Niko J. Kallianiotis is a photographer and educator based in Pennsylvania. His photographic work is full of light, colors, and forms. Through his photographs, he likes to express the very special way he sees life based on the dichotomy his two countries Greece, and the United States.
You were born in Greece but you have lived your adult life in the United States. Would you say these two countries affect your work?
Absolutely. A social and emotional confusion develops when one experiences two different worlds, especially when the circumstances are not those of a “better future”. If it means anything at all, the move was during the pre-internet era, so I couldn’t investigate the move from Athens to Queens, New York, which you can say was a pretty shocking surreal experience. It is an important part of the story that the decision to flee any difficult circumstances and come to the United States was not mine and I feel that in a way that plays a role. I did not want to leave Athens but I was very young and needed to follow my family. This experience has proved to be very productive for my photographic process, both in regards to thinking about the medium and its use, but simultaneously in regards to the creative process. You see and experience, you compare and you evaluate the surroundings both formally and emotionally; the goal of all these thoughts and social concerns is to hopefully transfer external and internal views and emotions into the work. I use the medium as a way to content and assimilate with my environment but mostly with myself; photography for me is almost like a confession, a conversation with myself and my environs. I don’t believe that I would have become a photographer if I did not come to the United States. What is most interesting is the photographic influence between the two countries, Greece and the USA. When I am in the United States there are images reminiscent of home by an association of forms and when I am in Greece I have frequently made photographs that refer back to America. The two works are unintentionally merged together; America in a Trance is about coming to America and Motherland, the other ongoing project that I plan to publish, is about going back home.
Colors and light play an important role in your work. What do they represent to you?
The use of color in America in a Trance is a representation of hope. The areas where the images were made, from small towns to cities were once the epicenter of the American Industrial machine, a place where dreams were possible without having to leave your hometown in order to make a respectful earning wage. This is not the case anymore but to me is a concern as to what will happen to these regions and what would be the possibilities for the younger generations. I am not as interested in how it got to be in this state because we all know. Mostly I am interested in the feeling of being there in the present and future. The color is simultaneously a doleful and hopeful note that for me is very contemplative and takes me back to the warm feeling of being back home, and one which situates me into the current reality. I also feel that it accentuates the esoteric beauty of these areas and brings emphasis into the details that make these places unique.
Where do you draw your inspiration from? How has your work evolved throughout the years?
Life. I started my career as a newspaper photographer and was succumb to a plenitude of moments. From witnessing the plight of people, their struggles in daily life, to the happy moments where a high-schooler lifts the state championship trophy in tears, these are all instigators that evolve inward and outward over a period of time. The work I am doing now is different from the work I produced during the newspaper years and although I still do freelance work, I am mostly working on personal projects. One thing that I learned and found it to be an invaluable experience was the transition from producing work under assignment and work through a personal journey. Although I was working under the same “style” that is the photojournalism aesthetic, I was a little all over the place. After a lot of thought, contemplation and long discussions with friends and colleagues, I decided to let it all out and respond emotionally to what I experience. The transition happened about nine years ago and until this day remains as my recipe. It might sound superficial, and on some level or another everyone will agree, but if I don’t feel a chemical connection with what I witness the photograph will not work. First and foremost it is about that interaction between space and self. The austere composition, forms and the like are the easy part of the process. If I don’t feel it, you won’t either and maybe I have succeeded in this, but maybe not.
What was the most difficult situation you have come across while working as a photographer and how did you handle it?
I don’t really have an amazing story to share but I had a few close calls while I was a newspaper photographer and while working on personal projects. I feel that in general I am a good communicator with people and a smile and dialogue can go a long way. I have gone beyond to get “the image” but I never got into trouble. To deviate a little from the question and give it a little twist, I feel that every situation is difficult to photograph and overcoming the superficial veil of the subject-matter and transcend it is one of the most difficult tasks out there. I am not at all interested in the representation of something as is, and believe it or not, I am not even interested in it’s form. It’s something higher that I don’t think I can explain in words.
What would be the most valuable advice you would give to new photographers?
The first mistake is to look at trends and the second is to follow those trends. Transfer your life experiences into your works, photograph your home, your town, your city, in other words in your backyard. Photograph something that matters to you and not because it is interesting and one the viewer might connect. Don’t show how something looks, but show how it feels and how it is transformed. I feel strongly about this because of the visual pollution that is disseminated through the internet with billions of images and it is probably best to not even look at posted pictures anymore. Study photographs in books and familiarize yourself with the history of our medium. Most importantly, find friends, colleagues and mentors who will be brutally honest with you. Above all, do it because you need it, because you are addicted and not because it’s cool to be a photographer; it really isn’t.
You have recently published your photography book “America in a Trance”. What is the main theme of your book, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Around 2015 I started working on America in a Trance as I have traveled 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. As 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” but the reality proved to be different yet visually attractive. A mode to promote American values and industrialism provided a place where immigrants from tattered European countries crossed the Atlantic for a better future. The transition from Athens to New York City to Pennsylvania proved to be an invaluable experience, an education about America and its traditions, values, but also its concerns. This project and monograph are an observation of the fading American dream so typified in the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape but widespread across the United States. It is a product of love, for both the state and country I have called home for the last two decades.