"CAESURA" by Demetris Koilalous

interview by Aaron Chapman

His name is Demetris Koilalous. His body of work is titled CAESURA || the duration of a sigh, a year-long project documenting the arrival of Middle Eastern refugees on Greek shores after crossing the Aegean Sea. One photo from the series won the ‘Still Life’ themed competition at Life Framer. And in the recent Head On Photo Festival, 2nd place in the Portrait Prize and 1st in the Mobile Prize division for a smartphone-snapped image that looks like the memory of a tall tale set in the high seas. 

It doesn’t take a photographer to know that every image in CAESURA was meticulously considered before the shutter opened. While other photographers sought to document the migrant issue and their obvious upheaval through common representations of their misery and tragedy, Demetris captured their journey in a fashion that brings Heraclitus’s words and theory on flux to mind. ‘You can not step in the same river twice.’ The portraiture in CAESURA, alongside the migrant journey as a whole, encompasses this ideology best—a paradox of transience and immobility, both physically and emotionally. 

Perhaps we’re hardwired to conjure worst-case scenarios because we’ve seen them headlining our 6:00 pm screens. Initially, when I thought about the refugee crisis, I thought about what I’d already been told to think about. We’re used to associating refugees as a whole, as refugees only. Nameless faces. Placeless people. 

The gift that Demetris possesses is the innate ability to paralyze a moment long enough for his viewers to understand the underlying motif of identity. This is possible only because he first paralyzed the moments in his head, considering it on both aesthetic and conceptual levels. Through CAESURA, Demetris is able to pose fundamental questions of identity while exploring the dimensions between arriving and leaving, and between being someone and someone else.  

Demetris knows his subjects’ names. He knows they’re from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. CAESURA allows them to be seen as individuals with personal belongings, rich histories, stoicism, hope, lives, love, and passion. They’re not treated as boat people. They’re not even treated as Syrian or Middle Eastern. They are just treated as people.

Here I ask Demetris a little more about refugees and CAESURA, and here he provides me with answers I didn’t dream possible.

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Q. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

A. I live and work in Greece. Practically, I am a self-taught photographer. I think that my love for photography started in the darkroom during my university years in the early 80s. My fascination with photography is partly related to the poetic nature of the darkroom which requires precision, yet allows the unexpected; and partly to my need to observe and make visual and conceptual comments.

Q. How long have you been a photographer? How you did start out? What do you usually photograph? And what do you like about photography? Sorry for the bombardment of questions.

A. I started photographing as a student in Edinburgh where I studied Town and Country Planning. In a way, photography was just a tool for my studies. Later in the 80s, I completed my postgraduate studies in Geography in London, which developed my understanding of space with socioeconomic and political terms even further. As soon as I came back to Greece in 1990, I decided to take up photography professionally. I have been a professional photographer since then, working mostly as a portrait and theater photographer, but I have also worked a lot in the advertising industry.

For me, producing a photographic image is always a challenge. It makes no difference whether it is a professional assignment or a personal artistic project. I believe that it requires the same high level of dexterity and thoughtfulness. It just requires a different language. This is what I like about photography; the fact that it is so versatile and complicated yet it is a straightforward medium at the same time.

Q. What kind of camera and/or equipment do you use?

A. For me, the camera is only a tool. Different tools are used for different jobs. I use almost all types of cameras, digital or analog, small, medium or large format depending on the nature of the project and the conditions. However, I still try to use film as often as I can. Usually, for my projects, I work with a 6X6 Rolleiflex, 6X17 Linhof, or 4X5 Cambo. 

Film photography and medium or large format makes shooting a little more eclectic and slow, and I enjoy this. It allows me the time to make aesthetic considerations. For CAESURA, I used my 6X6 Rolleiflex with Kodak Portra film.

Q. CAESURA || the duration of a sigh is a compelling title, equally ambiguous as it is alluring. It seems to perfectly communicate the plight of the migrants entering Greece and elucidate the temporal dimension they’ve arrived at. Can you tell us how you came to give this project its title?   

A. As I mentioned in the introduction of the book, ‘… typically CAESURA manifests a brief silent pause in the middle of a poetic verse or a musical phrase used in this context as a metaphor for a silent break amid two violent and distressed periods.’ I am always very thoughtful when I choose a title, because a title per se, may guide the viewer towards an unwanted direction. My entire project was strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot’s ‘Wasteland’. In fact, one may find many landscapes coming straight out of this great modernist poem. 

After my participation in the Athens Photo Festival, whose theme was ‘MISPLACED/DISPLACED’ with a very evident geographic and political connotation, I decided to shift away from the spatial, the historic and political dimensions towards a more personal one. My original intentions were to place emphasis on the element of identity, the people and the psychological space that they created. This does not imply, of course, that I intended in the least to disdain and neglect the political and historical elements. I felt, however, that more insight was required in order to see these newcomers outside the scope of stress and tension. 

Getting to know many of them after rescuing their dinghies, made me realize that what we saw on the beach was only a fractional impression. The actual incident (if one can call it this way) of the boats landing and the advancement of the crowd was so intense in emotion (and also in imagery) that it was extremely difficult to disconnect the general phenomenon from the persons as units and personalities.  

For me, it was very important to get down to the human scale and completely disregard the chase for an impressive and exaggerated headline photograph. I also felt that this was very important to be evident in the title of my project. In order to do this, I had to disconnect people from this tension and build a new, more conceptual context.

So CAESURA refers exactly to this short and quiet moment of truth and intimacy, during which the anonymous mask of the refugee was dropped. 

 

Q. Despite the state of their war-torn Middle Eastern homelands, despite their crossing of the perilous Aegean Sea to find asylum, some hold the opinion that migrants shouldn’t be allowed to enter Europe as they pose threats to a job and even National Security. Can you shed any light on these opinions and also share your motivations for documenting the migrant journey?

A. Recently I travelled to central Europe and admired the state of everyday life—abundance, euphoria and luxury. This is exactly what the Europeans feel is threatened, a lifestyle and wellbeing which was built up gradually and steadily; a political, administrative, legal and social system often referred to as acquis communautaire. I think that quite a few people feel that this status quo may be disrupted. Many (see the results of the recent elections in France) feel that migrants are a real threat to acquis communautaire.

The West to a very large extent is responsible for the exploitation of the Third World. In the past, such a statement would be labelled as political anti-imperialist! However, nowadays we all know about the exact historic relationship between the conquerors and the locals. About the conquistadores and the indigenous Indians, about the North American Indians, about the Aborigines, about Apartheid, about the colonization of North Africa and the tyranny of the French until very recent years. 

These two worlds, that (in demographic terms) have been kept apart for years, are coming together massively and violently without any control. We must not forget that most of this movement is the direct consequence of the utter destruction of these peoples’ homelands in the Middle East and Africa, for which the West is largely responsible.

I don’t think that this global demographic mobility can be avoided or reversed. The process of labour restructuring in western economies involves the employment of cheap labour. Most western economies are once again prepared to exploit this new workforce without giving away equal benefits. Not necessarily economic, mostly social. 

I believe that this is a very important issue, and modern European and Western societies should take it very seriously. My personal view is that the first and most important thing that a lot of migrants who come to the West ask for, is not simply a daily allowance i.e. a financial remuneration, but rather an ethical compensation. It is largely an ethical issue rather that an economic transaction. These people have lost everything and have been traumatized and stigmatized for life because of our civilization.

Trying to stop or divert migration is very much like looking only at the symptoms and not at the cause of the problem. My interest in photographing this extraordinary population movement was entirely instinctive and personal. When the first boats with refugees started landing to Chios Island—literally happening at the beach next to our family house—I decided to start photographing. It was impossible to ignore what was happening. Thousands of people were going through my path every day. It was instinctive. It was not a commissioned project; I never worked for an agency or a newspaper. I never sold any of these (or my digital) photographs. I feel that this approach allowed me the extra time and freedom needed in order to provide an insight and understand what was really happening. I am very happy I did it this way; otherwise, I feel I would be chasing ‘a strong photograph’.

Q. Other than photographing the migrants, what contact did you have with them? Did you travel with them and do you maintain contact with any of them now?  

A. In the beginning, I photographed the landing of the boats, and this was very fast. I was intimidated by the tension and the drama. However, this lasted only a few days. After the first week, I moved away from the ‘frontline’ and started to speak with people, staying with them longer. Then, I moved to the northern border of Greece with FYROM where I had the opportunity to leave the tension behind and spend more time with people. But I never traveled with them. I was not interested in the journey. I was interested in the people and their stories. 

My days started very early, around 5:00 am. I was there, long before they woke up and usually, I spent all morning drinking tea, talking and sitting with those who were waiting to cross the border. I was wandering around for hours until dark—don’t forget I was shooting film so my photographic day ended at dusk. During my first trips, the time that I spent with people was quite short, two to three days maximum. Later when the borders with FYROM closed, I spent more days talking and seeing people. My journeys lasted a maximum of 10 days each. 

I maintain contact with quite a few, usually via Facebook or Skype. Facebook is an easy way to see where people log in from, what they do and what difficulties they have. Most have been using Facebook.

Q. Aside from the compelling portraits and landscapes in CAESURA, you also collected, preserved and registered migrants’ personal objects. These captivating images also reflect the underlying narrative of migrant dislocation and pose questions of identity. Again, you strip away the layers of traditional documentation and make us analyze in great detail, the lives of migrants entering Greece through visual recordings of their personal belongings. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you collected these objects and why?

A. During the first months, everybody (but the Syrians) tore their passports up in an effort to claim that they were Syrians who had lost their identification papers. Being Syrian in those early days was enough to grant an applicant the status of a war refugee. The beach was full of passports, photographs and personal items that all belonged to the old identity left behind. I found this quite shocking, almost a science-fiction scenario where people were trying to erase their identities and proof of their existence. In a way, this was among the reasons that I decided to talk about identity firsthand. I started going through these objects like wallets, family or passport photographs, personal notes, shopping lists etc. and it gradually became an obsession. I started visualizing the owners. I also started to think about more personal stories, like, Why was a Bible or a Koran left behind on the beach after the danger had gone? Was God and belief something so temporal? Why would a young woman leave behind all of her make-up, mascara and eye shadows? How important was it for her to look good and why did it not matter so much anymore? In this sense, all objects emanated very strongly the identity of their owner. 

Q. Some would say that CAESURA bears photojournalistic elements. The point of photojournalism is to tell the story in plain language as in, this is what happened, or is happening. With mass media broadcasting the issue on a superficial level, your images allow the viewer insights into the deeper subject matter. How would you define the style of photography in CAESURA and why was it important in conveying your messages? 

A. As you pointed out, the aim of photojournalism is to tell a story, not to ask questions. In CAESURA, I have tried to raise some questions and also tell a different, parallel story from the obvious one. I believe that it is very deceiving for one to think that they know the story just because they have seen photographs of it. After all, photography is a selective projection of the photographers’ aesthetics, ideas, and viewpoints. An image of a suffering person is too strong to make you think anything beyond their suffering and their drama. 

Most of these people have experienced things that none of us has, or ever will experience, and still they are strong and pragmatic. They dream, they are sensitive and vulnerable, but not weak. This is exactly what interested me. 

I do not know if CAESURA has a different or explicit style. All of my photography is a little staged; yet at the same time, there is space for the unexpected. Through my photographs, I want to make the viewer think about a series of issues. Is this real or is it staged? Does this photograph convey courage or melancholy? Is it simple or complicated? Is it intentional or accidental? 

The portrait of the blind girl playing in a dumpsite near the refugee camp in Eidomeni initially intrigued me mostly on an aesthetic level. I was seeing this family every day for about a week. I would bring them chocolates, candies, and little toys, and we had developed a very affectionate relationship. It had never crossed my mind to photograph her because it looked too emotional and exaggerated, especially in the gloomy light of late winter. Then one day a very beautiful white, soft sun came out and I saw her standing in a ray of light, which reminded me of the angels in baroque paintings. It was very difficult to photograph her because I could not guide her where to look or where to stand and how to pose towards the light. It was the light that intrigued me. This was the unexpected parameter that I mentioned earlier. Until I saw the contact sheet, I had the feeling that it was an exaggerated photograph. Later I felt that photographing her was like making a more generic photograph of childhood. Despite her physical disability, she is standing firm and colorful, stepping fearlessly across glass wearing socks like a little bionic princess! Or is it not so? Many viewers will see a vulnerable child, abused and intimidated by the war and her disability. So which of the two is the truth? It may be none because no matter what we think and feel about her state, she was very happy where she stood. And this is the only point I am trying to make.

Q. There’s a debate surrounding photojournalism and how it teeters on the edge of perhaps being unethical. The literature states that photojournalists often face the choice of being an observer behind the lens rather than being a Good Samaritan when faced with human tragedy. The question is: do you put the camera down and help an individual, or do you document it in hope of helping society to understand? Witnessing versus participating. You’ve recently received a lot of attention in the global photographic community for your work. What are your thoughts on these theories and what does it mean to have your work recognized on a global scale, particularly as your work tackles contemporary global issues? 

A. It is not a question of whether I would put my camera down or not. I do not even raise my camera to shoot and even in some cases, my camera stays in the bag. Most of the time, along with other photographers on the beach, we were helping people to land safely. 

I am not a frontline photographer. I believe that the photographic language that is used (and also required) by photojournalism and frontline photography is somehow simplistic and very basic, employing very simple aesthetic tools in order to dramatize. This does not interest me in the least. None of my photographs were taken ‘in action’. I believe that dramatic photographs (without conceptual content) only satisfy the bulimic need of the audience. It is a strange type of metaphoric cannibalism—getting pleasure from watching horrible images and videos like deadly accidents, bloody fights, slaughtering and beheadings (on YouTube for example). 

I believe that simple iconic images are more likely to misguide the viewer, not because they lie or because they are not authentic, but because they stress and project one temporary and historic aspect of a problem. For instance, a person who is traveling dangerously in great distress primarily reflects the agony of the journey. People who look terrified in that very moment, may not be miserable or in pain, and may even be tolerant to bombs or death. So in this type of photography, we (as viewers) are projecting on these people our feelings about their temporary condition. If we feel sorry for them, then we tend to dramatize their state even further. If we feel guilty about their condition, then we also project on them this guilt. However, as I said, my impression after communicating and staying with the migrants is that they were strong, passionate, political, courageous and determined people ready to adapt to a new reality. I wonder … is this the impression we have of these people when we see iconic photojournalist’s photographs? Because if it isn’t, then we need to reconsider what is projected as the ‘Truth’ in journalism and photojournalism. 

The truth is something that has concerned me very much lately. Because Truth is not a black or white, it is not a plain yes or no. Understanding history and reason develops an ability to analyze and understand, and then re-construct and build an argument. People talked about these issues 2500 years ago in the Athenian Democracy and 200 to 300 years ago during the Enlightenment. Shouldn’t we have learned by now?

So, as an answer to what I think is important, and how I would face the whole issue, I would say that to me, the most important element has been to ‘re-humanize’ these people by dropping the mask of anonymity. It is important to alert everybody—even the most comfortable viewer—that we could have been them (not necessarily in a context of war, but rather in a context of social and moral deprivation). Three years ago, none of these people ever imagined that they would be sleeping in the streets and eating out of cans, queuing for a plastic cup of tea. This is the Truth.

I am very happy to have won awards and to be shortlisted in Sydney at the Head On Photo Festival, LifeFramer, and in the Boutographies Festival where in early May, I exhibited a large number of my images in Cardiff, Belfast, Tbilisi and Santa Fe, where CAESURA also received the Exhibitor’s Choice Award. From this, I gather that my visual way of speaking about this issue is comprehensible to a very wide spectrum of cultures and viewers. So it is a great opportunity for me to put forward these questions and express these concerns whenever I get the chance. So I really have to thank you for giving me this opportunity! 

 

To see more work by Demetris, visit his website