For fans of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh’s northern realism, Shane Meadows’ lingering shots of Nottinghamshire council estates, or those who saw each and every frame of Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah as an individual work of art: Greek photographer Nikolas Ventourakis‘ bleak series Leaving Utopia is a blend of documentary photography and fine art brimming with emotion and narrative that will leave you transfixed. Stories are started, the viewer left to fill in the blanks – Ventourakis teases sentiment and intensity from the coldest of scenes.
Documenting his country’s economic decline, Leaving Utopia is a hypnotic account of 21st century desolation. Recently picking up the Deutsche Bank Award for Creative Enterprises, the Central St Martins MA Photography graduate is finally making big waves in the art photography world, having spent the best part of this century in varying levels of higher education. Learned our scholarly friend may be, but it’s his natural ability to see marvel in the mundane that sets this photographic talent apart from his peers.
We caught up with Nikolas for an in-depth chat about his education, passion for life behind the lens and future plans – we also surrendered to our prying persona and got an exclusive We Heart gander at the Greek talent’s studio…
Nikolas, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am Greek, I’ve been living in London for the past seven years and I dare to say that I’m a photographer. I became a photographer by accident – a happy one – and it all has to do with the peculiarities of the Greek educational system and the exams that we take to get into the universities there. I always thought that I would grow up to become an architect, it had never occurred to me at 18 years-old that I would end up a photographer. But I am very happy with the opportunity I had to pursue this career path.
Your education in photography is fairly exhaustive… you’ve been studying various courses since the turn of the century, including fashion photography – however your portfolio is brimming with documentary work. How would you define yourself as a photographer?
It’s really funny that you mention that I’ve been studying since forever, as I have been thinking about that a lot lately. One of the reasons that I spent so much time in education, I believe, is my curiosity, my need to know everything.
My university in Athens was very good and very bad at the same time. It gave me a lot, but it also took me a couple of years before I knew how to filter through what I needed to take and what I needed to leave behind. The system there is closer to the German diploma than the Bachelor of Arts. One day I decided that I would take on every possible course I could: art photography, commercial photography, archeological, studio, architecture, digital (it was still new back in the early 2000s), documentary , photojournalism etc.
Unfortunately for me I was able to do it! So despite the fact that I had passed all the required courses for me to get my degree on time, I stayed on longer procrastinating my final project submission to finish everything. Still, I knew that what I wanted to do was to work as a fine art photographer. I left everything aside and I finished my degree with a fine art focus.
Fashion was supposed to be only a small break in my fine art career – I thought at the time “hey I know nothing about fashion, I should know more”, but it turned out that I liked it – but not enough to stop working on my art projects. At some point I realised I could not do both with the same intensity. The day only has 24 hours. It was time for me to choose my priorities and art photography had always been a priority in my heart. I got a scholarship and did a MA in Fine Art at Central St Martins in London. The rest is history as they say. I am where I should be – without any regrets about all the time I spent doing other things. What you see now in my portfolio is a conscious decision. Of all the things I’ve done, what I show now is closest to my heart.
So to answer your question… I would say that I am photographer that is very curious and when I am not working with other people on projects, I like to be on my own working to visualise my thoughts about the world around me. And the apparent simplicity of documentary work suits my character very well.
￼Where did your passion for photography begin?
When I was around 16 years-old my dad had a huge collection of the Hasselblad Forum magazines. I was so intrigued by the square format of the images but also of the magazine itself, I eagerly waited for the new issues to arrive. The images to my eyes were, to put it simply: amazing. But as I said, I never thought that one day I would be a photographer. I did not expect to find myself studying to become one. Before that I only took snapshots with my dad’s cameras during vacation time.
It was the first week at the university when we were asked to develop our own film and print a contact sheet. That was it. The moment I saw the tones appear on the paper in the darkroom I was hooked. It was magical in so many ways. Then the same happened to me with digital. It was great to see the images appear on the screen and to be able to manipulate them. I was always technologically adept (I had my first computer when I was 5) and this mixture of art and technology fascinated me. Of course later on I started to learn about what art photography is ABOUT and that was even more exciting. The realisation that it is something useless that society puts so much meaning on.
Your project Leaving Utopia has recently been acknowledged in the Deutsche Bank Award in Photography, can you tell us a little about the series and why you started it?
As I mentioned before, I’m Greek, and as you probably know Greece has been in the eye of the storm for the past five years. The crisis has hit strong and hard. Everyone I know has been affected by it in more ways than one. When I started my MA at Central St Martins I knew that I did not want to be solipsistic and create a cocoon around me and just work on my “art”. I had to spend my time to understand as much as I could about what was happening. Growing up in Greece, one becomes either apolitical or highly political. When I say political I do not mean that everyone ends up with party affiliations, but you end up having strong views about all subjects. I had to go back with an open mind and see what is happening without letting my personal biases get in the way. The Leaving Utopia project is a visualisation of my thoughts and feelings about what is going on – not only in Greece but generally.
I chose to create images that would stem from my memories and from new encounters I had working in my home country.
It is a very complex matter that we are dealing – or should be dealing – with, and there are no black and white answers. My main goal was to avoid being didactic towards whoever saw my photos. I know that photography can not give answers to any problems, but I am a strong believer in the fact that it can start discussions.
You manage to find the beauty in desolation, what do you think makes the perfect photograph?
I assume that the question has to do with what makes me decide to shoot a photograph, or not. I would never use the word perfect. A good photo though should give enough information to the viewer without revealing everything. There should always be some mystery left, even after you see an image ten times. When I spend time in a place I start to see a bleakness there. I see how mundane even the most elaborate thing is. But I do not see this as a bad thing. I am not negative towards it. I’m curious, and the best thing is that my curiosity cannot be satisfied. There will be no answer. I would have to say though that my photos might look desolate but they are never completely empty.
The top 3 creatives who’ve inspired you…
I can only tell the top 3 that are currently occupying my mind – without revealing if they inspired me in a positive or a negative way:
Paul Graham – Nick Cave – Luc Delahaye
What, or who, would be your dream job/client?
Dream Job – I’d say that currently I sort of have it, since I am being paid to finish my project. So I would like to be able to continue that trend in the future.
If it would be more commercial work I would like to work more often with people that want quality, and not just quick results.
Where’s next for your Leaving Utopia series?
I am going to be working for another year in Greece. I have a few images that I could not do up until now and I have a whole sketchbook of unfinished ideas. Without being dogmatic I would really like to end with a strong edit of about 40 images that would include all the narrative points that I need. My first scary moment will be hopefully this November. I am planning to show the work to a Greek public and I do not know what the reactions will be like.
Have you finished in education at last? What’s next for Nikolas Ventourakis?
As a matter of fact I hope I have, but there is a strong chance that I haven’t. After all these years I think it’s a shame not to also pursue a PhD – of course I would only do it if I could secure another scholarship or funding. I want to force myself to research a bit more the ideas that I worked on for my MA. Of course I am going to do that anyway, but it would be different if I had a real deadline and a serious commitment.
On the other hand I’m tired of studying – education is good , but at the same time it can be too sterile and authoritarian in the new reality in which art schools exist. So the one certain answer is that I do not intend to go back at least until 2014 – even then I can’t promise I will. I have too many projects in my mind that I never found the time to finish, and now is the time to just go out and do them. You will see more of my work soon enough!