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February 2016
A conversation with Fokion Zissiadis

The multifaceted personality of Fokion Zissiadis has its roots in the multicultural landscape of the city of Thessaloniki where he was born and raised. He is also influenced by his family background, his training as an architect, his career in business and later as a photographer. As an artist, Fokion Zissiadis has taken the adventurous route of the photographer-as-traveller. Travel and photography have been inseparably linked in his approach to life. Their connection is beautifully illustrated in this selection of photographs of the wonders of the Icelandic landscape that were taken during the summer and winter seasons.

In August 2013 Fokion Zissiadis spent ten days travelling more than 5,000 kilometres across almost the whole of Iceland, accompanied by his wife Mata. In March 2014 he returned, this time with his son Leonidas, and once again covered almost the same distance in another ten-day tour. An expert Icelandic guide accompanied him on each trip, and he photographed mainly landscapes, but also traces of human civilisation dotted here and there amid the spectacular natural settings.

These two expeditions yielded a collection of more than 1,000 photographs of Iceland, as seen through the mind, eye and soul of a travelling Greek photographer. He is a man of vision who is also a realist, enthusiastic and yet methodical, both spontaneous and disciplined. He was not deterred by the time and effort involved in such an undertaking, yet rather embarked upon it with the passion and perseverance that are his defining characteristics. He produced a superb record of the unearthly beauty of this wonderful country. Leaving behind the “ripe and ancient land of Greece in a season when its beauty is most ravishing”, in his own words, he answered “the call of a younger, more primitive and rugged world”, one which has seduced his senses and captured his heart forever.

To celebrate the publication of these remarkably evocative images, in his conversation with Yorgos Archimandritis, Fokion Zissiadis has looked back over his career, tracing the thread that pulls together its various facets and sharing with us his philosophy, attitudes and approach to life.

Yorgos Archimandritis: Mr Zissiadis, all your choices and decisions seem to bear the hallmark of an aesthetic quest. What would you say is the first expression of this quest?

Fokion Zissiadis: When you realize you have a leaning towards a particular area, then it’s something you want to cultivate. I realized at a very young age that I had a talent for expressing myself on paper. I seemed to have an innate gift for drawing and painting. When I was painting there was a direct communication between mind and hand. I could reproduce on paper what was in my head, whatever I imagined was transferred to the paper vividly and faithfully. Later on, as an architectural student working during the summer vacation in an architect’s office in Athens, I used to go out to the islands at weekends and draw landscapes and villages. I was training my eye and my senses and stimulating all my architectural sensibilities. When I took my work back to the office the architects, who were older than me and well established in the profession, were full of praise. Their compliments refuelled my enthusiasm and prompted me to invest even more time and effort, to try even harder.

Y.A. What kinds of drawings were these?
F.Z. I suppose in essence they were a deconstruction of the austere island landscape you see in Greece, isolating a cluster of rocks, a line of stone walls in the fields, a cottage or a bell tower. These landscapes always delighted me; they showed human intervention in its most gentle and measured form, manifested in a range of earthen shades – as opposed to a blatant violation of the natural setting. With just two or three lines I would sketch all these beautiful contrasts and the shadows cast by the dazzling light. Because on the islands the houses are mostly white in colour, and the walls are greyish-brown granite. There’s a balance. Circumstances meant that people could only use local materials, which entailed the use of specific techniques. There were limits on shape and weight, but they were able to produce an architecture which, in my view, is wonderfully adapted to the environment and whose simplicity has been a source of inspiration to some great architects.

Y.A. How did you get into photography?
F.Z. When I went to America in 1982 to do a postgraduate course in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania one of the things I had to do was make models of the projects I designed that I would then present at the university. I used to photograph these models, so I could see how the various spaces looked from a visitor’s eye level – the sort of thing we now do digitally with software – and make any necessary corrections and improvements. As my wife was studying photography at Philadelphia College of Art, I had some help from one of her teachers: he initiated me into the mysteries of photography, taught me how to develop negatives and let me use his darkroom. At the same time I was falling under the spell of New York as an urban environment. The city’s skyscrapers, constructed of metal and glass, with their spectacular views, were something I had never encountered before, something unique. I took up urban hiking, equipped with cameras I had bought especially for the purpose, photographing streets, bridges and towering buildings – mainly as a form of stimulus and spiritual nourishment for my architectural studies.

Y.A. Did you continue with photography when you came back to Greece?
F.Z. I had hoped to be able to continue with photography when I came back, and I wanted to set up my own darkroom, but my family situation had changed, with the birth of my son, and I had to concentrate 100% on my career, focusing on my own advancement and my family’s needs. These new obligations had to come first and I was in a very competitive environment. So when I left New York I left my photography behind too, along with my memories of a wonderful, carefree student life.

Y.A. And you took up the thread again early in the new millennium when you had achieved your objectives in business…?
F.Z. That’s right, I felt myself drawn to images again. It started with videos, which I made on trips, intending to create films with moments from the holiday – as I had imagined it beforehand, and as it turned out in fact. In essence, I was ‘directing’ the journey in advance, and taking shots in accordance with a predetermined logic. I wanted to record the trip on video as a kind of living aide-memoire for myself, and as evidence to show my friends. I was travelling to remote and unusual places, and I wanted to show friends and relations where I had been, what I had done and the kind of experiences I had. And gradually this combination of travel and image led me back to its key component: the photographic image.

Y.A. You were still self-taught?
F.Z. Yes, I enjoy finding things out for myself, and I taught myself photography. Obviously you accept all sorts of stimuli and help from people around you, but I think persisting in reaching a greater understanding of an art, mastering that art, is something you have to do for yourself. Of course one might object that there is a risk of making mistakes, of getting so stuck in your ways that you don’t let anyone correct your errors and help you improve. But I would counter that by saying there will definitely be other things you get right. It’s a question of attitude – and that’s just the way I am. I believe in invention and improvisation. I also believe in aesthetics, and all those qualities which ensure that human actions are not devoid of content, but are based on an idea. So whatever the form of expression, what counts most for me is effort, perseverance in realizing my original idea in the best possible way and in every detail. Teaching yourself is an adventure in itself; you discover things, you make mistakes. It’s basically about self-knowledge. I do things in a certain way because I realize that’s how they have to be done. Just as I realize there are all sorts of things I can’t do because they are beyond my abilities, or just not what I want to do. So, I chart my own course; I look for places where I will feel at ease, at peace with myself, with my soul and with those around me.

Y.A. The way we see is influenced by emotional connotations, memories, personal filters. So when two people look at, say, a landscape, to what extent are they seeing the same things? Is there really any objective basis to what we see?
F.Z. To some extent vision is objective because a landscape does have certain specific characteristics. The light in Greece is not the same as the light in Iceland; the light in Oman is different from the light in Africa. The soil is different, all the components of the landscape are different. So there are objective as well as subjective factors. The way in which a photographer sees a particular landscape is a personal matter. The angle you choose, the day and time of day, the way you develop and post-process the photograph – obviously all these involve a high degree of subjectivity. This is why there can be an infinite number of studies of a single landscape or object. What matters is that the photograph should set off associations, should captivate you, should initiate a dialogue. So, a photograph will always have both objective and subjective characteristics.

Y.A. And what is the proportion between the two in your own work?
F.Z. I change very little in terms of colour, tonality or the texture of the landscape. I’m not keen on adding artificial elements, I want to show the landscape the way it was first revealed to me. I only interfere insofar as it allows me to convey the emotion I felt when I took the photograph. Because a photograph isn’t just about pressing the shutter, the technique of representing light or shade, the texture of a rock, a plant or a horizon. The photographed landscape should convey my own vision, my own emotion, but not to such an extent that it creates a virtual reality in the eye of the spectator. If you go to Iceland, this is the landscape you will see. But you will realize that I saw it in a different way, a more creative way; the intention is to show you how you might have seen it yourself.

Y.A. How do you go about your work?
F.Z. First of all I try to reach a full understanding of the place where I am. I try to get a feel for it and understand what it is I need to isolate and show in my photograph. Initially, I have to let my senses drink it all in. Then I look for the best angle, I wait for the right light, the right moment – and I only take the shot in that instant. Obviously I study the place and its culture before I set off on a trip. I read about the topography, the contours of a region. Because to plan a trip you have to know exactly where you’ll be going, at what season, how long you plan to stay, how far you intend to walk. You need to ‘direct’ the whole enterprise, in detail. Preparing properly for a journey has its own charm, it helps you acquire a degree of knowledge, and this means that when you have travelled to many places your stock of knowledge grows, new knowledge complementing and enriching the old. And there comes a time when you realize that you have acquired a fund of geographical and cultural knowledge. You have become a better, calmer person. You understand where exactly your place is on the planet, and, finally, what you are. Travelling and photography are inseparable for me. They are a course to chart through life.

Y.A. What is the relationship between photography and time?
F.Z. A photograph freezes time. When you take a photograph you capture a moment and make it yours forever. When you look back over your work, you are really retrieving that moment from your memory and reliving it. It’s a process with its own beauty, it’s not just an act of recollection. It’s a whole complex of experiences – something very serious, very important. For the photographer, it’s a moment of creation.

Y.A. And your own relationship with time?
F.Z. I try to make the best use of my time, the most valuable use for me – both for my work and my peace of mind. I don’t like being tied down by external obligations. When I decide for myself how to spend my time, I feel I’m slowing it down a little, negotiating with it, turning it into an ally. In reality, of course, time passes at the same pace for us all, no one can slow it down. But when I take photographs I have a feeling that we’ve done a deal, that I’ve entered a partnership with time, that we’ve established a kind of relationship. And it feels as if time is dealing with me more gently, more amiably. This is why photography is a kind of mental release or salvation. It may be physically tiring or even dangerous – but it is also a form of redemption.

Y.A. Your landscapes sometimes feature tiny human figures. What role do they play?
F.Z. Well, for a start, sometimes you don’t have any choice. When there are figures in the scene, although I could remove them digitally, I leave them to give a sense of the scale of the landscape, and the insignificance of man before the grandeur of nature. It’s beautiful, and it’s a valuable lesson. We’re all crammed into cities where everything is so artificial, and we overrate our own importance. To understand what you really are you need to go to Iceland, Africa, Patagonia or the Antarctic. You have to see the earth of Africa, one of the oldest in the world, where the soil has crumbled to dust; and Iceland, where the ground you tread on is still raw lava. It’s a magical thing to witness both these extremes because you realize the forces at work to turn lava into dust. And eventually you learn to appreciate the value of the soil beneath your feet.

Y.A. To what extent do your photographs reflect your own personal preoccupations?
F.Z. My photographs are the product of a silent dialogue between the landscape and my soul. The landscape has certain specific features, it has a personality – one which is always changing. But at a particular moment, a landscape speaks to you, tells you its story. It invites you to read its beauty, to acknowledge and understand it through the eyes of your own sensibility. It’s this silent dialogue which the photograph represents. And if by translating it into an image I can share it with the spectator, then the dialogue ceases to be silent. Photographs of a landscape cast a light on the hidden and the obvious features it consists of. Nature can sense whose gaze has fallen upon her, and she gives herself generously to those who truly love her. Alternatively, she can even become vindictive. I feel that nature reveals herself to me; it may be a delusion, but it still fills me with a compulsion to overcome any necessary hardships to make the landscape immortal.

Y.A. Architectural principles, the knowledge you’ve acquired as an architect – have they affected your vision as a photographer?
F.Z. Very much so. I see things in architectural terms. In any photograph there will be certain lines that lead the eye – some visible, some not. There is a balance which draws you into the composition, gives you a perspective, a sort of visual acceleration or deceleration, inviting you to enter the landscape at a run or a walk. So my architectural training forms part of the way I express myself photographically. But apart from my architect’s eye, I also make use of my own personal rules of aesthetics, my own personal balances and harmonies. I place these at the service of whatever system I am called on to compose or implement. Creating a photograph involves composing a system, not just a simple representation of reality. Architecture is the invention and creation of threedimensional systems, not just the designing of spaces and buildings. Even organizing a business follows these same principles. You just need to have a comprehensive view of the things that are important. In my own case, my aesthetic sense is what lets me understand when something is beautiful, congruent and properly balanced within a space or a system.

Y.A. What is your own internal system?
F.Z. I believe we all have an inner voice which speaks to us and guides us. We have a spirit within us which impels us to behave in a certain way and to make the choices which eventually determine what we are. What we are is already there, within our soul. In our physical manifestations we simply follow this, express it, serve it. We may regret some of our choices, but in the end what we do is what we are. We conduct ourselves in the world as people, but in essence we are souls. We have an invisible field around us, and when it touches the field of another person it creates the human feelings and behaviour that we cannot totally control. So my answer is that there is a thread which we all follow. A hard disc in each of us with a trace, a line. We aren’t aware of it, but it is etched on the disc. Every day the decisions we take, the choices we make – in the most trivial matters as well as the most serious – are all programmed. There are certain things you do because your soul, your spirit, requires them, makes you unique. The soul is not something you can confine or restrain. It is like the air around us, which you can trap for a while in a certain space, but as soon as it finds some vent it will escape. It’s the same with your spirit. You may bend it to your will at times, force it to take certain forms, compelling it to do certain things, but it will invariably break free and take its own path. There are people who have repressed their soul and spirit, and I regard these people as imprisoned and deeply unhappy. Others I see following their own inner voice and much happier for it because they are closer to their nature. You have to have a balance, a serenity in the way you view life, the way you approach it. ‘Moderation in all things’, the ancients used to say, very wisely in my opinion. You should always avoid extremes, in either direction. And, of course, you should never let yourself be contaminated by the charms of contemporary society because one day you will be called on to render an account to yourself. You will ask yourself: what have I done for this world I am passing through? Nature gives us so many things, and we abuse them and return them corrupted and polluted, poisoning nature herself. How do you express your gratitude to the nature that reared you and gave you a place in the world? What have you given back? My own feeling is that when I record the natural world I am offering up praise, giving something back to nature. However small. It’s not the only reason why I do it, but I feel that I am repaying a debt. I really believe that mankind can find a way of life that is much more closely connected to the earth, with all that means. Alongside material goods and comforts, we should be aware that we have a duty to protect the things that nature lavishes on us so abundantly. Photography helps with this, it helps you become a more sensitive person with a better understanding of the natural world around. It helps you show it the respect it deserves. We are born a part of nature, and one day we will return to her, eventually passing away to become a part of the universe…

By Yorgos Archimandritis [Author-Journalist]