The Deutsche Bank photography prize winner discusses his curiosity, why we should always question things and the current state of Greece
Sometimes in life, the path you intend to take isn’t always the one that you end up pursuing; sure, we have plans, but more often than not we find ourselves taking little detours. “I was supposed to become an architect. Photography was an accident, it happened because of the peculiarities of the Greek education system,” says the Greece-born but London-based Nikolas Ventourakis. Having recently won the Deutsche Bank photography prize for photography with his Leaving Utopia photo series, Nikolas is an example of when these path changes work out for the better.
Having studied in some of Europe’s leading art institutions, including London College of Fashion (LCF), Central St. Martins and Essen Folkwang, Nikolas embarked on a career in fashion photography. “I knew nothing about fashion and had nothing to do with the fashion world, but when I saw the design process I really liked that, and I saw photography as a continuation of that.” It was curiosity that led Nikolas to pursue his photography in this direction: “I thought the best way to find out about it was to do an MA in Fashion Photography and then go back to Fine Art later on, so I did the MA at LCF and I liked it. But the plan I had didn’t work exactly as I intended it to – I stayed in fashion a lot longer than expected.” Once again, life has a habit of getting in the way of those finely worked out plans.
Whilst fashion was paying the bills, and giving him valued experience and a burgeoning reputation, it was his Fine Art work that really motivated him. “Fashion worked well and it was fun but I was always more interested in Fine Art… even when I was doing fashion I was working on other projects, but I was not doing anything with them.” Nikolas, in his Fine Art work, often shoots unpopulated space, typically in midday light and predominantly either within a city or desert setting. This stems from the photographer’s early love of architecture and how we interact with space and our surroundings, but it goes beyond that: “You can break things down into small moments and start to digest it, I can spend more time with the world through photography. It’s fun because it’s just a moment but it gives me a wider time frame for a particular idea.” Nikolas uses photography to explore ideas and visual narratives, each image plays a key part within this and reflect the artist’s own thoughts.
“I have things that are important to me and I work loosely with them and slowly I start to see patterns, and once I see them I focus on that and build on them very consciously from that point.” He says, “When I start a project I don’t even know I have started it, I work very intuitively. Each photo is a self contained visual space, it has both a time and a space element to it, which is very much defined because it’s always the same. You can find those elements but at the same time, the second aspect that comes in is when the audience sees it, and where they see it, so you have two time spaces meeting.” It is this framing of the everyday which resounds through his work, inviting us in: the audience is not told anything, it is up to you to interpret what you see.
Whenever I meet artists I’m always fascinated by them, they appear to see the world in a completely different way, and talk about it in an alternative way to most people. I’m not suggesting that artists are abnormal, but art isn’t exactly a regular career path. It is the desire to look beyond the surface of things and to try and understand the world that drives artists and sets them apart. “I want to know everything about everything, which is of course impossible, but I feel the constant need to fulfil that.” For Nikolas, it is his photography that allows him to follow his curiosity, though like many artists, he is at odds with his medium. “Photography is a very limited art form, it cannot explain anything, it cannot reveal things. Despite its limitations it can ask questions, so since I cannot find the answer to everything, I can at least find the questions.”
People are constantly documenting the world around them and putting them out in the world of social media; photography is the most accessible and readily available way for people to artistically express themselves but that doesn’t make anyone with a camera an artist. If you or I take a picture, it’s normally of something unusual, or of something superficially beautiful but, ultimately, there’s a lack of substance. “I think what I observe most of the time is the moments before something is going to happen, not the event, not the aftermath; it’s always before. But in order to understand what is going to happen, you have to understand first what is happening and what might happen and why. Nothing is happening in my photos, but that’s exactly what is happening, that contradiction, that’s the drive, it’s never that I go somewhere and anticipate something.”
It is this awareness and tension that makes Nikolas’ work so powerful, especially considering the setting of his most recent work. Since the global financial crisis, Greece has been a regular fixture in European media, one of the hardest hit EU countries and, with crippling austerity programmes being forced upon it from Europe, social tension is high amongst its residents. People became very poor very quickly, and youth unemployment – at the current rate – is set to pass 70% in 2014. I wanted to know how Nikolas felt about the situation back home, and how his work reflects this. “We knew it was going that way, from the Olympics we knew that something was going to break down. I try to be ‘none-particular’, Greece is the centre point of the story,” he says, referring to his Leaving Utopia images, “but it’s not about Greece. It has a wider narrative, it’s a general question about what the fuck is happening. It’s about a story that I have seen unfold, it’s not just a reaction about what is happening now, it’s a question about the process of what has happened. It’s political, I am political. What’s happening is really terrible but I’m not showing that, just showing terrible things is not questioning the whys. There is that story being told, I’m just discussing another part.” Throughout the ages we have looked to artists to make sense of the chaos around us, we seek to understand ourselves through art, some artists want to inspire change, some use art as therapy and others want to create something beautiful. Nikolas’ curiosity drives his work, he creates his work to question the world and the time we are living in, but what does he want us to take from it? “I hope people question the assumptions of what they know, I’m not a huge believer in photography to inspire change, but I am a believer in photography to at least inspire questions.”