A photographic ‘truth’

When in the interwar period photographers set out to take pictures of the world, what they mainly cared about was telling the truth. This was in the heyday of photojournalism, when photography was held to offer a truthful documentation of reality and thus become a vehicle for social change. This rather messianic notion of photography lasted well through the 1950s but receded thereafter, especially as television became the dominant and most popular means of transmission of information. Gradually, and especially during the 1960s, the claim to objectivity, which was where the strength of photography formerly lay, was not enough to keep documentary photography alive. Interestingly, the medium became critical of itself as it began to question its own accuracy, validity and truth. Responding to changing notions of what constitutes photographic truth, some photographers produced a more subjective and aestheticized style. Since then, the clear lines separating documentary from subjective photography have become irrevocably blurred. Photographs are still documents, but not necessarily of a single, uncontested reality. So where has the emphasis of documentary photography shifted to? An impressive album on the work of the celebrated photographer Nikos Economopoulos marks an occasion for some reflection on the condition and nature of contemporary documentary photography. Co-published by the Benaki Museum and Metaichmio publications, «Economopoulos, Photographer» contains 150 photographs, some previously unpublished, and covers more than 20 years of work, thus constituting the most comprehensive compilation of the photographer’s work. Economopoulos has donated the original images to the Photography Archives of the Benaki Museum. They will be the material for a touring exhibition on the work of Economopoulos, beginning next year in Brussels. Although the content of most of Economopoulos’s pictures is akin to documentary photography (especially as it deals with minority groups, poverty and themes such as the Albanian refugees of Kosovo), they rarely describe a particular situation but work through suggestion, picking out an image’s subtext and drawing the viewer’s attention to underlying moods. All in black and white, spare and yet visually powerful, Economopoulos’s photographs are skillful in inverting the importance of what is depicted and turning details or aspects of an image that usually pass unnoticed into the picture’s focal point. This free and highly individualistic approach is greatly encouraged by the international Magnum Agency which Economopoulos joined in 1990 and became a full member of in 1994. He was the first Greek photographer (besides his eldest son Constantine Manos, who is more Greek-American) to ever become part of the prestigious agency. From that point onward, his work appeared in some of the most prestigious newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Le Monde, Liberation, The Independent, Die Zeit, El Pais, The Guardian, The Observer and De Morge. In light of his success, Economopoulos’s late start and largely self-taught experience in the field of photography seem all the more impressive. Born in the early 1950s, Economopoulos actually studied law and worked for years as a journalist in various Greek daily newspapers while practicing photography as an amateur. The year he joined Magnum, he published «Poverty and Exclusion in Europe,» which contained the images he had taken of Gypsies in Greece. A year later he published «In the Balkans» and also launched his next project on the life of lignite miners and the Muslim minority in Greece. His work shows a particular interest in the Balkan region. It is also mostly concerned with political and social issues. Both his project on the inhabitants of the «Green Line» in Cyprus and the illegal immigrants pouring over the Greek-Albanian border after 1997 are examples of Economopoulos’s typical subject matter. Interspersed among these are also some more unusual topics. His project on old oral poets found across the islands of the Aegean is an example of his broad-ranging work. Currently, he is working on a project documenting life in Preveza, the city where he lives with his family. Both suggest how a photographer who is mostly associated with documentary photography stretches his medium beyond a faithful documentation of the world to show versatile, moving and unexpected ways of viewing life.

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