Lily Zoumpouli: “In the end, we are the stories we tell ourselves”
“It’s usually, after I’ve taken a picture, that I understand the reason why I took it out,” says photographer Lily Zoumpouli (Lily Lilac). Like diving in a world “out of our own individuality” with one main pursuit, with a code: “Kill your Idols”. And yes, the truth is, you can not pursue a disaster without living it.
“Walking Up From A Bad Dream In Which I Died” is the caption of your photo of 2012. The photo is right after a nightmare and it looks like you’re finally defeating the fear of death. Is the photo click it also such a win?
There are whole books that talk about the relationship of photography and death, one of the”strongest” is Roland Bart’s “Camera Lucida” which “devoured” me in way that slowly “undresses” the psychology of man, in relation with photography. That book helped me understand myself as a photographer but also as a human being. The photograph is often our way of keeping the dead alive, moments, feelings, it’s our way of achieving immortality and redeeming the fear of our mortality. My particular photo, entitled “Walking Up A Bad Dream In Which I Died,” is actually taken after I woke up from a nightmare where I saw myself being killed, I woke up and saw that I had begun to bleed because of period but in excessive amount. It was like my dream had touched reality and left behind its mark. In any case, our brain does not know the difference when we see a dream or when we are awake when it comes to feeling , so perhaps the very line that separates the world of dreams from what we perceive as real is actually very thin .
We often encounter symbolism in your photographs, such as blood, which in fact indicates the continuity of life. They are definitely autobiographical so. Are they directed? Or are they just happening?
The symbolism has always been part of my work, from my paintings to my pictures and videos, I have always been a fan of fairy tales, stories and poetry. I now believe that symbolism is automatically linked to my way of thinking and perception, so I can not avoid it. All my photos are autobiographical, from my own life as well as the people I meet during it. In addition to directing photographs, most of the time, if not always, I only go so far as to ask the person I want to photograph to stand still so I capture what is already happening. There are also occasions where I may see a landscape or an object and I will ask a friend (if) she/he is with me at that time to take part and then I will try different shots until I’m happy with the result. The same goes for my self-portraits.
Polaroids, like a technique, remind us of innocence, where the truth is unique and can not be cut and processed. Your naked ones in Polaroid are also bold, but in one way they are playful and innocent. Tell us about it.
My first polaroid camera was a Christmas gift from my sister when I was 15-16 years old. I was always fascinated by their colour, their size and the possibility of being able to touch them and see them “been born in front of you”. Often small things and objects hide the greatest emotional value to us. A pendant from our mother, an old watch from our father, a music cassette, a ring … Small objects that hide big emotions that we want to keep for ourselves. This is polaroids for me, something profoundly personal, emotional and unchanging. I use my polaroid camera very rarerly, choosing very carefully what to photograph with it. Apart from the fact that its films are expensive, the main reason is to keep them for small, important moments, which may seem so small, that they only have room for one feeling.
“Nobody should touch Polaroid until he’s over sixty,” said Walker Evans. Do we have to fear the perceived truth in art and put limits?
Walker Evans is a legendary photographer along with many others. Although I respect his work, my opinion is that the rules do not apply in art. The only way to be authentic considering your work is to follow your instincts and not be afraid to dare. Obviously we all need guidance at certain times. I owe a lot to the teachers I have had in all these years. But I will not follow a tip if I do not agree, I will listen and process it, and then I may keep it or I may not. However, no one should be arrogant and ignore the opinions of others, as no one should take “non processed ” absolute views of others. It’s a quote by the guitar player and singer of Sonic Youth, Thurston Moore, that I aspire most of all: “Kill your Idols,” find your own self and way. Only this way you can be truthful and it is our personal truths the ones that create remarkable works , which we call art.
It is said that good photography must make you feel in your stomach.
I agree in part, although I believe that this expression, which we hear very often, focuses mainly on photographs depicting something dramatic or strangely uncomfortable You do not need to capture a “heartbreaking” subject necessary in order be a good photographer. Many times we’ve seen strong photos that show us pleasant or exciting moments like Ryan McGinley’s photographer Olivia Bee’s work or photographs of humour and sarcasm such as Martin Parr’s images. I believe that such photographic works are even more challenging at times, because the qualitative “happy” is in danger of becoming a cliché, these approaches towards photography need special treatment but at the same time boldness.
What role does feeling play in your work? Does it work as a director?Besides, one thing is to feel something at the moment of taking and another to recall it from your memory.
Feeling has always been a compass for me. I always follow my instinct and capture pictures directed or not, without a lot of thought, I embrace my own feelings completely , mainly my subconscious. It’s usually when I’ve taken a picture that I understand the reason why why I took it . Sometimes it is the need to capture a moment of the present, and sometimes the need to capture a memory, a feeling of the past that leads me to take the picture. The way I work is the same way our brain works when we sleep, like sleepwalking while releasing through my dreams the images I create, the ones of my subconscious.
Colour is quite present in your work, even when you are shooting at dark areas. Which expresses you more, colour or o black and white?
Both express me as much. Although I can say it gives me more pleasure to edit colour images. For me it is like another kind of painting, I work with the shadows and colours according to the feeling that the particular picture wakes in me. Color or black and white, both capture my inner atmosphere at that moment.
You use my favourite word , which is “diving” when referring to your photos. Would you say it is an exploration ? And above all of ourselves?
Personally, I think it is. As has been said in the past, whatever kind of photography someone does ,whatever his or hers work is depicting, whatever someone produces, is in part a self-portrayal, showing us the reality as the particular photographer or artist perceives it to be . Every choice of directing and editing comes from personality traits of this person, without even they themselves understanding. In the same way that children do not realise that their behaviour is defined at a certain point from their family environment and the relationship of their parents with each other and them , the same goes for creations that are born through humans are determined by the artist character.
I want to ask you why they is a increasingly number of photographs of extreme and absurd issues nowdays. Is it a challenge to ask questions and define our world as a whole again?
As is already known, there are no longer pioneers in art, everything has already been done, which is a shame for the artists of my generation. I think the need for a person to stand out is linked (according to the majority) to recognition, and the quickest path to recognition is to shock people. Ofcourse , I do not believe that everyone that are taking extreme pictures do it for that reason. There is also the positive side of those who want to redefine the socially acceptable limits and ask new questions, which serves the supreme purpose of art. Who are the ones who achieve to do it or not, every viewer will judge it for themselves.
The photo is totally connected to the concept of time, right from the moment of the click. Does the passage place these images into something that is more valuable than a simple snapshot?
For sure. Beyond my work, my pictures are also moments from my life, so my memories, my stories. When our memory is limited, the only thing we have to remind us of our past is the photos. Ultimately, we are the stories we tell to ourselves. An alternate version of the truth, either through photography or purely based on our memory, which blends in with our imagination. There are many cut frames, and there are some that we just keep to ourselves. We look at a child’s photo of ourself and it’s like a completely different person, we do not remember being in this body. The photographs are evidence alongside illusory elements.
Could you do a kind of photo where you would only notice things without getting involved? A reportage maybe.
I think so. I already have an idea for a project that I would like to do someday, which will explore people who share a particular connection with nature and animals. Based on today’s issues considering climate change, but also as a theme that I would be very driven by, I believe that not only it would give me great pleasure to work on it, but at the same time an opportunity to face a challenge for me.
I have the feeling that you like family albums and their secrets. Even strangers?
The truth is that they do really excite me and I also do have some family albums of unknowns from other times that were found and bought at street markets. But it depends on the nature of the photos . The way they depict their lives and the kind of memories they chose to keep. I can not say that any family album would draw my attention. For me, photographic books or family albums, the lives of unknowns, is the same as movies. True or false, stories fascinate us according to the way and approached the are being showed . In order to make us interested they have to trigger our curiosity, either by excitement, fear for by helping to understand human nature, leading us to discover different aspects of ourselves.
Do you think that in our time, with the constant development of the media, do we need a new word to define the photo?
The photography we meet on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat ect, I would say that it could very well be called diary, self-promotion, mass socialisation of f***** around, boredom, narcism, avoiding to face our real problems, loneliness. However, I believe that photography as a means of expression should never cease to be called anything other than another form of art.
Tell us about your story with the photo, old and now.
From a toddler I was crazy about art, painting, movies. With photography, I started to get serious when we took part with a girlfriend in a school competition in the second junior high school, and we got the second prize (with a rather bad work, hahaha). When I was 15, I started attending seminars in Stereosis school of photography. This school and its teachers have long established the path I have decided to follow and I will always be grateful to them as well as the photographer Stratos Kalafatis, who became my next teacher after completing the necessary three years in stereosis. I attended the seminars of Stratos Kalafatis at Studiotessera, which I am proud to call my mentor and friend. In the meantime, thanks to my teachers who saw my work, they helped me to take part in exhibitions and publications. Stratos Kalafatis showed my work along with Kostis Argyriadi and Tania Kamidou work, all of us who took part in his seminars, to the publisher of Agra, Stauros Petsopoulos, who decided to make for each of us a special edition of our work, which was followed by our solo presentations and exhibitions in Thessaloniki and Athens. In the following years I attended a 5-day seminar by the Danish photographer of Magnum, Jacob Aue Sobol, who also helped us to publish a book with photo works of Greek photographers who attended his seminar, and also have exhibitions in Thessaloniki and in Sydney, Australia. In my second year in London, where I started studying at the University of the Arts London Wimbledon, I attended another 5-day seminar by the well-known Swedish photographer Anders Petersen. All these great teachers taught me a lot. Having developed my personal approach to photography and promoting my work online through facebook, instagram, site and sending it to competitions and open calls, there were many opportunities, such as Lens Culture, which gave me my own account at their site, the Atonal Collective that made me a member and together we exhibited our work in a gallery in Rome along with the publication of our book, my personal exhibition in Dublin and more. All of this was the result of hard work, continued hunting of opportunities, but also luck. All the people I met along the way had something to teach me and at the same time all were very beautiful people who loved photography and wanted to help. Today, I live to Greece, temporarily at least, trying to evolve as a photographer and constantly recreate myself, creating new work that explores the same partial issues with a more mature sight, I continue to photograph and to develop an autobiographical documentary in conjunction with allegorical aspects that gives a sense of spontaneity along with the subconscious that takes over slowly, the process of discovering a world outside and within ur own individuality.
Out of the socially expectable manners … Thank you.
* Translation of the greek version of the interview by Lily Zoumpouli