February 13th, 2016
Photography at the Altar: A Conversation about Diversity in Athens
A Greek photographer’s account of migrant communities in Athens reveals a new vision of multicultural Europe.
Amid the anxious media coverage of the migrant crisis in Europe, the Greek photographer Tassos Vrettos pursued an alternative vision. In 2012, he began an immersive account of faith-based communities in Athens, embedding himself in the spaces where followers of Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and various other spiritual denominations congregate to worship. He collaborated with subjects originally from Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Senegal, determined not to represent the trials of arrival and departure associated with migration, but instead the intensely collective, sometimes improvised sites of religious experience. The resulting compendium of images, presented at the Benaki Museum, in Athens, in the exhibition Wor(th)ship. Tassos Vrettos, and collected in an expansive catalogue, is remarkable for its sustained balance between closeness and objectivity. Vrettos, known for his work in fashion and advertising, is neither a participant nor a voyeur. As Wor(th)ship spans a diverse spiritual network, Vrettos’s photographs invite viewers to consider Athens—considered the birthplace of Western civilization—as a cosmopolitan city of the future. I spoke with Vrettos and the curator Nadja Argyropoulou shortly after the closing of Wor(th)ship, on January 30, 2016, an event of testimony and song by many of the migrants and refugees pictured throughout Vrettos’s project. —Brendan Wattenberg
Brendan Wattenberg: How did this project begin? Why were you compelled to make a portrait of religious communities in contemporary Athens?
Tassos Vrettos: “Compelled” is a very good word, I think. I began this fieldwork, coincidentally, during Easter of 2012. I had read in a newspaper that a particularly beautiful Resurrection service was held at the Ethiopian church in Athens and I decided to attend. On Holy Saturday, following a rather eventful search, I found the place and walked into this wonderfully incongruous space. The paradoxical context created by the transitory lives of immigrants and refugees in Athens—both people who have been here for years and those who come and go—involves ecstasy, beauty, and accessibility in the same measure as their opposites. I realized I wanted to think about these spaces more widely, and most importantly, to show what matters to the people who inhabit them. I looked for a way in, and these communities were generous enough to welcome me—in garages and DIY field constructions, in derelict apartments and basements, in public fields, rented hotels, discos closed by crisis, courtyards, gardens, and pop-up temples. I have always worked with people in states of displacement, in borderline, precarious, or ambivalent situations. So, to conjure the familiar from within the foreign is what photography is for me.
BW: In the catalogue, you write about maintaining a respectful distance to your subjects, while also immersing yourself, so as to produce a genuine and authentic representation. How did you gain access to these private sites of worship? Have you made long-term connections to your subjects?
TV: Wor(th)ship has been, and still is, a commitment-in-progress. This project is about storytelling, rather than methodical or exhaustive cataloguing. Yet it’s storytelling in a state of urgency and crisis. My explanations to the communities I approached were straightforward and genuine. I had no grand goal or complicated aesthetic-conceptual scenarios. We had ongoing conversations about how people navigate their lives. We had to trust each other. I showed them my photos as I was making them. I explained that I would try to make a book and an exhibition, and in maybe only two, out of more than sixty places, I received permission to photograph but not to use my material publicly.
My camera was a small and cheap one; I disappeared so that the worshipping people appeared; I became part of each church’s collective body, and by doing that I knew instinctively which line I should not cross, which photograph was given and which would have been stolen, forced. Some of the most interesting relationships, even friendships were forged in the process. I am invited to private ceremonies now, birthdays and weddings and major meetings of most of the communities.
BW: What was one of your most memorable encounters during the course of this project?
TV: I can hardly separate one from so many. I was in complete awe during the graceful Ethiopian and Eritrean ceremonies and exhilarated through the Nigerian Evangelical worshipping, with all its pure joy and phantasmagoria. I was deeply shaken while photographing a night during Muharram at the Shiite Afghani mosque, when I found myself in a forest of people crying, singing, undressing, and hitting their bodies with their fists or chains (the Matham). It was a collective burst of faith, sorrow and lament carried through centuries to their contemporary lives and experiences. Smells and sounds have also been very important since the beginning. I asked the musician Mihalis Kalkanis to accompany me and record them. We now have a material that extends the very fabric of the photographic experience.
BW: Wor(th)ship appears similar to a work of ethnography, not unlike the long-term studies social scientists undertake to describe a particular community. How do your photographs, which in some cases concern ancient practices, also contribute to the photojournalism of the moment—and to our understanding of the politics of multicultural Europe?
TV: I did not chose my subject as a photojournalist and I do not possess the tools of an ethnographer. I cannot claim to be able to help understand, let alone change European politics. My practice is of a “threshold” nature. I want to know and I need to share. I yield and thus I see. I am ashamed by exoticism and folklore, so I have been very concerned about presenting this work during the recent media frenzy around the immigrant and refugee issues. I am content now because this material, as I’ve said, is about storytelling that goes beyond “happenings” and “episodes” and therefore I think it has escaped many such traps of sensationalism.
The reaction of Greek people, the residents of Athens who visited the exhibition and purchased the book, was a big reward. They were silent and bewildered; some cried, and then talked for a long time outside the exhibition space; some shared unaccounted for stories about their past or their own experience with immigrants. Some returned to the exhibition several times. I think people considered this project a revelation, one that is relevant to their lives and future, perhaps even in a positive way. Strangely enough, as the project threw light onto foreign societies, it also illuminated another aspect of Greek life.
BW: Nadja, why were you drawn to this project? How did you decide to organize the exhibition and catalogue, as you describe, in the form of a “narrative rhythm”?
Nadja Argyropoulou: The unknown material and raw process of this project inspired my interest. In my work as a curator, I have thought frequently about shifting identities and how Greece has recently become a “stage” for such transformations. I followed Tassos’s project from the start. I visited some of the spaces of worship with him, I participated in seeking them out, I met the people, I listened and then learned the dialogue on faith, aesthetics, politics. To speak “with” others—instead of “for” others—became a guiding principle in curating both the exhibition and editing the catalogue. There is rhythm in this exchange, a kind of tidal flow, as multiple visual narrations, mental images, and sensual content speak above the tyranny of language towards deep engagement and actual change.
Together with Tassos, co-curator Yorgos Tzirtzilakis, and the other collaborators, we decided to bring this material into one of the great and most open Greek museums, the Benaki. We prompted the organizing institution, as well as our major sponsoring partner, the Onassis Foundation, to think out of the box while avoiding the “spectacle” of representing refugees. We treated the communities involved as equals without the patronizing political correctness and over-protectiveness of current discourse. The exhibition is one of the most visited at the Benaki—and foreign communities, immigrants, and refugee groups attended in unprecedented numbers and diversity.
BW: What do you hope for the future of this project?
NA: To continue being true to itself, the people in it, photographed or not. To travel the exhibition and to circulate the catalogue widely.
TV: For me, the most important part of the presentation of this project was January 30th, the closing day, when members of the communities—Senegalese, Nigerians, Syrians, Pakistani, Afghan, Indonesian, Christians, Muslims, Hindu, Buddhists, and many more—accepted my invitation to speak in public, at the Benaki museum, about their experience of this project, their view on the show and the book, and about their lives in Athens and their current status as citizens. The experience was overwhelming in its immediacy and uncharted qualities.
Wor(th)ship. Tassos Vrettos was presented from November 20, 2015 to January 31, 2016 at the Benaki Museum in Athens.