Ioanna Sakellaraki (MA Photography 2020) is a Greek visual artist. Her work investigates the relationship between collective cultural memory and fiction. Drawing emphasis on the photographic object, process and encounter, she explores the boundaries of a primitive, yet futuristic vision of places and people. She was recently awarded a Doctoral Scholarship for undertaking her PhD in Visual Arts. She is the recipient of The Royal Photographic Society Bursary Award 2018 and was named Student Photographer of the Year by Sony World Photography Awards 2020. In 2019, she was awarded with the Reminders Photography Stronghold Grant in Tokyo and the International Photography Grant Creative Prize. Nominations include: the Inge Morath Award by Magnum Foundation in USA, the Prix HSBC, the Prix Levallois and the Prix Voies Off in France.
Her work has been exhibited internationally in art festivals and galleries, with a recent solo show at the European Month of Photography in Berlin. Her projects have been featured in magazines such as The New Yorker and journals including The Guardian and Deutsche Welle. Most recently, she was invited as a guest speaker in the Martin Parr Foundation and the London Institute of Photography.
Memory, family, loss and grieving are all themes you explore in your series ‘The Truth is in the Soil’. The images are beautiful and packed full of raw emotion. What did you hope to portray when you started the project?
The Truth is in the Soil began after the death of my father, which led to a long-term exploration of collective mourning in Greek society, in the intersection of ancestral rituals, private trauma and passage of time. Portraying my mother as a mourning figure within the social and religious context of my country, I began to slowly unravel a personal narrative of loss interweaving fabrications of grief in my family and culture. Endeavouring to further understand my roots, I expanded the scope of my research on the ritual laments of the last communities of professional mourners in the Mani peninsula of Greece.
I gradually became interested in how space can be indissolubly perceived and represented in the process of reworking memory and negotiating the boundaries of grief in my work. Through the figurative portraits of the mourners, I want to talk about what is lost; parts of memories that are reconstructed, just like how an image of a lost person appears in our minds after they are gone, just like how in the work of mourning, memory becomes what we remember forgetfully. Eventually, to me, these images work as vehicles for mourning perished ideals of vitality, prosperity and belonging, attempting to tell something further than their subjects by creating a space where death can exist.
As you said, this series came about from your own personal loss. Greece has many traditions, what did you want to explore in this traditional community of the last female mourners inhabiting the Mani Peninsula in Greece?
In the process of documenting photographically the communities of mourners, my readings and inspiration from the ancient Greek laments as gradually vanishing historical marks, made me question to what extent we see ourselves as subjects of history and how mourning can become a cultural experience of loss today. In the crossroads of performance and staged emotion, I have aimed to look at how the work of mourning contextualises modern regimes of looking, reading and feeling with regards to the subject of death in Greece.
My research traversed tragedy as an imaginative model of the paradoxical demands made on human consciousness when confronted by death. As part of my research at the Royal College of Art, I have been exploring the relationship between mourning and the creative process through fragmentary writing, with emphasis on the photographic object, process and encounter, drawing a parallel conversation across literature and poetry, photographic works and film pieces, in the attempt to trace the faces of memory when it seeks to remember the trauma of death, a work that I currently continue to further develop through my practice-led PhD at Kingston School of Art with the support of a Techne Doctoral Scholarship Award by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Thia Metamorfosis (holy transfiguration) is one of the few images in the series without a person in it. The image depicts pomegranates – 'the fruit of the dead'. Is this link to mythology intentional?
The series triggers the memory while embracing transformation. It develops like a Greek myth about life and death exploring the idea of mourning within the wider field of Greek drama and psychology. Death rituals are transformed in my eyes to some sort of spaces where emotions and bodies are coming together to perform death and afterlife. This is where images such as Thia Metamorfosis (holy transfiguration) function as passages between sheltering something from death and establishing with death a relation of freedom.
You created some embroidery art work based on your father’s sealed photographic archives from over 50 years ago, which were found after his death. Tell us more about this.
Expanding from how the image reanimates language, my practice has been revolving around the ways the mourning process enables a creative relation to the object. In a more recent part of this body of work, I have developed a series of artworks combining mixed media textiles and hand stitched embroidery on archival photography. During my making, I have used dye sublimation printing on woven fabrics, integrating free hand embroidery and mark making techniques on the final pieces. The work brings together my father’s photographic archives from 50 years ago and traditional hand embroidery stitching my mother has been practicing, during their time apart, throughout his journeys away as a sailor. The final artworks are a result of a collaboration and exchange between me and my mother as the images are posted between the cities we live and once delivered we both proceed in continuing from each other’s embroidery act. As a result, a language of thought that is spoken elliptically has emerged becoming a trace of a dialogue with oneself; an anonymity, an absence, a blank space.
Do you think Greece will always feature as a central focus in your work?
Greece is a constant inspiration in my work, but the way it's depicted is imagined. It is like the idea of the homeland being this place one knows outside of memory, a land of curiosity where death is an encounter through family, religion, mythology and the self. It is where the core of my philosophical thinking has been formed, now in dialogue with what I see as my artistic enquiry, and at the same time, a place and an identity that have been left behind, in a perpetual process of reframing and reconnecting.
You have referred to Foucault and Barthes in relation to memory often, but also to an image as being there to affirm the disappearance of a moment. This is interesting as often when people take photos they refer to making memories. Could you tell us more about this?
I have been interested in how photography as a medium is always characterised by a discontinuity in time and place, 'between the moment the image is recorded and the moment that the image is viewed or looked at is what John Berger calls an abyss’. This discontinuity and isolation of appearances in the photographic, the way the image affirms things in their disappearance and gives us the power to create absence through fiction, was what became a trigger for exploring the medium and its possibilities further, within my own narratives. I am always perplexed by how photography as a medium replaces absence with an imaginary presence and how images have the power to make things appear; things that are always deferred and absent others. In that sense, part of the narrative is re-imagined, deriving from the real but taking the viewer to an imaginary journey.
Why did you decide to shoot in 6x6 analogue film?
The medium format camera has defined big part of the way I see and frame the world around me since the very early stages of my practice. As my projects begin to evolve in the mixed media field, I like to experiment within the re-imagined frame I compose in various ways, but preserving the initial way I first looked and grasped that image as part of its origin, always shot in square.
Your project, which took place on the island of Tilos, took you back to shooting in digital. Do you think your future practice will involve various mediums?
Part of the assignment process on Sustainability Now was to work with Sony equipment, so I used the Sony alpha 7iii. As I normally shoot in analogue medium format, I was surprised with how the equipment became, almost organically, part of the project. The low light settings of the camera are simply amazing. The winter sky is cast under the raw moonlight and the dry landscape near the vastness of the archipelago, set the right scene for unfolding my narrative further. The simplicity of the island combined with its unique aura only strengthened the compositions as the project evolved, night after night.
Looking through the final images, the dark offers uncanny estrangement and kind of suspension in the landscape: out of time. The insularity of Tilos is interesting; experiencing the island in wintertime helped me orchestrate the dialogue between nature and the attempts of the local households to remain self-sufficient. This is perhaps why the compositions are both pleasing and melancholic; they are newly coming together in a form of symbiosis.
Instagram started out as a photo and video sharing form of social media, but has now become a ‘if you didn’t post it, it didn’t happen’ medium for many. From a photographer’s perspective what are your thoughts on it?
It can be overwhelming but if used, in a timeboxed and appropriate way, it can certainly give a valuable outreach to the work. Perhaps a way to look at all social media apps, is to treat them as they are there to simply support the work travel across different audiences and potentially offer opportunities for a more-in-depth understanding of one’s practice when encountering the work in real life.
Can you tell us what future projects are you working on?
Most recently, and while forming a new body of work, The Interval of Unreason, I have been looking into how photography can conjure memories that belong in fantasy, in eidetic recollection and some ontological reality, not in lived experience, producing images that avoid becoming descriptive and literary but integrate and complement the plot of a story, grasping the complexity and tension to anticipate an artistic vision of reality, a vision that is never far from illusion.
My new series begins with an image found in my father’s archive, remains of the tainted memory of an idyllic romance on the Greek island of Patmos, followed by my extended stay on the island, during the lockdown. It is there where I begin to unravel the secret stories of my father’s past as a sailor and adventurer of his time, while deconstructing the famous history of Patmos as the 'Island of the Apocalypse', the place from where infernal visions of mankind’s ultimate downfall sprang, inspiring St John, to write the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament.
In a vortex of clouds, shadows, starry skies and rushing wind, the island turns into a darkling site where the phantoms of imagination, personal loss and historic elegy occupy a transitional zone between the sublime, the cosmic and the solemn. It gradually becomes the roaming topography for composing a story ruled by desire, terror and imagination, turning the archival figures into the fugitive characters of a fictional tale, in the fascinating realm of time’s absence. In its own unique ways, the archive becomes a site that is historically and hermeneutically transformed; a place where amnesic memories are recorded.
In the intersection of memory and oblivion, the work untangles the remaking that surviving loss entails, reminding us that history is not merely a matter of chronology but also a question of space and relationships. Between a moment of crisis and a temporal turn, the images articulate our obscure personal and cultural ends.
"I am always perplexed by how photography as a medium replaces absence with an imaginary presence and how images have the power to make things appear."Ioanna Sakellaraki