August 12, 2016

Friday Round Up - 12 August, 2016

This week a feature interview with Belgian photographer Nick Hannes about his expansive project Mediterranean: The Continuity of Man.

Feature Interview:
Nick Hannes with Alison Stieven-Taylor

St. Tropez, France

Belgian photographer Nick Hannes visited 20 countries over a four-year period to create his expansive body of work ‘Mediterranean: The Continuity of Man,’ which is now a book and also a touring exhibition. In all, he made 20 trips to tell a compelling story about this unique part of the world. The only country he didn't get to cover was Syria, for obvious reasons.

“Once you start a project like this there is no way back,” he laughs of his obsession to pursue the story at great personal expense. 

Nick explains the project has its roots in a long-held fascination for the Mediterranean that dates back to his youth when at school he learned about this sea that was at the cradle of civilisation. 

“I was intrigued with the historical facts of this area that was a crossroads of cultures and where the cross-pollination of ideas saw the countries on the Mediterranean evolve much faster than those on mainland Europe.”

“I wanted to see what was left of this idea of a crossroads between continents, a place where throughout history a lot of exchange took place. If you look at it now, it’s a region of fault lines, a region of conflicts and crisis. So that was the starting point, but as I began to travel and photograph I really opened up my mind and my eyes and I photographed as much as possible.”

Nick says that after the first few trips certain themes started to recur such as urbanisation, the impact of tourism on the landscape and also migration. 

Benidorm, Spain

Bijela, Montenegro

Ibiza, Spain
La Grande Motte, France

At the time he was working, various countries in the region were in the midst of transformation and events such as the Arab Spring and the crises in Greece are also incorporated in this body of work.

Cairo, Egypt

Sirte, Libya

Sirte, Libya

Rafah, Gaza

“I ended up with a very complex story with different storylines that are always linked by the Mediterranean. The outcome of the project is that I confront different parallel realities; the jet set tourism in Monaco and southern France and on the other side the dramatically different living conditions in the Gaza Strip and the effects of the war in Libya. So all of these extremes and contrasts are in the project.”

The Mediterranean is often defined as a haven for tourism and gastronomy and the Mediterranean lifestyle is put forward as the ideal way to live. But when you look at the map and see that this sea touches three different continents you start to realise how diverse this region of the world truly is and these complexities come through in Nick's illuminating and insightful body of work.

Nick delivers a very different view of the Mediterranean, and his photographs are at times quite political by intention and design; there is no attempt to dress up the Mediterranean to present the perfect picture. Nick's beach photographs, for example, often feature a disturbing element like an industrial backdrop, or an oil rig, which is the case in the photograph of the beach at Montenegro. 

These elements signify not only the environmental degradation of the region, but also the differences in lifestyles raising questions of equality, power and the distribution of wealth.

Much of his travels were made by car and he says he was at times "very upset" to see how little of the natural landscape is left in the wake of urbanisation and as a result of the impact of tourism. Committed to tell this story, Nick self-funded the project, but he says it goes far beyond economics when you factor time and energy. “Everything else had to make way for this project as it was a priority”. 

Algiers, Algeria

“The work is very critical towards ourselves, how we treat our environment, how we treat refugees, how we respond to other humans. I feel very concerned about what is happening in the region and in the world in general. This is not a very sustainable way of living right now, both socially and ecologically,” he says. 

“This project is a mirror to ourselves, but I don’t want to dictate the story. Those who look at these pictures will pick out their own truths. I don’t believe in one truth, when I travel I always come back with more questions than answers. Some pictures might be confusing, but that’s good because people can think about the image and read into what they will.”

I ask Nick about the photograph of the three men standing above a massive hole in Cyprus with the caption: ‘The committee on missing persons in Cyprus” (below). 

“That’s great that you ask me about this picture, you are the first person, most people just turn the page and they don’t look at it. This is a picture that needs a caption of course. In the Civil War of Cyprus a lot of people disappeared from both the Greek and Turkish communities. They are still looking for human remains from 40 years ago. Often bodies were thrown in water wells. This hole is an old water well and they used big cranes to make this huge pit. It is unbelievable the amount of effort that is put into the process of trying to find the remains of one person. So there’s this committee for missing persons.” Nick tells that while he was there the remains of two people were found. At their funerals the remains were placed in tiny coffins. The funerals were highly emotional, years of uncertainty laid to rest with the bones of loved ones.

Serendipitous Moments
While Nick is an extensive planner he’s also open to opportunity and a number of photographs in the book point to being in the right place at the right time like the wedding reception in a gas station in Greece, which is one of my favourite pictures. 

Rio, Greece

“This was a present from the photography gods,” he laughs. “I was camping nearby and I saw this gas station where all these tables were nicely set with candles and flowers. The owner told me he had gotten married that day and to save money he decided to hold the party at the gas station instead of renting a hall. So it’s a story about the crisis and how the middle class is affected by the economic situation in Greece.”

Nick was invited to the party. “I stayed the whole night until 3 o’clock when everyone was completely drunk except me. It was the best wedding reception I’d been to. It was an extraordinary event. They said to me 'even if they take our last Euro cent we will not stop making party and dancing'. Later they sent me a letter thanking me for making them famous as the picture was picked up in Greece and was published in Japan, Asia and America too. It was a way of showing the crisis without stereotypes of people begging in the streets or waiting in line at ATMs so I think that was the reason it was picked up by the media”.

Another of my favourite photographs is the one of the Spanish families eating hamburgers in La Linea de la Concepcion, Spain on the border of Gibraltar.  Here the women are dressed in traditional flamenco outfits and the colours are vibrant evoking a true sense of celebration. It's also an idiosyncratic image; eating hamburgers in your finery. “Every year they celebrate the traditional flamenco and it is an amazing festival, with very loud music. I like loud music, but this was too much for me,” he laughs. “But it’s also very political and provocative and they have the national flag on display and I think they play the loud music as a signal to the British over the border that they are having more fun”.

Linea de la Concepcion, Spain

One of Nick’s favourite pictures is of an African man selling goods to a naked white woman on the naturalist beach in St. Tropez, France (at the top of this story). “It’s a picture full of contrasts between rich and poor, north and south, man and woman, African and European, naked and dressed. There are a lot of different layers and also it combines two big topics I photographed: tourism and migration”. He says he is very present on the beach and his camera is obvious. He doesn’t try to photograph secretly as people get the wrong idea. “While I was photographing I told them I was making a picture and the woman didn’t even react. I had met the guy earlier and he was aware of what I was doing. He was fine with that”.

Another of his favourites is of the couple in Spain having a picture in a long, thin shadow. “You feel the heat in the picture, they are very isolated in this tiny stretch of shadow as they try to escape the heat. It’s about tourism and environment. People go there to have a good time, but it’s too hot to enjoy”.

Valencia, Spain

While most of the pictures in the series are made outside on the streets there is one exception: the prostitute and her client. “This is a prostitute in a cheap hotel room in downtown Athens. I was kind of shocked when I walked in this area because of the amount of prostitutes and junkies shooting up in broad daylight. You can see this in any big city, but I’d never seen this in Athens so openly. I wanted to have this in the project as well. I initially spoke to prostitutes in the streets, but they all sent me away; prostitution and photography is not a good combination! But this woman agreed to be photographed as long as she wasn’t recognisable and the client agreed too. So I ended up in this lousy hotel room with two people having sex in front of me. It was a very strange experience. This was the beginning of the encounter and I left shortly after as I didn’t need explicit photographs!”

Athens, Greece

Incorporating photographs like this breaks the rhythm of the book and makes you stop and think about what you’re looking at. Although Nick says some people have said they don’t like it, the image makes you pause and reflect.

I ask if he thinks photography can change social perceptions, attitudes. “I think the influence is very limited. People’s minds are not easily changed. When people look at my pictures and are touched by what I want to say, I think they are already aware of what is going on in our world. People who don’t have the same ideas as I have, I don’t think I can convince them, but I don’t think it’s my role to convince people”.

In conclusion he says, “Photography is an abstract language and there are a lot of people who are not able to read pictures, especially layered pictures such as I try to make. Video with sound and moving images are much more likely to have a direct emotional affect on people. It is the reflective nature of photography that attracts me. Quite literally I take a step back to see a broader context when I photograph. The environment, the surroundings and the relationship with people and how they shape their environment is what interests me. I hope people reflect more on a photograph and think about certain things just for themselves. But I don’t want to give answers, I want to raise questions”.

End note: When we met in Sydney at Head On Festival earlier this year Nick and I talked about all sorts of things including music. I learned that Nick was a fan of an Australian band, the Cosmic Psychos who I’d seen a couple of weeks before. As we wind up our interview Nick tells me the Cosmic Psychos are playing in Antwerp on the weekend and he’s going to their concert. The world is a very small place indeed.

Currently on show at:
Centro Andaluz de la Fotografia, Almeria, Spain until 11 September.

Visit Nick's website for future exhibition information. To buy the book visit Amazon.

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