Pavlos Kozalidis: Back to the roots

It’s hard to decide what to make of Pavlos Kozalidis. If nothing else, this 49-year-old photographer is a curious man who lives to click.

Born in Piraeus before moving to Canada, Kozalidis grew up listening to the nostalgic stories of his aunt, an ethnic Greek from Ordu, a Turkish town in the conflict-prone Black Sea region, who was forced to migrate twice: first to America and, following a short-lived return home, to Greece.

When he first laid hands on a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera in the late 1980s, Kozalidis began to travel. Initially he wandered India and Central Asia but curiosity about his origins prompted him to trace the roots of his family. Between 1995 and 2003, he traveled from Turkey and Georgia to Russia and Ukraine at least once a year.

He did so with scarce resources, mostly riding on dilapidated buses and staying at cheap hotels – a habit that only added to the experience. «It’s better to have a small seat next to a big window than a comfortable seat beside a tiny window,» Kozalidis says in what seems to translate as a life rule.

Somewhere along the way, his work won the support of the Benaki Museum in Athens, which for the first time in 2008 made public a small part of the growing material. «Searching for a Lost Homeland,» some 60 black-and-white photos taken during his Black Sea journeys, is currently being showcased at the Photography Museum of Thessaloniki through April 18.

Kozalidis is not a technical photographer and does not pretend otherwise. «I make a lot of mistakes,» he tells Athens Plus in an interview at the attractive brick-and-steel warehouse building that houses the museum.

But Kozalidis’s candid admission is hard to believe as you stare at this arresting piece of work documenting the lives and customs of the Pontic Greeks who stayed behind.

Not bad for someone who used to steal magazine pictures from his local dentist’s surgery.

Keeping needs simple

Do you have a regular job?

No, no. I have my own means, not a lot, but I still have the capability after so many years to do 16 hours on a third-class bus on a third-class road. I don’t need a lot of money. I spend more money every day on film than my hotel room. And I try to stretch whatever I have. I would gladly spend anything I have to buy film or a ticket to travel by road or by plane.

Do you teach?

No, I am not a teacher. I can’t teach people. You can teach somebody the tricks of photography. It’s kind of like juggling. You can learn to be a good juggler but if there is no heart in what you’re looking at, then it’s like a cold Coke on a sunny day. After a while you start feeling thirsty again.

I think everybody wants to see something true, even when you go to see all that art kind of photography; sometimes I must admit I get a little bit jealous of the attention it gets because it’s new. My work is passe, my photographs are kind of «classic.»

Why did you hold on to this material for so long? Why didn’t you publish anything for 20 years?

To publish something, you need time. And that time takes you away from the clicking, the development. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I still do. I’m so bad that I used to cut up my negatives and then try to pick out something I wanted. I didn’t go to photography school. It’s sort of something that I picked up and in a way saved myself from myself. There’s two ways, you know, up and down.

I can now carry 36 kilos of film and 10 kilos of camera equipment, plus another 20 kilos in my bag. All the rest, looking at it, I can do later.

Are you not afraid that it may no longer be relevant?

It’s just a journey. A lot of people are on a journey and they don’t leave anything behind. At least mine, even if it’s not relevant, is still something. The rest is ego. You want to be like «forever,» your work to be «forever.»

I am not finished with these places; China, Asia, Africa, South America, I am not finished. I’ll never finish. I just did 10,000 kilometers on a third-class bus on a road in Africa; the entire trip took four-and-a-half months. And now I am leaving in 10 days. I can do it now. But at some point I won’t be able to. That’s why I didn’t show it. Not because I didn’t want to. I mean I want people to see it. It’s wonderful when you come up to me and say, «Wow.» It’s nice because it’s really extra. It’s like having a girlfriend and you take her out and everybody goes, «Wow, she’s really beautiful.» It’s really nice because for a long time you thought only you saw her as beautiful. Everything has it’s time. It’s like flowers, they don’t all bloom at the same time. But the thing is – I’ve made mistakes and I continue to make mistakes and I say a lot of romantic cuckoo things. But I am irrelevant, I don’t make these things. I just see some things because they are good photographs. I don’t think I am particularly talented photographically. I just have an ability to get close to people.

Can you tell us about your Black Sea journey? Why did you go there?

It had to do with my aunt and her stories, because she was born there. And in the exodus some went to New York, some went to Russia, some went to Japan. It was a big family. She kept telling me there was a house there which still stands now and I just went back. And I would go by road from Athens, I would get on a bus, a Georgian bus, and I would do the whole journey through Istanbul, three, four days, or even longer if it didn’t break down. And then I would meet people and they would speak my grandmother’s language. And that was really cool. And it was like you made friends after four days because you wake up and you have breakfast, chicken, sausages, bread, Russian cigarettes and vodka, vodka, vodka. The camera is my journal basically. It is my life but it is also the life of the other people that I see. That’s what I am basically doing. Journaling others but using my own means.

Did you expect to find something specific?

It didn’t start out that way. There was no focal point. At some point, you collect and collect and collect and after five years of doing it, you start seeing things happening. I photograph everything basically. I go somewhere and I photograph everything. I don’t go there with an idea. Sometimes I envy people who do that and they come up with wonderful work – but very few. I just observe. I just look and anything that makes visual sense, I go for it. But it has to have spirit, it has to be not happy but dignified.

The subconscious playing with the image

Do you ever stage your photographs or are they spontaneous?

That’s a hard question, because it’s full of lies and truths in the sense that any photographer will say, «Ah, everybody stages.» Look at W. Eugene Smith’s photo essay «Spanish Village» – it’s basically all staged. But it’s the end result that counts. As for myself, if there were things in the photograph that were still, that weren’t moving, and I put a human being there, a child basically, would I do it? Yes. But in the end it’s how I feel about what I have to show when I am at the table by myself and picking them out, what truths I want to say.

But you do seem to want a human element in your pictures.

This has to be. I read somewhere that every time you look at a photograph, subconsciously you look for a human figure. It’s kind of cool – you just don’t know you’re doing it. I basically have to act when I photograph, because I don’t want them to be looking at me. If there is a scene, I pretend that I am waiting, you know looking at my watch, while also waiting for them to calm down, so that I can enter their space. I try to go close. I don’t know if it is «to tell the truth» and all that stuff. I don’t know what that means. I just go because it’s interesting. I am there. I go to get something to eat and something beautiful appears in front of me. And I photograph, then I move on. And no eye contact.

In the Black Sea project, I was cheating simply because I was a Pontic Greek, I was from these people. I understood some of their dialect, which helped. I was Orthodox. I was Greece to them. I was Greece coming to see them, because they couldn’t go to Greece for one reason or another, which was great because I was the pasha of the village. I was like the Martian everybody comes and pokes at, to see if he knows any tricks.

But there was the other side too; all their complaints and all their problems, no doctors, no medicine, no school for their kids. And I did not go there to change the situation but I lived with them. I ate a lot of water potatoes during those years. It was right after Russia had collapsed. There were buildings that had just stopped in time, farming equipment that stood in the middle of the field. German too, no Mickey-Mouse, Chinese stuff. German, beautiful machinery, stopped. People just left. You would go to a village and you would see a generation of children and then old people. Because the parents had left for Russia, Kazakhstan, Greece.

Without wanting to superimpose any meaning on your work, some of your photos seem to convey values like dignity. People are poor and hungry but they look dignified.

You can show even misery and ugliness in humane ways. There is a photograph of a couch and water that was seeping from the roof and it was kind of beautiful because of the textures, and you could see it was a dump and this poor person had to sit on that seat. I don’t need to go down that path. I would rather show a cold child warming its hands. You can see it’s poor but then you can see another photograph of the table with the food, so you know they do have food. It’s where you point your camera.

Black-and-white versus color

Do you take only black-and-white photographs?

I have a small body of work that is starting up to be color. I started out with color. I grew up in the States and Canada looking at Life magazine and National Geographic. I used to steal a lot from the dentist’s surgery, I used to have a collection of stolen dentist office National Geographic and Life magazine photos.

Black-and-white suits me; let’s say you can lie better. With color, you know it’s color. Black-and-white fits me better, like a coat. I don’t know digital. I don’t even know technical photography. To go digital would be a quantum leap. I don’t even know mathematics and times tables and you tell me to do equations. I would be lost. And I like the roll of film. I like coming home after being on the street for eight hours and dropping the film, cleaning and looking at it and thinking. And I would never be ready to see it right away. I can’t deal with it right away. I need to collect over years. And when you take it out of the water, and you have the light, and you look through it and you kind of relive everything, it’s a whole process, it’s everything.

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