Angelos Tzortzinis was born in Athens, Greece, in 1984. He studied at the Leica Academy of Creative Photography and is a freelance professional photographer. For the past five years, he has worked on the immigration issue in Greece and is now documenting the effects of the financial crisis on Greek society. He has carried out assignments for Time, Newsweek and collaborated with The New York Times and has received the Pictures of the Year International (POYi) 67 General News Award Of Excellence, POYi 69 Spot News Third Place Prize, POYi 70 New Multimedia Story Third Place Prize and PDN Photo Annual 2010 Photojournalist among others.
We recently spoke with Angelos on his project depicting the prostitution and drug crisis affecting women in Athens that appears in the latest issue of LFI.
Q: Can you provide some background information on your Athens prostitution and drug reportage that appears in LFI?
A: First of all, I am a part of this situation. I live inside the problem as it is a very difficult period for my country. A lot of journalists and photographers visited Greece and they spent a lot of time covering the crisis in Greece but I think nobody can understand what is going on exactly. I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Athens. Every day I would walk past scenes of drug use, so this situation was familiar to me. It all started when one day I was in central Athens taking some photos and at some point a woman whispered me “For just five euros”. I did not understand what she wanted from me and I left. After three days, I went at the same spot again, but she was not there. I found another woman and after speaking with her, I understood what was going on. So far I have spent ten months in these neighborhoods and I have heard lots of stories from these women. In this situation, these women are the real victims. I am not a photographer who believes that he can change the world or this specific situation. Unfortunately, the reality is that I cannot help these women but I hope to create a debate, a discussion and I will be satisfied if someone changes their opinion about these women after seeing my photos.
Q:Have you received any feedback regarding individuals changing their opinion about these women? Do you feel that if Greece experiences an economic turnaround in 2014, as expressed in recent statements by the Prime Minister, that the lives of these women and other Athenians will improve markedly going forward? Do you have hope for the future, or any intention of documenting the rehabilitation of these victims if and when that occurs?
A: I have received a lot of mail from all over the world about this story and many of them told me it is very sad to see what is going on in Greece. There is not a clear program from the Greek government for these women and the arrests are not a solution. Unfortunately, I am not so optimistic for the future of my country or I am just too tired to be optimistic. The Greek government announced that in 2014 the country will experience an economic turnaround. I do not think that there are Greeks who believe that. As for these women, to be honest, I do not think that it’s easy to change something, as in Greece there is no social welfare for them. My goal was to present these women as real victims of this crisis and not just some drug addicts who take five euros for sex. I think that in a way I have managed to do it.
Q: What equipment did you use for this project?
A: I used a Leica camera M9 with a 28 mm f/2. 8 ASPH. lens and a flash.
Q: Are there any other particular characteristics of the Leica M9 that you find essential or useful in your type of work? Also, why do you favor the 28 mm focal length?
A: For me, the Leica camera is something personal. When I take photos with a Leica, I feel free from indiscreet eyes not only from people around me, but also from my subject. Also, my shooting is very limited and I can understand that I have taken the right image for me. I can’t explain this emotion, but this is very important for me. When I was still a student at the Leica Academy, I started taking photos with a 28 mm lens from that point on. I use this lens for my projects. This lens gives me the opportunity to take street photos and interiors as well.
Q: All of the images of in this portfolio are presented in black-and-white. What is it about this medium that suits your mode of expression?
A: There are some things that I cannot explain. I think that each photographer has a lot of things in the back of his mind and when all these things come together, a photo is created.
Q: What does photography mean to you?
A: A good photographer is not someone who takes nice photos; it is a much more complicated process for me. The life values and experiences are a large part of being a photographer. As a result, photography is a way out from the reality of my daily life and a need for human and direct communication, as at this period of time we have lost that need and we have been alienated from each other.
Q: As an Athens native, how do you think your life experiences have affected your coverage of prostitution and drug abuse in your great city, and how do you think these images communicate to the world and establish human connections in this era of social alienation?
A: As I mentioned earlier, I am a part of this situation and live inside the problem. I still live in the same poor neighborhood I grew up in and see the scenes of drug use every day. Of course, my life experiences have influenced the covering of this story. My first goal was to respect these women as in these stories it is very easy to shock. A lot of people have seen countless photos about drugs and have become immune to their sight and as a result they do not try to see the image in-depth. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to connect with people through photography having as reference this story. This is the reality; a lot of Greeks have their own problems and they are not interested in more problems in their lives, but I cannot blame them for that.
Q: Most of the images in this portfolio show female prostitutes in small, featureless, dark rooms with beds and most were obviously shot under available light, but a couple were clearly taken with on-camera flash and both have a harsh quality. Was this intentional, and how do you decide when to use flash or not?
A: Sometimes conflicting emotions are created inside me, so the decision to use flash or not comes up according to the feeling of each situation, for example for this specific image (above) I used flash. I was in central Athens and I was looking for these women but they were nowhere. At some point I saw one of these women and I asked her if she saw the others. She answered me that the police arrested a lot of them. I asked her where she will go afterwards and she pointed at a hotel nearby. I followed her and I took this image, as she was the only woman who was not arrested by the police patrol that day. So the flash gave me the possibility to depict her loneliness as she was sleeping on the bed.
Q: There is one image of a wrinkled striped blanket or sheet apparently draped over a bed that creates an indefinable complex of emotions in the viewer but somehow encapsulates the wretched circumstances of these women. Do you agree, and what was going through your mind when you pressed the shutter release?
A: I agree absolutely, this image has a lot of stories to tell about these women. I decided to take this photo when I saw countless cigarette burns on the blanket. At that point, I realized that this image encapsulates the whole story. Many times this kind of image can make you imagine scenes that maybe have happened or not. I consider this kind of approach very important for my work.
Q: There is a pathetic, assertive, and enigmatic quality to this image of a single outstretched arm with what looks like a number seven tattooed on it. It is somehow misshapen and distorted yet it has an inner strength. Is this an example of the ravages of shisha, the cheap form of methamphetamine now popular in Greece? What do you think this conveys to the viewer and how does it fit into your story?
A: These scars already existed as these women where users of many other substances before shisha. But, of course, shisha has made this situation worse and turned them more vulnerable to diseases and infections. The viewer can contact not only the happenings in these women’s lives, but also the situation of a whole country going deeper in a crisis, as shisha is a result of this crisis — a drug created due to a need for more and more cheaper substances.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you plan to document any other specific locations or social conditions in the near future?
A: I really can’t predict my future as things around photography are fluid. I would like only one thing, to support myself through photography and continue taking photos, nothing more. As for my goal for the future, it is to continue to work on the project on my country where there are a lot of social problems that have not been recorded yet.
Q: Among other things, these images express your humanitarian concern for others and there is clearly a heartfelt social conscience behind your camera. Is your goal to motivate social change by revealing the plight of victims of the system, and if so do you think these images exist at the intersection of art and politics? Are they ultimately an agent of social change?
A: When I started working on this story, my goal was not create questions or answers as each person has different experiences from his life so he creates his own questions and answers and her conclusions. Of course one of my goals was to try motivating social change by revealing the plight of these victims of the system, as they are forgotten by the system itself.
Thank you for your time, Angelos!
– Leica Internet Team
Please find Angelos’ full reportage in LFI 7/2013. Also available for the iPad. Watch the video on his reportage here. Connect with Angelos via his website.