Constantin Pittas was born in Athens, Greece. He studied engineering at the Technical University of Athens. In 1984 he started photographing in the streets of his native city and till the end of this year he made his first project, "Athens, 1984". In the next few years he traveled extensively in Eastern and Western Europe, photographing people on both sides of the Wall. In 1989 he abandoned this project and photography as well, and "buried" his work for 25 years.
West Berlin, 1987
Interview for ‘Photographer’ magazine, November 2015 Η συνέντευξη στα ελληνικά
Ok, first things first. Where did you study photography, when and why?
I never did! (laughs) I never studied photography, nor did I know what that thing was when starting out. I had not even seen works by other photographers. I wasn’t interested in photography, something I considered unimportant, but I was a devoted moviegoer, a cinephile; I used to watch almost everything. So, from the movies I somehow learned how to focus and frame, the movies are my influences. In 1984 I had already finished the Polytechnic School but I didn’t like engineering at all. I was trying to figure out my life, I was going through a crisis. It was then that I bought a small camera and started photographing the streets of Athens, following an impulse. Day after day, I would learn something new that way, just walking in the streets. It became an obsession, going out and out and taking pictures for hours on end. It was a kind of relief for me. So, that year I completed my first work, "Athens 1984", my first "draft".
And one year later, in 1985, you get on your journey around Europe?
That’s right. What we call “Europe” in Greece always fascinated me, especially Mitteleuropa, Central Europe, which back then was still literally cut in two, divided into two opposite hostile camps. Those were the days of the Cold War and things were strange back then. The Wall was dividing not only Berlin but the whole Europe. So I had that crazy idea to travel the countries of Europe and capture moments of the people living there, at both sides of the Wall, and then present them all in a book, free from borders and walls… A naïve and grandiose plan, like all youthful plans.
Because you can’t shoot walls down with a camera! (laughs)
Still, that was a spur for you!
A great spur! Just to think that I roamed for five years in a clunker –the Greek-made Pony, for those who remember– that never made more than 90km/h. I crossed 16-17 countries in it, from Portugal to Poland. I slept in it (I had installed a collapsible bed, hung curtains, I had an alarm clock, too…) alone in the middle of nowhere or in campings, because I had no money for hotels. I ate whatever I could put my hands on, I was always alone, and all that just for the sake of my dream. I faced potentially dangerous situations several times, but I was young and ignorant of the risks involved. I was also lucky, nothing ever happened to me. And I felt wonderful, it was such a great joy arriving in a city –Prague, Vienna, Berlin– and observe the people walking in the streets all day. And I felt at home, whereas in Greece I felt like a stranger. However, every October I would go back home, develop the films and find a temporary job for winter, so that come spring I’d be on the road again.
What’s your take on Eastern Bloc?
I started from Romania in the winter of ’86 and it was the absolute shock. People living in an unbelievable penury, Bucharest was frozen, almost no heating whatsoever, people waiting in queues in the snow for a kilo of bones –not meat – to make some soup. Then I visited other countries, I saw fear in people’s eyes in Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia. In Poland and Hungary the states of things was a little better. At this point I’d like to make something very clear; I didn’t go there because I wanted to denounce the regimes or publicize my opinions for them. I just photographed the people I saw in the streets, that’s all. I was unable for a photo-journalistic approach or maybe I wasn’t interested in such a thing.
Wasn’t it dangerous for you, shooting there?
Nah, not at all! (laughs). Perhaps I was looking very young, or my camera was too small, but nobody paid any attention to me. Most of all, I was from a small, insignificant country. I believe that if I were from France or England there would be problems. However, certain things happened to me –I lost several exposed films (I mean they were taken from me), I was arrested twice… Never mind that, now…
What kinds of cameras did you use?
You’ll never believe it, but all my pictures, 24.000 negatives in total, were shot with a small german Minox 35GT, a pocket camera with a fixed 35mm lens. Never carried any other camera on me. Thanks to that small camera I was fast and invisible. I would steady it on my body, on my stomach, and shoot without framing my subject. Besides, its viewfinder was rudimentary.
Without framing? (laughs) But how did you see?
I didn’t! With practice and time I knew exactly what the camera was seeing, and the 35er was helping a lot.
And what about the West?
In Western countries, although I was free to move and had no fear whatsoever, I kept shooting in the same manner as in the Eastern countries and, what’s more, almost the same faces! That’s who I was, I couldn’t do anything different. I guess you’ve noticed that I don’t picture the West as a paradise, in contrast with a hellish Eastern Bloc. Many of the people I saw in the West were underdogs: senior citizens, lonely people, often poor ones.
Why is it that everybody in your photographs looks sad?
Not everybody. There are many who don’t look sad. I have many shots of children, and children are rarely sad. But, look, life is not easy, pain is out there, I didn’t invent it. Yet it’s something very important to me, that’s why I can see it. But I never capture human misery on film; I think it’s cheap, immoral.
And now for the most important question, the one I meant to ask you right from the start: why did you give up in ’89, and, mainly, why did you burry your work until now?
There are many reasons why I gave up. I’ll tell you two of the most important ones. First, the Wall fell in ’89 without asking me whether I had completed the project (laughs)! There I was, with no subject matter to speak of, and my crazy dream, a Europe with no walls, unified through photography, seemed more stupid than ever. So, I wondered what the heck I was doing all those years, what was the point of all this. The decompression was so abrupt. Yet, I was in Berlin that November night, and I lived the most exciting thing of my life, everybody there felt this way, we were living History, Freedom. Europe was changing before our eyes, walls were falling, it was magic.
The other important reason is that, even if the Wall hadn’t fallen, I wouldn’t have kept on for much longer because I was terribly tired. Year after year, I’d started shooting the same faces over and over again, despite the place. I’d left the political dimension aside, the regimes, the oppression, the division of the continent, all that stuff, and I was beginning to see beneath the surface –the human destiny, the tragicality of their lives, their existential anguish, if you like. I’m phrasing it in a somewhat simplistic way, but that’s how I experienced it, that’s how I was seeing it, from the very first image I got. I never did it on purpose, it was never my intention, it just came to me that way. And all those faces I was seeing haunted me in the end, I took them so deep inside that I couldn’t stand it anymore. My back couldn’t stand it. I was terrified, as if I had opened a door and seen something I shouldn’t have. So I backed away. Packed my things and went back to Greece the worse for wear, terribly disappointed.
And why didn’t you try to show them to someone? You had great historical evidence in your hands, surely many would be interested.
Did I? I wasn’t sure about that, not at all. I hadn’t made any documentation of historical reality, I never felt that I was illustrating the Europe of the era. My work has nothing to do with photojournalism. No-one would care for my work –a photo agency, for instance– or so I thought. It was around that time, remember, that “art” photography was starting to thrive and stray from the realistic depiction. I was “allergic” to this thing, the photography whose sole purpose is to hang in a gallery. I couldn’t stand it. So, as I was making neither “documentation” nor “art”, I felt I had no place anywhere. I had done something absolutely personal and old-fashioned because that was me. And I wasn’t interested in milking it or have a career as a photographer. My photography was never an end in itself, my pictures were just visual notes on all those things that overwhelmed me but I didn’t have the talent to write down. And so I didn’t show my pictures to anyone.
You just put them away somewhere and forgot all about them…
That’s right. I buried the negatives away in a storage room and forgot them completely. And with them I buried that part of my life. I decided to earn my living in Athens in any available way and then I met a great girl who took my pieces and made me whole again. We started our own family and I got a job to earn our daily bread, in other words I did what everybody does and I was happy, really happy with my new life, never missed the old days, never said anything about those days to anybody, not even my wife, because I had totally put them away and forgotten them. My day-after-day and my family was all I cared for. And so 25 years passed…
…And how did they resurface?
In March of 2014, I found the old Minox in a drawer and then I remembered that exactly thirty years earlier I had started taking pictures with it. It was March 1984. I looked for the negatives, just out of curiosity, and found them in good condition. I scanned some and uploaded in facebook. To my great surprise, they were a success with my facebook friends – and I mean it, it was a big surprise because I never thought that anyone would be interested in my work. After that, I uploaded about 600 shots, and from that day on I dig into my archive and keep on finding new ones. So, I thought that I had to dig them out, all of them. I couldn’t keep them to myself anymore. I decided to print this work on Europe. The book, a collection of 95 pictures from 16 countries from that era, will be at stores shortly.
What about now? Taking pictures again?
Well… A little, yes.
And when are we going to see the new ones?
In 25 years from now! (laughs). We won’t be alive then, but who cares!