraum in the 21st century, to equalize reasons and symptoms in the very space of the intervention. That's why we've chosen the Gini building in the National Polytechnic School of Athens, for its historical role in the students' revolt against the Dictatorship of the Colonels in 1973 and its strong symbolic meaning in our days. Regarding the aesthetic part, we have used exclusively glued posters that we combined with all sort of existing visual and textual information on site, mostly of social-political content, trying to respect and match properly the inner world of the building with the imported material of ours.


© Installation view exhibition 'Grossraum C21', a site-specific photographic action in dialogue with the historic Gini building of the National Technical University of Athens, 2017


© Installation view exhibition 'Grossraum C21', a site-specific photographic action in dialogue with the historic Gini building of the National Technical University of Athens, 2017


© Installation view exhibition 'Grossraum C21', a site-specific photographic action in dialogue with the historic Gini building of the National Technical University of Athens, 2017


© Installation view exhibition 'Grossraum C21', a site-specific photographic action in dialogue with the historic Gini building of the National Technical University of Athens, 2017

Since your recent return to Greece, do you have any remarks on how photography has been or is evolving here? Is there anything you have observed in particular? And what influenced your decision to return to Athens this year?

YK: What made me return to Athens, was once more triggered emotionally. I felt a little bit tired and stuck and needed a change. Thus I decided to catch up with things in Greece, things that I had left behind while I was in Spain, and wanted to re-connect with the local photographic community and my fellow photographers. Although my initial intention was to stay in Athens for 2 months, things begun to evolve and naturally I have prolonged my stay. It´s true that Athens is an important place to be this year, socially and culturally speaking. Nevertheless I do still consider it as a transitional period, I let myself be guided by the flux of life, I have no decisive plans yet.
Regarding the evolution of Greek photography, there are some significant shifts and a kind of vital energy, which is essential. First of all, I think that right now the visual production in Greece is somehow aligned with the international fields of interest, let´s say that it has advanced from the formalistic modernism to a more contemporary phase. Second, there are new initiatives and platforms, mostly self-organized, as a double response to the economic crisis and the lack of official interest or assistance. It seems to be a great demand for innovative education as well. I don´t know if all this is here to stay and there are still things to be done in order to talk about a significant evolution, there's fresh breeze but we'll have to see if it could become wind. Comparing to Spain at least, I think that in Greece there's a certain lack of infrastructure and a kind of introversion.

Your acclaimed series 'EstrangeR' produced at the peak of economic crisis in Greece has been edited in a book, as self-exiled in Spain, & published by Kehrer Verlag in 2015, tell us more about this body of work and its relation to this era?

YK: 'EstrangeR' encapsulates all this experience of not belonging, of the physical or psychological instability and alienation, but more than this is a reflection on Europe´s present. That´s why it contains photographs from many European countries, including Spain and Greece of course. Although it began as an organic response, later it was structured as a fusion between a personal diary and a more “objective” social commentary. That's why the hidden structure consists on 3 permanent layers: psychology-photography-philosophy, where the intermediate layer of photography reflects traces of the subjective part and at the same time provides the material for general thinking. The book is sequenced in 3 chapters that set in motion the whole narrative: Angst-Crisis-Sublimation combines with Reason-Shadow-Simulacra through three distinct types of visual approach. The connections may seem a little bit cryptic and the book was designed to transmit the experience of estrangement in all its elements (graphic content, materials, full-bleed images split by the spine); it's not exactly what you'd call a user-friendly object.


© Yorgos Karailias from the series 'EstrangeR'


© Yorgos Karailias from the series 'EstrangeR'

You have been giving workshops with Yorgos Prinos lately in Greece, tell us more about it, and about your view on education in photography?

YK: Well, I know Yorgos for almost 20 years but it was only in 2009 when we established a close collaboration due to ART/IF/ACT. But this collaboration took its full shape later, when he was in Yale University and I was in Spain; we were in contact via long Skype sessions, talking about photography and art in general, analyzing our teaching methods and material, reviewing our personal work and of course co-editing 'EstrangeR'. We were sharing views and perspectives in a kind of common fermentation process, so it was logical when we coincided once more in Greece to set an educational plan amongst other things.
Educationally speaking, we focus in the broad range of photographic practices right from the mediumĪ„s birth till our days and how this heritage could be at the service of the current visual and intellectual production; in the relationship of the latter with the actual social-political framework; in the construction of narratives and the importance of the editing and sequencing processes; last but not least in the development of a way of thinking on the visual.
Methodologically, we combine our double perspective of creators and teachers. We insist on finding the inner motives and needs of each of our students and how they relate to their vital context and their perception of the social. We constantly check this point during a workshop and we enforce the group's interaction on this, it helps to discover gradually the essential part of each work and then begin its breeding.

Tell us more about your latest body of work 'in their Dark Places'

YK: This project came out from as a double output from different experiences. While I was sequencing 'EstrangeR' I noticed that the result was too negative regarding the human presence in my life during these 4 years. That conclusion made me think that I was probably committing an injustice act towards the people who gave me shelter in Spain, so that was the beginning of an amorphous idea to do a separate project about these people. At that time and in the context of an educational project on social minorities in Caceres, I got in contact with a couple of families that were victims of “desahucios”, “legal” extortions from their homes by police intervention due to bank debts. I was quite shocked by such a practise in a civilised and peaceful western country. You know, there are evictions due to natural reasons, earthquakes, fires etc, but that's beyond any human law; then we have wars and waves of fleeing refugees but this is supposed to happen outside the “advanced” Western civilization. So I decided to combine things: I asked my Spanish “family” to participate in a psychological simulation of these extortions, choosing only one object to be saved and standing naked in total darkness in their homes during very long exposures. Thus I created a kind of sanctuary with appropriated though inverted pictorial values of the typical Orthodox religious paintings. Then I worked on different layouts and presentations, from still images to videos and right now I'm preparing a combined installation that hopefully will be presented in Athens this autumn.


© Yorgos Karailias from the series 'EstrangeR'

Is there any show you’ve seen recently that you find inspiring? Any mentor, teacher or anybody else that has had an impact on how you understand your work?

YK: I think that there's always some affection of teachers or mentors to their students, the question is more of quality and quantity. It's difficult to trace it back, nevertheless I could mention Antoine d'Agata's suggestion to find and put all craziness disposable into an ongoing project and Joan Fontcuberta's mention always to work not only on a project's inner content but also on its relationship with the context that is part of. It seems to me as the perfect combination, the one that could stretch the power of a work: enormous energy derived from all sources and deep thinking that could reveal the very connections of the visual surface with the universe where it floats.

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

YK: I'm finishing a long term project that it's intended to be a new book, it has to do with the shifting status of social photography in public places under the changing legal frame of the western society. Also a collective project that hopefully will be exhibited in Athens soon and a couple of new long term workshops for the next period, amongst other. And still thinking about staying in Athens or going back to Spain, but as I said before, no decisive plans yet.


© Yorgos Karailias from the ongoing series 'PNG'


© Yorgos Karailias from the ongoing series 'PNG'


© Yorgos Karailias from the ongoing series 'PNG'

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LINKS

Yorgos Karailias
Greece