Nikos Economopoulos was born in the Peloponnese, Greece. After studying law he went on to become a journalist. In 1988 he started photographing in Greece and Turkey in and eventually abandoned journalism to dedicate himself to photography. He joined Magnum in 1990 and started traveling and photographing extensively around the Balkans.
In the 1990s, his focus fell on borders and crossings, photographing the inhabitants of the ‘Green Line’ in Cyprus and the mass migration of ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo. During this period he also started photographing the Roma and other minorities. A retrospective of his work titled Economopoulos, Photographer was published in 2002 and later exhibited at the Benaki Museum, Athens.
He has recently turned to the use of color. Currently, he is spending most of his time away from Greece, traveling, teaching and photographing around the world, in the context of his long-term On The Road project.
We spoke with Nikos about his inspirations and how his irrational approach provides access to an emotional, magical and surreal landscape beyond the constraints of a perceived reality.
You began your professional life as a journalist and then switched to photography. How did this change come about? Why did you take up photography?
I always knew that I would gravitate towards photography. But it was important for me to keep the amateur gaze and maintain my freedom. I didn’t want my subsistence to depend on it because this would tamper my freedom to explore.
Which photographers or artists have inspired your work?
Cartier-Bresson was my first point of reference, my window to the world. And then Sergio Larrain and Joseph Kudelka – those were my photographic influences. There were also a broad range of other artists including Montenegrin writer Branimir Scepanovic and the Greek songwriter Dionysis Savvopoulos, as well as Emir Kusturica. In general, Balkan literature and cinema have profoundly shaped my worldview.
Your documentary focus on life in the Balkan region of Eastern Europe and Western Asia has seen you produce a number of works on this area. What is it that fascinates you about this region in particular?
What drew me and ignited my imagination was the Balkan paradox. I couldn’t understand how these societies that are so close to one another both geographically and symbolically; in their cultures, languages and their common struggles, their ways of life and of seeing the world, could generate and foster so much violence. How could similarity and tension coexist? And how they could foster such intense emotions towards one another? The blood and the honey (bal-kan) that the name indicates. There was a certain familiarity for me, in terms of traces that once could recognize in events or gestures or peoples’ attitudes.
I remember three Albanians in Pristina, who drank together one evening, all insisting to pay at the end, until one of them pulled a knife and threatened the others in order to prevail. This is not easy to understand, let alone explain, but in my eyes it somehow seemed familiar. Insane and brutal but also tender and mesmerizing.
How do you approach your various projects? How do you go about telling the stories of the people and cultures you photograph?
Photography for me is not premeditated. It’s pure instinct. I don’t like preparing for it but rather react to whatever I see and experience. I don’t like going somewhere with a pre-constructed assumption but rather going with just a few basic tools and bare pieces of information that I patch together in order to be able to experience things as freely and openly as I can. In this way, every new place is a wonderland.
Often I think that I should be more organized and prepare and keep notes, but it never works out in the end. I cannot approach it as a rational process. Maintaining access to the world as a magical landscape is vital to me. I fear that otherwise I would lose the emotion, that which is moving me deep inside, the untold.
What I depict in an image is what cannot be articulated in words. It is not necessarily what strikes a familiar chord, nor what appears as novelty or even exotic otherness. Ultimately, this must have to do with inner connections, a commonality of emotions.
I make my best photos in those places where there is an abundance of human interaction, where the barriers are crossed, the thresholds are negotiated, where life overflows. The visual experience is the outcome, not the locality, from where the photo originates. This is nothing if not the human experience. That is the intention. That’s where the images come from. It is what gives life to images.
There is often a surrealist element to your photographs, including cut-off body parts and incomplete subjects. How do you go about creating these compositions? And what effect are you trying to create in eye of the viewer?
Again, for me this is an instinctive process. I am not thinking about rules of composition nor am I trying to create an effect or to impose a certain symbolism. I don’t feel that is a language that interests me. There is no idea in my mind, which I am then trying to turn into an image. The reverse, in fact.
The surrealism that you mention in my images is a streak of subversion. Think, for example, of kids playing around with a ball. What I would look for is the moves around a ball but not the ball itself. If the ball is in the frame, the answer is there, it does not spur your curiosity. But if it’s not there, what remains is the dynamic of the gestures and the flow of bodies around a ball, the joy of the game without the object in sight. Or exactly the opposite and you wonder. That’s what I look for, the element of wonder.
I think what I am looking for is not the truth, in the sense of the unique and uncontested truth. Ultimately it is the lie, the suspension of disbelief. It’s like asking a question and going about it without an answer, without uncovering the underlying truth, but uncovering layers and layers of other questions taking you along divergent paths. Just like in real life. That’s the surrealism of reality. What we try to fit in rational boxes but never fits. It’s about emotions and not explanations.
I do not even feel I am telling a story. As a photographer, you don’t answer the question that the frame poses. You create another question. The viewer has to wonder. And you are there, partaking in or even creating that wonder.
How would you describe the resulting style of both balance and tension within your frames?
I can only describe it with the image itself, but not with words.
Having shot with black and white for years, when did you start shooting color? And what do you see as the biggest differences between the two formats?
Black and white for many years was a one-way street. It is simpler, deductive, and allows for abstraction because it removes a significant part of reality – color. It transcends reality, thus making the outcome more surrealistic. This ability to go beyond reality was captivating for me.
I always used black and white with analog film and only used color after switching to digital. Cost was also a concern, you could not print color as inexpensively as you could do with black and white.
Color is more realistic. To get the same contrasts and tensions, the same sense of surrealism, the same charged outcome is much more complicated. It’s more difficult, more challenging, because it depicts reality with greater precision. Visual validity therefore requires greater effort. It’s not enough to have the right balance of form and content that is sufficient in black and white. As you are describing reality with greater detail and precision, you run the risk of ending up with something conventional. So you need to deploy other tools as well. Like light, the quality of light and the balance among different colors. In black and white, you can do things with diffused lights, whereas in color the relation between high lights and low lights is much more interesting.
When did you start shooting with Leica cameras? And what do you appreciate about Leica cameras in particular?
I started using a Leica M3 with a 50mm lens, clearly influenced by what Cartier-Bresson was using, and I have had a Leica ever since. Over the last decade in fact I don’t use anything else. Now I have been using a Leica for so long that I cannot imagine my photographic life without it. I don’t like changing my tools much. Often I feel terrified by the big fancy cameras. I find the simplicity of Leica very creative. It has the perfect balance that a creative tool needs.
You also teach photography and offer workshops as part of your On The Road project. Could you tell us a little more about this?
This started twelve years ago as a way of sharing the joy and the freedom of the journey with like-minded people. The teaching happens in that context. During the day we part and follow our own way, each of us photographing alone and exploring. In the evening we then gather together and edit the day’s work. In the course of these editing sessions, there is a whole world that unfolds. The workshops are structured as editing sessions. At the same time there is a sharing that takes place that is hard to describe. For me there’s something magical in accompanying others during the process of finding their gaze, their voice. It’s a transformation. It nurtures my soul. Usually they come back, we meet again and again in the course of the journey and there is a bond there that I treasure.
I prefer traveling in this way, and exploring freely without the limitations and impositions of an assignment. The destinations change every year, although there are always some that I tend to return to, Istanbul or Havana for example, where I feel a bit like being at home. What determines that is the level of human interaction, the way lives are lived in the streets, beyond domestic boundaries or structured geographies. I am captivated by the crossing of thresholds, the suspension of disbelief, the exchange of emotions in shared spaces, the minute wonders of life in the street.
What one piece of advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their photography?
Try to be free and to cultivate freedom, and trust your instinct, nurture it, go towards what gives you joy. This holds the key to the answers, and to even more questions.