I’ve always considered travel photography to be one of the most demanding and interesting genres, as it forces the photographer to harness several different genres – landscape, street photography, portraiture, reportage, even abstract – in order to convey the atmosphere and essence of a certain place, the culture, habits, and customs of its people, and so on. It’s also difficult, because the photographer must avoid reducing the message to the kind of stereotype-laden tripe that so often passes as “tourist photography”.
Being Greek, I’m no stranger to stereotypes and clichés about my home country, its people, or what a visitor from the “core” countries should expect to encounter. In fact, many parties are guilty of perpetuating, encouraging, and exploiting them – among them Greek governments, Greek and foreign travel agencies, Greek and foreign publishers of postcards and calendars. It often seems to me that people outside Greece are instructed by the tourist industry to view it as some sort of semi-exotic theme park, with a population that’s about as single-dimensional and shallow as the animatronics figures at Disneyland resorts. But what really irks me most in the way Greece is typically depicted is the prevailing narrative that mixes self-pity, superiority and inferiority complexes, nationalism, an unhealthy worship and idealisation of a romanticised view of a largely misinterpreted and overglorified ancient heritage, along with a “benign” colonialist mix of condescension and sympathy for the not-quite-as-advanced, too-brown-to-be-considered-true-Europeans-yet-not-brown-enough-to-be-considered-barbaric-Middle-Easterner natives.
This is one of the reasons why I’ve avoided blogging about Greek-themed in-world builds and regions in the past; efforts to recreate Greek-inspired builds have not only been plagued by the same nuisances that plague most SL prefabs, but have focused on the same old tired clichés. Mykonos, Santorini, maybe some churches with Byzantine religious icons, some sub-par attempts at recreating ancient temples – and all this, with the SL architects not bothering to put aside even ten minutes of their time to study what they’re trying to depict. With such materials, and with the stereotype-riddled view I mentioned above, it came as no surprise to me that the few Greek-themed SL regions are the sort of thing one would reject in RL as tourist traps. Mind you, I’m not railing against foreigners; Greek SL users have been every bit as guilty of this; they could have driven things forward, but they chose not to.
So, when I read in Kultivate Magazine that an SL photographer was having an exhibition of his travels in Greece, I was more than a bit leery. Prior experiences had taught me to expect the same old photos of Santorini, with the obligatory cute cats thrown in – always on Kodachrome or Fujichrome Velvia 50, or with colours tweaked in Photoshop for that Kodachrome or Velvia feel. Luckily, my fears weren’t justified. Slatan Dryke’s My Greece, My Cats exhibition at the Kultivate Loft Gallery, which opened on 21 March and will run through most of this month, is nothing of the sort.
Slatan is mostly known as a 3D and digital artist, whose works are displayed in various places across SL and featured in many collaborative efforts; he’s also noted for employing vibrant, rich colours in his works. This small exhibition here, however, is a departure not only from the boring clichés about Greece, but also from his own style. The images shown here are black & white, most of them grainy, some of them with sepia toning. Although all of the images started out as photographs, not all of them were post-processed to end up looking like traditional photographs; those that have a more photographic feel wouldn’t be out of place in the portfolio of someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Capa.
His love for Greece began more than forty years ago, when he first travelled to these parts. He counts his own country’s proximity to Greece as a very good turn of luck, because this gave him the opportunity to visit so many islands where what he calls the marrow of its culture and traditions has remained unchanged in centuries.
In his exhibition, Slatan chose not to introduce us to yet another bunch of quasi-quaint photos of blindingly-white churches or images of contrived magnificence from the “usual suspects”, with sunsets enhanced by Cokin or Lee graduated filters, or breath-taking drone-assisted photographs of beaches accessible only by boat, awaiting their “development”. That’s not what he stands for. As he writes in the exhibition’s introductory notecard,
[don’t] ask me about the most fashionable locations, because I have never been there. Ask me about a bunch of those small islands where the time runs slowly under the shade of a tamarisk tree.
There are so many tiny jewels, often unknown to the touristic chains, where you can find your nook of joy, coming from the simplest daily things but overall from the feeling that you become part of the local community, that in some cases is not larger than 500 inhabitants.
With this mindset, it should come as no surprise that he chose to introduce us to Astypalaia, an island of the Dodecanese archipelago, in the southeastern Aegean Sea. It’s not one of the major tourist destinations. In fact, it’s off the beaten track and has fewer than 1,500 residents. Of the twelve images Slatan selected to present here, two are dominated by the main village of Astypalea, which is also referred to as “Chora” (the “ch” is pronounced like “h” in “Harry”) – the capital, the main settlement, as it straddles a rocky hill crowned by an imposing castle. In the others, we see various vignettes of village life, such as the chalk-written menu of a café, a carved wooden sign showing the way to the church of Panagia Portaitissa, the island’s windmills, and – of course – the island’s stray cats that are cared for by the community; one of these images is especially cheeky and playful. To quote Slatan again,
[e]very Greek island has a colony of stray cats, and Astypalaia is no exception. They are the genuine freeholders, the custodians of the old city and the harbour, looking at you with that glance of indifference and mercy for that poor hooman, who wishes for the freedom that they will never have. Maybe this is the reason why everyone loves and cares for them!
But why Astypalaia, of all places? It does seem that he doesn’t care for the obvious, well-worn and ruined by the mass tourist industry, destinations. He said so in the notecard. But it goes deeper than that. In his travels, he was seeking his core, his heart of hearts if you wish – and he found it in Astypalaia:
My long path to find what the Greeks call “Pyrinas” (Core) is finally ended some years ago when I visited for the first time the isle of Astypalaia.
At a mere twelve images in the Kultivate Loft Gallery’s confined space, Slatan’s exhibition may be small, but it’s rich in substance, charm, and artistic merit; the images are evocative, sincere, and unpretentious, with framing that draws you right in and makes you part of the scene at hand rather than a mere observer. The choice for monochrome is another attraction: the lack of colour enhances the space / negative space counterpoint, and it gives the images an aura of timelessness and intimacy. In all, I highly recommend a visit to this exhibition.