December 5, 2021

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Exploring Greece’s Unseen Corners

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In 2016, drawn by the smell of Easter cookies, I ventured into a small bakery in the village of Olympos, on the Greek island of Karpathos. The owner, a woman named Kalliope, was going about her work while wearing what looked to me like a traditional costume.

After chatting for a minute or two, I asked if she was dressed this way because it was Easter.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “These are my clothes.”

“You are the one,” she added, “who is dressed in a European costume.”

Despite having grown up in Athens and traveled extensively throughout Greece, I had never before come across a community in which people wore such traditional clothes in their day-to-day lives.

Yet, far from seeming performative, Kalliope’s clothes looked intrinsic to her village — much more so, as she suggested, than the clothes I wore when I greeted her.

After my encounter in Olympos, I decided to make a project of exploring the unseen corners of my country — to meet the people, learn about their traditional practices, and make images along the way that could offer a window into Greek culture for others to peer through.

Four and a half years later, on a sunny Sunday morning, I found myself in the village of Nea Vyssa, in Greece’s extreme northeastern corner, where I had arranged a two-day photography session. I sat at one end of a long table, set amid a beautiful blossomed garden, sipping Greek coffee and tasting the local delicacies.

As women arrived to be photographed in their traditional attire, I asked the president of the local cultural club, Fani, to take me around the village to find appropriate spots where I would make the images. I usually find places that are abandoned or just on the brink of being abandoned, since often such places feature customary architecture, without any modern additions or changes.

To me, photography is about much more than just the images themselves. I have a passion for rural Greece, and I enjoy exploring the concept of xenia, or hospitality — a central virtue that can be traced back to ancient Greece.

Nikos Kazantzakis, a celebrated Greek writer, describes in his fictionalized autobiography, “Report to Greco,” how his grandfather would go out at nights, strolling around the dark alleys of Crete, lantern in hand, to seek for people wandering the streets who had nowhere to spend the night. He would bring them to his home, feed them and offer them a place to sleep.

I have experienced several manifestations of this hospitality on my own journeys. For the past five years, I have visited Tetralofo, a small village of around 300 people in northern Greece, to document the traditional New Year’s celebrations known as Kotsamania, or Momoeria.

Kotsamania is a theatrical ritual performed each Christmas by local men who visit homes to wish prosperity, abundance and happiness for the year to come. The whole community takes part in the celebrations, which involve street theater, dancing and the playing of traditional instruments.

On one occasion in Tetralofo, while I was being hosted at the cultural club, residents would arrive each day to bring me home-cooked meals. Others — people I’d never met — offered to host me in their houses. I felt right at home.

Many traditional events throughout Greece are revivals of old customs, performed to help the local economy by drawing tourists and attention. Often such events feel kitsch and, in a way, inauthentic.

Others, though, such as Kotsamania, have survived in unadulterated forms and are performed as genuine, integral parts of a community.

Ultimately, my work attempts to highlight such customs: to present vivid, complex depictions of fading traditions, and to help us avoid the pitfalls of monotony in our modern lives.

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