By Xenia Kounalaki
On the day Greece officially assumed the rotating presidency of the European Union, Eirini Vourloumis's photographs depicting the country's financial crisis appeared in the pages of The New Yorker and on the American magazine's website.
Published under the title “In Waiting,” the 34-year-old photographer's images seem to capture all the ailments of Greek society. An interesting aspect of the project is that there is no human presence, although there are signs of people everywhere.
Vourloumis, the daughter of a Greek father and an Indonesian mother, was born and raised in Athens before spending many years in New York. Her work has appeared in leading international media including the New York Times, Time, Business Week and the Guardian.
Vourloumis talked to Kathimerini about her work, her connection to Greece and the way in which the ongoing financial crisis has affected her work.
How did the New Yorker project come about?
I was working on that project for two years, albeit at a slow pace. I traveled to the US last year and showed some samples to various publications. I received a very positive response. However I decided that the New Yorker style is closer to my last work, which I also think is the most personal one. It has always been one of my dreams to see my pictures of mine in The New Yorker, which also happens to be one of my favorite magazines.
Your images were released as Greece assumed the EU's rotating presidency. Was that a coincidence?
Yes, it was. I also sent the editors an e-mail to ask if they knew Greece was taking over. They had no idea.
But the timing seemed to raise some eyebrows.
Indeed, there were reactions. I too received letters that said that as a Greek I ought to show Greece's positive side. It seemed strange; I completely disagree. I love my country and I believe that I have a responsibility to capture reality with sincerity and respect.
What is the concept behind the title of your project? Are you optimistic there is something good in store at the end of this waiting period?
In the beginning I though about calling it “The Taxman's Shoes” after the photograph of the same name. That title had a surreal quality. But then I thought I needed something more representative. We are a people, a country waiting to see what we can do. We exist in waiting, as it were, of our future. We are waiting to see the decisions that will be taken for us abroad. We hope to overcome the stigma, to leave it behind.
You left America for crisis-struck Greece. Is the crisis a source of inspiration for you?
What inspires me is Greece, not the crisis. But I did come to Greece to cover the crisis. I wanted to work as a foreign media correspondent. Now that the international interest in Greece is waning, I am thinking of moving to Indonesia, which is my second homeland.
Human figures are mostly absent from your pictures. Is that a conscious decision?
Yes. In my opinion, the marks people leave behind at the place where they live or work speak more than a simple portrait does. The places I pick are microcosms that are familiar to the average Greek, especially Athenians. This is exactly what I wanted to examine. What do the places where we live say about our aesthetics? There are certain details that outline our entire society. It is the kitsch, often surreal aspect of these spaces that intrigued me. It often felt like I was traveling in time.
Does it feel like a decent into the absurd?
Yes. For example, the taxman is imprinted on the collective unconscious as a bad person. If he were a character in a fairy tale, he would be wearing narrow, pointy shoes. When I came across that guy at a tax office in the center of Athens, I asked if I could take a picture of him. He was happy to have one taken. He lifted his trousers and he was indeed wearing those almost satanic shoes.
Could you tell me about that image with the poster of Che Guevara on the wall?
“And here is Che, whom I really love,” an employee at the Development Ministry told me, pointing her finger at the poster. Such things may look strange to an outside observer. However, the freedom civil servants have to put what they like on the wall is a good thing in my view.
Don't you like portraits?
On this point, I think I have been influenced by my grandfather, the painter Andreas Vourloumis. He has influenced my character and my work. He liked to paint landscapes and portraits, but he did not like doing commission work. So I do make portrait photos, but it is not easy for me. Capturing a person's personality is a huge challenge.
What politician have you photographed the most?
[Main opposition SYRIZA leader] Alexis Tsipras. The American media went crazy about him before the last elections. He was the talk of the town. He is smooth and photogenic. And he is always in a hurry. Like all politicians, he never has much time on his hands.
In the series about the homeless, there is a picture of a table with some pieces of bread and bottles of milk. It is like a quasi-Christian shrine. In your work, the role of the Church in everyday life is rather uncertain. Does it make you feel uncomfortable?
No, it does not. The Church and the religious icons come up in my work because they are part of the Greek identity. In public buildings, everywhere. In this particular photograph I simply wanted to show the fundamental role of bread and milk in people's survival.
Your photographs appear gloomy about the country's future. Have you thought of a more optimistic theme?
I do not think gloomy is all they are. I think they are open to many different interpretations. They capture moments or experiences that can trigger a wide range of feelings. At the same time, they are also a historical record. Finally, many of them are humorous and carry a promise about a future in waiting.
To learn more about Eirini Vourloumis's work, go to www.eiriniphoto.com.