Photography & Literature: A talk with Nicos Philippou

I first came across Nico’s work when my mother was photographed for one of his photo books called ‘Off the Map – Εκτός του Χάρτη’ which was about the people that were living in Old Nicosia at the time (2005), a place which before the restoration of the heart of the divided city, was considered a ‘bad place’ to live in as it was characterised by poverty, deserted, ready-to-fall-on-you houses and crime. The book contains photographs of the locals of Old Nicosia and their houses/businesses and are accompanied by things they said to the researchers working with Nicos. Off the Map also has an introductory essay by David Officer that offers the reader a brief background in both Greek and English about the historical centre of Nicosia. The photograph of my mum at her hair salon was accompanied by the words ‘I am a refugee because there is no place to which I belong.’ My mum, being a refugee, left her village in North Cyprus when she was 8 and never returned. The first time I read it, I was stricken. I thought: ‘But this is our home, that’s where my siblings and I grew up, why doesn’t she feel like home here?’ It took me a while to understand that moving to a new place and living in a new house does not necessarily mean that you stop missing your initial, first home, you just learn to live with that feeling of loss. Wounds become marks on the flesh and thus, an eternal part of who you are. Now, 15 years later she told me: ‘I guess, it’s good that I do not feel at home anywhere, I guess I learned to feel at home everywhere I go now!’.  So that is one out of the many stories I am sure have arisen through Nicos’ photographs, photo books, essays and poems; stories that we might not have talked about if someone didn’t go looking for them. 

When did you start taking photographs and what inspired you to become a photographer? 

During my mid-teens I found this old Cannonet, a Japanese copy of a Leica rangefinder, lying unclaimed by anybody else in a drawer in my parental house in Limassol. I took it to Mr. Vasos, the owner of a photo lab in my neighborhood, who very patiently and generously showed me how to operate it and how to measure light and set the right settings manually. I didn’t produce anything interesting at the time. Just copying (or trying to do so) established photographic tropes. I was a poorly performing high school student and a rather difficult, if not troubled, young man. Experimenting with photography was added to my other two escapist obsessions: motorcycles and literature. The Cannonet is still with me, in my flat in Ayios Dometios, I am still riding motorcycles and I am still obsessively reading literature. Which makes me realize, with some dread, that I may have not yet overcome my escapist tendencies.   

Photography was imagined, desired and invented by European elites. But it was very quickly claimed and appropriated by the masses throughout the globe.

Nowadays we are bombarded by photographs as almost anyone can afford to have a smartphone with a camera and there are many platforms where you can share your work. Some consider this phenomenon the democratization of photography. What are your thoughts about it and do you think this has changed what we call ‘worthy’ to be photographed?

I don’t mind the phenomenon at all. Photography was imagined, desired and invented by European elites. But it was very quickly claimed and appropriated by the masses throughout the globe. For the first time in human history, from 1839 onwards, owing a likeness of the self ceased to be a privilege of the rich. And later in the century with the invention of the easy to use KODAK camera and the company’s “You Press the Button- We do the Rest” approach, the production of images ceased to be the exclusive domain of the trained specialist and was again enthusiastically embraced by the masses. So the invention of digital photography and the emergence of platforms like Instagram are not a technological revolution, nor a moment of rapture with the past. They just continue and enhance the democratic tendencies in the use of the medium that were already there from the onset.    

Over-reliance on, and fetishization of, expensive equipment and technique can lead to technically immaculate images but not necessarily to interesting ones. It is that unique and edgy vision of certain minds that produces the remarkable ones.

What makes a good photographer?

This connects very well with what we just discussed. Photography should be first and foremost about perspective; about the observer’s perception and evaluation of her surroundings whether these are social and cultural or material. I am interested in technique and technology only to the extend that they serve the story the photographer is telling.  It’s the mind that sees and the mind is a complex web of values and perspective shaped by culture, ideology, literature, music, movies experience and so on. Over-reliance on, and fetishization of, expensive equipment and technique can lead to technically immaculate images but not necessarily to interesting ones. It is that unique and edgy vision of certain minds that produces the remarkable ones. Any photographic technology at hand can produce extra-ordinary representations of the world in the hands of that right mind. It’s quality of mind and vision we should be in pursuit of, then, and not expensive equipment. I am tempted to push this to it’s limits and claim that “poor” equipment and the photographic accidents they might produce can, often, provide possibilities for imagining the world in entirely new ways.         

What do you think makes photography so powerful and fascinating to humans?

It’s indexical relationship with it’s subject: in order for a photograph of the “thing” to exist the “thing” must exist. Light needs to come into contact with the object and then imprint its image onto the plate, film or whatever other photosensitive surface is in use. This special relationship of a photograph with its referent is unlike that of any other method of representation and fascinated observers like Edgar Allan Poe who wrote on photography immediately after it’s invention and Roland Barthes whose philosophical inquire into the ontology of photography led to the now classic book Camera Lucida.  

Instead of preserving I like to think of my work as revisiting, reimagining and retelling Cyprus. That it is attacking old tropes, especially those of a banal, romantic nationalism, and producing new narratives and myths and providing new possibilities of identification.

You are a person deeply concerned with preserving and showing what Cyprus is and what we mean by Cypriotness.  What initially triggered you to choose Cyprus as a main part of your work?

Instead of preserving I like to think of my work as revisiting, reimagining and retelling Cyprus. That it is attacking old tropes, especially those of a banal, romantic nationalism, and producing new narratives and myths and providing new possibilities of identification.

I had taken a break from Cyprus and went to live in London between 1996 and 2001. During my time there I was preoccupied with a kind of street photography whose subject matter and aesthetic was informed by socialist sensitivities and the rather naïve(I know that now) idea that my work could produce social change. My photography at the time focused on violence, policing, riots, homelessness and other similar perils of capitalism.    

On my return to Nicosia I realised that the drama of life was not acted out in the street. A realisation that led to a creative dead-end that lasted for a few months. I was then introduced to visual anthropologist Peter Loizos who had arrived at about the same time to do field work for his third monograph on Cyprus. I did talk to him about my frustration and he very generously offered me a photographer’s job in an ethnographic project that he was involved in, as an expert advisor. The project was called Mediterranean Voices and it was looking at neglected areas in the historical centres of fourteen cities in the Med.

My task was to produce in-situ portraits of informants interviewed by the team of sociologists and anthropologists working on the project. This experience proved to be an eye opener. Once in informants’ homes or work space like the coffee-house, the workshop, the tavern and the barber shop, I was provided with a rare opportunity to look at and contemplate on the value, both aesthetic and semantic of the objects that adorned the walls of those spaces. 

Initially I was making the point by including as much of the environment surrounding the sitter as possible in the portraits. Soon, however, I began producing photographs focusing exclusively on these tableaux of objects in the informant’s space highlighting their value as signifiers of culture, economic status and ideology. Both the aesthetic and meaning induced by these objects seemed to differ a great deal from the standard depictions of space and people in Old Nicosia which remained firmly within the romantic tradition. This dimension of the work was alluring but I was not yet in a position to articulate the exact parameters, ideological, aesthetic and other, of this sharp difference at the time.

Copyrights to Nicos Philippou © All rights reserved.

What led to the creation of a photo book about coffee houses of Cyprus called ‘Coffee House Embellishments’?

I guess it was the natural next “chapter”. If the objects in homes proved to be signifiers of individual and familial identity, the coffee-house seemed to be the ideal space where the social, political and cultural significance of such objects could be scrutinised. A space long divided along political/ideological lines the coffee-house has acted as a primary arena for the contestation of ideas and this is echoed on its walls: political paraphernalia, posters of Che and Marx and portraits of Makarios and EOKA heroes. Beyond politics and ideology the coffee-house, for a long time has, also, provided opportunities for contact with the world outside the narrow confines of small community life. Within its space people would consume mass media content, be entertained by travelling theatre groups and participate in forms of vernacular and working class sub and counter cultures. 

It is then a cosmopolitan and modern (or modernised) institution. Having said that, canonical photography insisted, and still does, in elevating the coffee-house to a symbol of tradition and an eternal Cypriotness. All of these seemed like very good reasons to engage in a visual as well as an ethnographic study of material culture and its meanings as they are manifested in the space of the coffee-house. The emphasis on objects like political paraphernalia, TV, radio sets and other objects associated with modernity had become by that stage a conscious attempt for a head-on confrontation with romantic fantasies about Cyprus both as a topos and a culture. 

Many perceived Off the Map photographs of spaces as a kind of ironic, post-modern celebration of kitsch. It became obvious to me that such comments were coming from a middle-class perspective, which was looking down on working-class aesthetics. I therefore became increasingly interested in aesthetics and in particular the perceived hierarchies of beauty. So for this series I have been much more conscious of my composition in an attempt to bestow a sense of value and due respect to vernacular aesthetics.

Poetry can be a wholly creative process. It has the potential of creating worlds that can be nothing other than the product of the poet’s imagination. Photography, instead, is a transformative process. It can only deal with real things. As such is often confused with reality itself. But, then, it has an enormous transformative potential. Both, though, are fascinating forms of story-telling which is, after all, the cornerstone of human civilisation.

You also write poems, as you published your first chapbook of haiku in Cypriot-Greek titled Scrambler in 2017 and you have also contributed a poem to this unreal country. What do you think is the relationship between photography and literature? 

I will start by stating a fundamental difference which relates to the discussion we had a while ago about the ontological uniqueness of photography. Poetry can be a wholly creative process. It has the potential of creating worlds that can be nothing other than the product of the poet’s imagination. Photography, instead, is a transformative process. It can only deal with real things. As such is often confused with reality itself. But, then, it has an enormous transformative potential. Both, though, are fascinating forms of story-telling which is, after all, the cornerstone of human civilisation.

What inspired the poem ‘Flamingo‘?

It refers back to a specific personal moment and a specific image I have seen. But the more I reflect on it the more I understand that it is about a realization which in turn is the product of emotional maturity: the realization that you need to be ready to allow and accept departures. Interesting, colorful, fascinating people are often restless and migratory. And no matter how or how much you care about them you have to be ready to let them go. Otherwise your love becomes their cage; their colors fade away and they eventually lose their wings. And then they cease to be the enchanting individuals that charmed you in the first place.

What books would you recommend to people that are just starting to get involved with photographic theory?  

Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes is a great introduction to the ontology of photography- the very essence of the medium. Then Sontag’s collection of essays “On Photography” on the social and political dimensions of photographic culture. These two should, I expect, lead to other readings in specific directions driven by the readers own concerns as they will be aroused by these, by now, classic texts. 

And last but not least, what is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the phrase ‘this unreal country’? 

Fata Morgana, flamingos, palm trees and reptiles. The arid land that seduced me and I grew to love passionately for its geographical, historical and cultural surrealism.


Nicos Philippou is a photographer with a strong interest in Cypriot topography and material culture. He has participated in several exhibitions in Cyprus and abroad. In 2010 he co-curated the exhibition Re-envisioning Cyprus and co-edited the volume with the same title. In 2012 he participated in the exhibition Sense of Place/ European Landscape Photography at the BOZAR in Brussels and in at Maroudia’s, a component of the major NiMAC exhibition Terra Mediterranea-In Crisis. In 2015 his book Coffee House Embellishments was shown in The PhotoBook Exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens.

He is also the co-editor of  Photography and Cyprus: Time, Place, Identity. In 2016 NiMAC hosted his solo exhibition Sharqi, and published a photobook with the same title.His writings on photography, vernacular culture and Cypriot Identity have been published in journals, art magazines and collective volumes whereas his photography has been showcased in periodicals like photographies and Exposure. He is currently lecturing at the Communications Department of the University of Nicosia.

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