Nikos could you tell us how did you get into photography?
When I was about 17 years old, without any specific reason I started to develop an interest in photography. I started without any previous studies in the field. So, I took photos the same way most people do. In 1979 I started my university studies at the School of Mathematics. It was something that attracted me but that attraction was not enough to keep me going. Along with my university studies I tried to find out more about photography. In the beginning of the '80s I started working at a professional studio, which specialized, in commercial photography. That was an opportunity for me to learn, mainly in practice, the technicalities in this field. So I ended up working as a professional photographer and gave up on mathematics altogether. I started looking at other photographers' works, it led me to think about what it is that I would like to express in my photos. The first thing I understood or, rather, the first thing I realized at that point was that photography is an amazing tool that opens up new worlds which, otherwise, would probably be very difficult or even impossible to reach.
Let me give you an example, my first work, ‘Perama’, was shot in a residential area with shacks, and illegal houses. When I first saw this setting I felt the urge to get to know these people and discover what forced them to lead that kind of life. This project lasted almost two years and I'd say that all these years what still attracts me is what I experience each moment. The time I spent living with these families, was much longer than the time I spent taking photos of them. It gave me something far more important than the photographic outcome. However, the images are the lasting memento. And I believe that, at least by looking, someone could interpret them and see some things. Because I wouldn't be able to describe what it was like to live there. Not even to myself. It's more of a feeling, a memory, not easily put into words.
During that period, until 1984-85, my second project, ‘Gasworks’. I was interested to get to know the people who lived under these conditions although, in theory, the country was in a state of economic growth. Since I started taking photos up till now, that is 35 years in all, my view of the subjects & themes I depict comes about in a purely impulsive way. All my projects are the result of my need to see everything in pictures, my environment, my country, and my life... I often feel and enjoy certain things I see and I want to put them in photographs. But this becomes a fleeting thought, just recorded in my mind. And usually, when I feel the need to go out and take photos, these recorded thoughts suddenly appear in front of me and I capture them. These photos may be derived from those processed thoughts in but I never set out looking for preconceived images. When ‘Gasworks’ was completed I felt that this particular way of approaching people and places through photography was over for me.
Later on, eleven years later you published 'Geometries' (1996-1999)...
I was interested to get to know Greece by means of a journey, using once again as a starting point the photographic representation of that journey. I wandered through many places, observing the landscape, which was already familiar. The time had come for me to stand face-to-face with it and capture it with my camera. It goes without saying that I've always been interested not in pure nature but in the way the people living in this country leave their mark on the landscape. Another element was this kind of anguish I had, to reveal a certain turning point through which photography finds beauty even in ugly things. There is something magical about it. I'm pretty sure that, as time goes by, I tend to work more than I did 15-20 years ago. From 1996 onwards the amount of photographs I produce along with my need to do it are growing, maybe it's because I'm getting older that this need is growing stronger.
This search continues in 'Cosmos' (2000-2003) through colors?
The more persistently you observe your surroundings the more things you discover about the place you live, even about your own self. Three years later I got to know the country even better. I discovered things, you can neither imagine nor stage as a setting. You can only experience them. Towards the end of 1999 I decided to try and observe color. Not exactly, I looked for the kind of color that I find interesting. All this effort led me to my next project, Cosmos. After I completed ‘Cosmos’ and due to various reasons that have to do with my personal life, family etc., photography started playing a greater role in my life. This is a non-negotiable part of me. I’m always ready to be fully dedicated to it. And it gives me a sense of equilibrium.
There has been a turning point in my working method, regardless of the topics that come about and their outcome. When I am taking photos, what I do is what I believe in. That's what each one of us does. In other words, we live in a big city and there comes a time when you want to be closer to nature and just go on an excursion. Since then my work has been following these simple steps. As for the topics, many come to mind but I let them evolve freely. Maybe some years ago I wouldn’t have said but I can definitely say it today: I feel really happy when I document my world. All my work revolves around this country. And I feel that this country is my home. My life turns in circles, going round and round. I started with photos of people then landscapes, then the city. Out of the city, to rediscover it later. And suddenly, in 2010, I felt that what I missed were the people.
In ‘Natural Monuments’ (2009-2010) my viewpoint was completely different. Back then I was convinced that I wasn't interested in the human element but in space, not only as a country but also as a planet we inhabit. A planet that will outlive us. Back then I had crossed out people and I was observing ants.
So with 'Life Narrative' (2010-2013) you focus on people?
Very soon, which was rather unusual for me, human entity acquired a new interest for me. Portraits of people. Who? Relatives and maybe some new acquaintances. Photographed in the best quality possible. Being able to see through them. How? As simple as possible. Well lit, without trying to improve their image. Compare a person with his photo without spotting the difference. That was the beginning of my last project, back then still untitled. So, basically, I started photographing the human face through which is expressed the soul, the heart and everything. During my discussions with the people I photographed for this project something new emerged: spoken words, which are equally important with the image of a person. «Loves me, loves me not and my heart is beating fast» «Those of us born during and after the war didn't have any dreams.»
Gerta by Nikos Markou from the series 'Life Narratives'
One of the most important things that happened was that I met new people and listened to their stories. But, most importantly, I photographed my parents for the first time. Photographing a person close to you can feel really awkward. But our ‘interview’ was a very pleasant experience. You listen to your parents. You’ve known for 50 years, and discover stories you've never heard before. There are times when you face a situation that puts you in difficulty and you have no clue how to handle it. You have to know that there is a simple way out. You just do it. End of story. You just stop fretting over it. If deep down you want it to happen, it will. Unfortunately, we all have inhibitions and each time they take over. Every time you have to take such a decision and make that simple step. The rest are figments of your mind.
Violeta by Nikos Markou from the series 'Life Narratives'
How was this project born? Some friends gathered to discuss and try to find a way to react to the new situation that Greece started experiencing, as many people believe, in 2008, and that we call ‘Economic Crisis’. We used to meet and confront in order to express, through our work, our views on the subject. This triggered me in some way. Projects and ideas we discussed could easily lead me back to my own archive of previous projects where I could have dug images, expressing perfectly what we are experiencing now, dating back to 2000 or before. Yet, I felt the need to do something new. I believed that what we are experiencing as a country is not new. Maybe we just discovered it because of the money involved. I don't know how to describe it but this ‘Crisis’ is the story of my life. And I believe what is expressed in ‘Life Narratives’ resonate with our era.
All these years I feel that I am circling around the same topics. Life, Cosmos, Humans... Or at least, what I perceive them to be. The only thing, which differs, is the method. I guess you just add different shades and touches on the same thing. Again and again... You always try to draw some meaning from your surroundings. Through this endless effort arises a question: Is there any truth in it all? No, none. Truth is what you get out of struggling with your own self. And this truth is yours. This kind of struggle is never resolved. If you do find a solution, it means end of existence.