By Harry van Versendaal
It was December 2006 when Pavlos Fysakis caught the ferry to Gavdos, a tiny island located south of its much bigger and more famous neighbor Crete -- and Europe’s southernmost spot. It was the first of a number of trips Fysakis made in the course of just over two years that also brought him to the continent’s other three edges: Nordkapp in Norway, Portugal’s Cabo da Roca and the Urals, Europe’s traditional eastern boundary.
Armed with two analog cameras, his favorite medium-format Mamiya and a German-made Rolleiflex, Fysakis, an athletic, bespectacled man in his early 40s, set out to answer a bag of quasi-existentialist questions: What is it that makes us Europeans? What is it that separates Europeans from the people on the other side of the border? In fact, what is a border and what does it define?
More or less ordinary people like Boris, Nils, Artemis, Maja and Sofie provided Fysakis with some of the answers. It’s these people whom Fysakis describes in “Land Ends,” a collection of pictures from the journey that is out now in bookstores, as “the guardians at Europe’s outer edge, which may, after all, just be its beginnings.”
How did the project come about? How long did it take to complete?
The thought, the concept of borders, of an end, of lands that are estranged from hope and other such issues nagged at me for years. It had started to brew inside me also through work, as I spent quite a while on a long-term project for Kathimerini on the Greek islands in the winter, on islands that are cut off from regular ferry service. This project -- without it being about the images but more about the questions it evoked -- gave rise to the idea. Also, because I like to travel a lot, I began to think about borders, limits, places where one thing ends and another begins. When I eventually pinpointed the idea behind the thought process, I began thinking about Europe, about its borders and where it ends. I did a lot of research. Exploring, searching on the Internet; reading books on the history of Europe took as much time as taking the photographs did.
I began the project in 2006. I did shoots for just over two years and it took another year-and-a-half to write the texts and design the book. I traveled when I could afford it. I went to Gavdos four times, to Portugal twice and once to each of the other locations. I made eight trips in total.
What do these locations have in common?
Despite the many differences between all these places, the one thing they have in common is that they are Europeans on the fringes of the continent -- you feel something connecting them, this sense of an end, of reflection, isolation. It is not just about them being forgotten but about them having forgotten everyone else as well. “We have been forgotten here in Gavdos” is not the point. The point is that they have forgotten us and have no connection to Athens.
Is that purely a bad thing?
No. It isn’t just negative. Sure, it has its negative sides. We are accustomed to approaching all these places with a negative mind-set and immediately focus on the negative. But the fact that they have put some things behind them is not necessarily bad.
Isn’t the project melancholy?
Yes, it is. Photography, by its very nature, is a melancholy pursuit, as it deals with things that are past, gone. It’s like a game with memory. For most people, memories are a bit vague and you recall the ones you want. Photographers, however, hang on to them.
What equipment did you carry in your camera bag?
I only used analog cameras: a medium-format Mamiya and a Rolleiflex, and no slides, just film. As far as the lens goes, I always use a wide-angle. The entire book is shot with a 50 mm wide-angle lens.
What was the selection process for the locations and subjects?
Once I knew the “what,” the “where” came naturally. It all began to take shape in my mind gradually. I have a little notebook where I jot down my ideas before and during a trip: I need a photograph here, something else there... This means that I have a pretty clear idea of what I need and what I need to avoid before I get to a location. I discover everything with time, like the kind of light I want.
In this work, I have found a uniform light, a pervading, dull light. It is the same everywhere and it brings together all four corners of Europe. I think it’s the sky above Europe that joins it and not what we see on the ground.
I have found weather that is the same. I traveled only in winter but during a period of winter that is exactly the same everywhere. For example, I went to Portugal during the deep winter because it is very sunny and I went north in fall and spring [to achieve the uniform effect].
Can you recall any funny moments from your journey?
At one point in Russia, I was traveling with a friend, Dimitris Michelakis, from Yekaterinburg -- on the border with Kazakhstan -- to Vorkuta at the other end of the country, near the Arctic Circle. The weather was bad and our plane never came, so the next day we set off to take the Trans-Siberian Railway. We went to buy tickets but there was only one left. We were running out of time and couldn’t extend our stay any longer. So we got on the train with just one seat between us and traveled 2,000 kilometers -- 16 hours. We met this guy, a manager at a big factory, on the way and he took us under his wing when the ticket inspector came by.
Breaking through and catching the wave
How did you make the crossover from amateur to professional photographer?
I crossed the river in 1995 while I was still a student. I shot my first portrait; it was of a film director for Ta Nea daily, a tiny little picture.
What are the challenges for a professional photographer working in Greece?
Making a living is the biggest challenge, having any kind of job security as a freelance photographer. The conditions are far from ideal. Day in, day out, you have to prove that you are still as good as your last effort. Meanwhile, you also need to find time to do those things that are important to you.
How would you describe your style of photography?
It’s very difficult to create your own signature as a photographer, your own photographic identity. I think I have it; I think someone who sees my photographs knows they’re mine. I would define my style as street photography that has its feet firmly planted in classical photography in a more contemporary manner -- overall I would say that it is a very classical style of photography.
Which Greek photographers have influenced you?
Nikos Markou and Yiannis Marapas.
Did you study under them?
Yes, Nikos was my teacher.
You come home and study your work. How do you know that one shot is good and another isn’t?
The images I take don’t have any action, so there are no surprises -- there is no “Oh, he moved; he fell down; I missed it.” My images have a very strict composition and structure; they are based on fundamentals that you have to have accounted for beforehand. The random -- even though I believe that there is something random in every photograph -- does not play such a definitive role in my work.
How significant a photograph is, however, also emerges from its narrative. What I mean is that I don’t end up with five or 10 important photographs but with photographs that are each more important than the other, where one leads up to the other.
It’s like telling a story, like putting pages with text in the right order so the words make sense. Basically, that’s the trick. I believe that sometimes an image may not appear very powerful -- many people have said that to me -- but they are important to me because they are part of a narrative. This is the crux as far as I’m concerned: to serve the narrative.
Which was your most memorable mission?
The last trip is always the most important. I also get excited when I start thinking about the next one. One exciting story is about a mission to Indonesia for K magazine, where our boat caught fire in the middle of the Indian Ocean and we nearly drowned. Generally, though, I haven’t been in dangerous situations nor have I undertaken risky missions in war zones and the like, so I don’t have a lot of crazy stories to tell. I prefer to say that I’ve gone on unusual journeys to ordinary places.
Is Photoshop a friend or an enemy?
I don’t really have any strong feelings about it. I use it only so far as I find necessary. If a photograph needs a lot of work, I’ll do a lot of work on it and vice versa. You have to be careful not to get carried away. I believe that photography happens when the film is still in the camera. The Photoshopping I do is the kind of processing that would happen in any darkroom using analog technology. But if I do see something that really bugs me in a photograph, I will take it out. If, for example, I see a electrical cord in the image, I will remove it without a second thought.
Isn’t digital processing a bit like cheating?
I don’t think so. It’s a matter of aesthetics. Here in Greece, you often see lousy editing that kills the image. If you use Photoshop correctly, it helps you; it is a tool. It’s like placing a filter on the lens. It’s not cheating. If you put 70 filters on the lens, well, other than cheating, I’d also say its pointless.
Some argue that Photoshop is necessary in order to bring a photograph closer to what the human eye sees. Is that true?
The lens is not inferior. The lens is not there to do the same thing our eyes do. The lens belongs to the world of graphic reality. You’re not there to record reality. It is a complete myth that the photographer captures a piece of reality and transports it. It’s just not true.
Is photography an art?
Yes. I believe that question has been amply answered. Susan Sontag said it best when she said that photography is an art but maybe your photograph is not art.
[This interview first appeared in Athens Plus, Feb. 2010]
"Lands Ends" is currently on display at the Benaki Museum, 138 Pireos & Andronikou, Gazi, tel 210.345.3111-3, Opening hours are Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, go to www.benaki.gr. The exhibition runs to January 29, 2012.