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The image of faith


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Hercules Papaioannou (Thessaloniki, Greece, 1962) is a photography scholar and curator of photography exhibitions and publications. He has published the books 'The Marlboro Land and the Lukewarm Wild West' (Agra, 2009), 'The Photography of the Greek Landscape - Between Myth and Ideology' (Agra, 2014) and he curated the publication 'Hellenic Photography and Photography in Greece' (Nefeli, 2013).



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Avraam Pavlidis undoubtedly constitutes a special case in contemporary Greek photography. For more than twenty years he has been photographing indoor places, private or public, with unfaltering persistence. Every single of his photos aims, in a sense, at creating a portrait of the particular space, and constitutes an attempt of to bring to surface from the halflight a small part of the aura of the human energy that was deposited there; to highlight the sweat and the adrenaline, the excitement and the agony, the unique way in which each place was built, decorated and inhabited. These portraits of spaces seem embroidered with the fine thread of the declining folk tradition: workshops, cafes, churches, houses carrying the noticeable patina of time, which had often been abandoned to the final irreversible course of decay. This exploration allowed the gaze and the soul to touch things well hidden, deeply rooted, perhaps precious.


Paliros, Mani, 2012

All art and photography, of course, when sincere, they constitute as action an internal palpation of the creator himself, in a way more or less apparent. Its starting point is often buried, personal experience. In the case of Pavlidis this alludes to his father’s café at Gazoros, Serres, the shops and houses he used to visit with his father when he brokered tobacco and met producers in the province of Serres, and the bordering provinces of Kavala and Drama. Pavlidis, according to his own sayings, felt that he owed a memorial service to the common people and craftsmen who sealed these places with their own lives. Without knowing it, he was endorsing Kostas Balafas’ view when, with an open spirit and reasonable bitterness, he was noticing that the traditional world --as we sometimes call it tending towards underestimation, as opposed to the glowing technology-- was frivolously set aside losing, in this way, a source of deep knowledge and distillation of wisdom, failing to replace it with something necessarily better.


Ossuary, Kafsokalivia, Mount Athos, 2001

A fraction of Pavlidis’ photos are directly or indirectly related with the sense of religious faith. This part of his work includes interior spaces of churches scattered in Greek inland, like the one at Paggaio which used to be a Muslim mosque before turning into an orthodox church in a type of a quiet cultural appropriation. Others depict ossuaries, those humble rooms where the bony remains of a whole community are cumulating, not always in perfect order, but often with the necessary photographic indexing.


Residence, Mesta, Hios, 2008

Spaces where people have chosen to live isolated from the human world also arise. Elsewhere, one can see rooms of houses from a corner of which an iconostasi appears, a tiny buoy of faith in the stagnant or stormy waters of the narrow family. His view, familiar with destruction, traces altered or stained religious images, massively produced lithographs which decorated the classrooms of our school years: the Crucified, Jesus blessing. Many of the spaces are noticeably deserted. But can the idea of faith be deserted? And what happens to the energy which was dedicated to build a spiritual bridge with whatever lies beyond human understanding, beyond the limits of science, all models of which suggest the existence of more steps of the unknown complexity of the world? What otherworld implications are born when the flame from the old woman’s candle blackens the wooden saint?


Agioi Theodoroi, Avantas, Evros, 2001

Pavlidis walks around places carrying a heavy religious load, regardless if always noticeable. In any case, it is hard to fully separate traditional Greek life and art from religious tradition. The two have been interwoven for long, in ways visible and invisible. On every corner of the Greek land there is a monastery or country church rooted, occasionally a small masterpiece, a rock crucified in search of protection from anything malevolent. Pavlidis approaches every place he discovers with reverence, detecting microcosms which have offered, in present or past tense, a kind of consolation whether gazing the Earth or the sky. His own humble faith turns to photography as a tool which skillfully and meticulously saves whatever remains when the show is over. In this sense, he collects traces in an open sea in which personal or collective wrecks have always been in abundance.


Ano Peritheia, Corfu, 2005


However, the relationship of image with faith has not always been unclouded. The great adventure of iconoclasm is widely known when it was estimated that the belief in icons surpassed the belief in the values or the holiness these icons professed, that is when the worship of matter exceeded that towards spiritual content. The image was obtaining obvious political dimensions. Explicit or implicit, these dimensions never left far. Today we live in a peculiar period. Regardless of the means (photography, video, television, internet) we are surrounded by images which teach us who we are and how to behave. They influence essential decisions defining contemporary existence and justifying Flusser, who noted that photographs began as a map that would show the world to people and ended up being screens which hide the world from the people. We are all now protagonists, creators and consumers of images of any quality and size of publicity. In a secular era, even in traditional orthodox Greece, images of any kind have become the new fervent faith. Nothing acquires substance unless it is seen as a photograph or video. But if everything is turned into images and can easily travel far, how much margin is left for the real life, primary experience, internal faith?


Lakkos, Serres, 2009

Perhaps then these photographs can become a good reason to discuss a possible division between the Image of Faith and the Faith of the Image. The starting point is the continuation of Pavlidis’ work. After the spaces of tradition with their special burden, he turned to the depiction of abandoned industrial or massive places, focusing on the waves of crisis of modernity which appeared as a self-proclaimed savior: except factories, his lens also recorded hospitals, psychiatric clinics, barracks, airports, entertainment centers, a sum of over a hundred and eighty deserted places. Since this attempt has already matured, he set a new goal: the image itself, as this appears in posters, photographs, album covers, lithographs, decoration or advertising images, which rot and wear out while new, shiny and bright replace them; paper images which have given their place to others shining on LCD monitors. Pavlidis’ allusion is reasonable, but not necessarily noticeable around us: the world of the image itself, into which we moved with deep devotion, accelerating with no obvious reason at a fast pace, declines. It leaves behind as waste a dismantled universe of unhorsed heroes, fallen symbols, matter that escapes not only the lights of publicity, but also as matter itself, creating important questions concerning the nature of this faith.


Platanos, Arcadia, 2012

Traditional faith, as we know, maintains unchanged constants. New saints are being proclaimed, the old ones do not lose their place for those who seek their support. In contemporary faith, though, this vivid/ reflection of the material, commercial world on paper and screen, almost everything is played on a level of dynamic synchronicity. But how far does this constantly changing variety of images, this stressful way in which one constantly seeks new stepping stones to cross the sea allegedly dry, keep us from the other side? How far from the quest of our essential self, as the songwriter defined it? Religious faith has been mediated by images. Secular faith in a material world which progresses abstractly and indefinitely has also been mediated by images. These are dramatically more, transformed and worshipped perhaps due to the impressive power they have to distract attention away from real issues of existence.


Hercules Papaioannou

Photography researcher


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