Embracing Surrealism and Symbolism: Video Interview with Dimitris Makrygiannakis in Stockholm

Dimitris Makrygiannakis is one of the up-and-coming rising stars when it comes to street photography. He has only been shooting seriously the last two years, and has made a huge leap in his work. I love the sense of surrealism, symbolism, and emotion in his work. He also breaks the “street photography” boundaries by embracing multiple types of work: posed portraiture and “still life” work.

See more of Dimitris’ work on Flickr. You can also see my past feature with his work here. Read more to see the entire transcript.

Interview Transcript

So Dimitris, can you introduce yourself to the camera and the people out there?

My name is Dimitris and I’m originally from Greece. I’m living in Stockholm for 10 years now, and I’ve been shooting for 3.5 years, approximately.

I work as a medical doctor and I’m really interested in photography – it is like having a second job, I dedicate a lot of time and shoot a lot. I’m very tired by both activities.

Can you tell how you first discovered photography – or what interested you first about it?

The first step was I bought my first small digital camera—a Canon IXUS something in 2003. And I could take as many photos as I could—what was good as a digital camera. I started as a tourist, as many of us start. Taking photos during mostly my holidays, not at all—during my normal life, only during holidays. And I liked it, and I thought I liked photography a lot. But I didn’t know about artistic photography or anything, I didn’t know what good photography was. All I knew was I liked it.

In 2010, I was in the states, and I bought a Canon 50d. I wasn’t sure why, but to buy a good camera. Then 2 months later I broke my leg and spent 2 months in bed. So I had nothing better to do, so I ordered some photography books—how to frame, what is ISO, aperture. Before I didn’t know that, because I was just a tourist who shot monuments and my girlfriend.

And I got a little bit hooked to it. Like how you can make a compositionally correct photo. This was the first thing that got my attention. Then after I got well with my leg, I started to slowly getting more interested in photography. In may 2010, I joined Flickr. I was lucky enough that I got a lot of great Greek street photographers who helped me.

I checked photos by Lukas Vasilikos, who is now a good friend—and a kind of a mentor also. One of his workshops was the first workshop I attended, and it really gave me inspiration to continue with my photography.

The good thing with Flickr is you can make good connections. I looked at dirty harrry and more and more people, thinking that is fucking nice—I want to do the same thing, or try to do the same thing.

Then my trip starts—it is all about studying photography, looking at other peoples work, and trying to do my own thing.

Can you tell us about when you think your photography really started to take off? And tell us about your travels?

I think it is a slow process—and I am still a guy who only shot 3.5 years. How long has it taken? Others can judge better than me.

With continuous studying and trying, I see progress and this is what I like. Otherwise I wouldn’t devote so much time to this. Because it really takes energy and time from my life. But I think everyday I think generally—everything you do, if you do it with devotion and give time to it—you will see progress. Most of us are shooting for fun—it is like a hobby. Most street photographers I think.

So most of us have a job and we shoot in our extra time. So to see progress you need to shoot a long time.

I think I got a bit higher with my level of shooting was when I asked my boss at the clinic for 6 months absence, so I wasn’t paid—but went to India and shot. I spent 4 months in India, and 2 months around India. I had the privilege that not all of us have—to shoot 4-6 hours per day, look at my photos, fix them in Lightroom, look at what I did during the night, and getting a sense of what I’m doing—how it is progressing. Then next day going out and shooting, and so on for 4 months in a row. I feel very privileged I could do that. 4 months only photography in my mind. I’m lucky to have done this. Other people have families, their jobs don’t allow it—and shooting continuous for a period of time makes you better.

Because you shot everyday for 4 months from 5-6 hours, how did that change how you saw the world and worked on the streets?

First, I switched from black and white (or a mixture of black and white and color) – to total color. I think if you shoot a lot, you start seeing that the world should be expressed even artistically as the way it would look through our eyes. And we see the world in color, not black and white. So probably this happened because of the time over all those months.

Another good thing that happened is that I like compositions—photos where you can combine 1,2,3,4 different elements and make a good composition out of it. This doesn’t come at once—the first time you start off shooting you can hardly combine two elements together and make a meaningful or interesting composition. So if you can shoot continuously for a long time, I think in the 4th month I could see lots of different things together, and improving everything in my frame.

If I go back now, probably I’m not going to be able to shoot in that level. It needs time. The more you do it, the better you get. But I think you forget a little bit if you don’t always shoot frequently.

I think your photography really took off when you were in India and traveling. It is really hard to be inspired when you are back home. How do you juggle having to have a day job while shooting back home in Stockholm?

I’m trying to shoot here in Stockholm as well. I would say that what I’m trying to do now mostly is to find some periods – since I came back January 2013, I have had 2-3 periods of 2 weeks each where I decided to shoot. 2 weeks it was here in Stockholm, 2 weeks in Prague.

And in those two weeks, I’m only shooting. I think that’s the best way of shooting. Then I don’t shoot for 1-2 months, because I’m in the clinic, I’m tired, I can’t find inspiration after 8 hours—I feel it is fucked.

Even though you have been busy with work, it seems you have been able to make interesting photos—like the one of the lady with the big eye. Can you tell us the story of it?

Well this is my girlfriend and it was my birthday and she wanted to do some surprise for me- – because I was quite depressed after coming from India. I would like to be back in India shooting still. So she tried to get my friends in the house, so she took me to her lab. Then I took my camera with me. And I saw that lamp and I thought I’ll take a photo. I thought immediately: the lamp and her eye, ill magnify it. So I started with close portraits of her, very close, just her eye and her neck, then I took a step back and found her reflection on the glass. So I had a person, like a real person on the glass, and the person who doesn’t look like a person (but a big eye). It is like a symbol for me. The researcher who is a human and researcher.

Speaking of symbolism—can you tell us the importance of symbolism in your work and other things?

I like symbols—and I think I have some symbolist work among my pictures. But its not so easy, not every photo you can shoot can have a strong symbol. I have another photo in my stream with Abba—the pop group. Its outside the museum and one of those things that you put your heads in and you get your photo of them. So I have a photo of 4 of them, 4 empty heads. For me it is Abba, pop culture, and empty heads. I think pop culture is quite empty in my view, and there is the sun coming. Out of one there is sun coming through. So still empty culture, but shining—something like this.

So some other photos that I think contain symbols. I try to go for symbols, but it isn’t always easy. And sometimes symbols you discover when you post-process your photos. You shoot with your instinct, and discover it during editing (looking at your photos afterwards).

Why symbolism, why are you interested in it?

Because I think symbolism can talk about current issues in our society, and it is a way also to show what my view of the society of the world of everyday life is. So symbolism is a way to reflect myself in my photos. But ill tell you—sometimes I see the symbol in the spot, sometimes I discover it afterwards. So I’m trying a lot of surrealism. I like photos with hands going here and there, and everything coming together—or some other surrealistic compositions. Sometimes that may feel more shallow than the symbolist work, but ideally sometimes you can combine everything together. Have a surrealistic image, and containing strong symbols as well. Some other photos, I’m attracted when I shoot a photo by the mood I see potentially reflected in those pictures. I think my work is about surrealism, symbolism, and a certain mood.

When you see a scene, how many times do you click and work the scene?

This also has changed during time. I used to mainly take one shot and go—I don’t know why. Maybe because I was shy, and wanted to escape.

When I went to India, people are much friendlier than here in Western Europe and you can shoot without getting complaints. So one click became more clicks, and when I finished those 4 months trip, I could shoot a scene 30-40 times before I said okay, that is enough—I will go onto some other scene.

How do you know when it is enough?

I shoot digital, so I was looking at what I was shooting—so sometimes I had the feeling, oh okay; I have the photo I really like. So I can progress. Some other times I was also getting yelled at, and then I had to go (even in India). Mainly you stop when you think it is enough, or start irritating people then you have to go.

I also like your color work, and I see you used to shoot a lot in black and white. Can you tell us about your transition from b/w to color—and how you work differently in color and what it means to you?

I think for most people starting in street photography (or any type of artistic photography) – we will all start black and white. Why? Because artistic photography you want to get out of the reality. This is what art tries to achieve. So black and white isn’t reality. It isn’t what we see with our eyes. So it was my way in the beginning to try and create art. To try something artistic, lets say.

But what I think is the biggest challenge is to create art with color—because color is what we see. Color is closer to reality—so how do we get away from reality? Well, that is a challenge.  Now I’m thinking about going back to my old black and white photos and turning them back into color. So hopefully most of my work will be color in the future, and I’m not thinking about black and white at all nowadays.

You also mention a workshop you did with Nikos Economopoulos from Magnum. What did you learn from it?

I had this workshop with Nikos in Varanasi in India for a week.

I learned two things:

  1. He was the guy who challenged us (me and the other participants) to choose color or black and white during this one week. From the first day. It was my second month in India at the time, and the photos I took the first month—I processed them in either black and white or color, depending what felt better. After this one week of shooting in color, and thinking of color—I switched to color.
  2. Nikos has a certain way of framing; he goes for many elements, with the central event. This is also what I like, including many elements—but you have to have a central event where the viewer can focus and which gives the strength of the photo. With everything else equally strong—or getting a good composition.

I know in your photos you like to arrange certain images—some people might say it is “unethical” to pose your pictures. So personally how would you define street photography and how do you think the role of candid vs. posed plays a role in your work?

I can start commenting about rules. I think these are rules that are set by others. That “street photography has to be candid”. I think mainly rules—if you want to set them, keep them for yourself mainly. I also have rules for myself in the beginning. For example, shooting candid, not cropping.

Now to tell you the truth—I don’t care about it anymore. I can shoot candid, and I think it shows in my candid photos, and I’m happy when they’re candid. But if I see a scene and I have some opportunity from a nice background, which I think can create a beautiful image—I will ask people for help. I am more into street photography aesthetics than street photography with a hard and strict definition.

But that’s me—if people don’t like it, that’s fine.

What would you say is the street photography aesthetic?

Things that feel like street photography—surrealistic compositions, many elements, I cannot really define it. It is the feeling I get when I look at a photograph. And I can look at photos from other people and get this feeling, and feel that the aesthetic is there. Even if it was shot in a house, or in the family of someone. I hear people who say it has to be in public places or the street—but I think it can be done in the family or house. There are many great photographers who do this too.

When it comes to photographers on Flickr or groups on Flickr, are there any photographers in particular you recommend?

Okay, I like the work of my friend Antonios – it is sad he left Flickr now, and only accessible on his website. He’s not only about street; he is also in this wider aesthetic of photography. He shoots streets, with people, a lot of nature, but I think he has this certain aesthetic I like. So he’s a good guy to check out.

There are many great ones from Greece: dirty harrry, who has shot a long time, and is still strong and shooting well. I like his work.

Lukas Vasilikos is another guy, he is street oriented and lately he’s more into uncandid photography, than street. But his work is very interesting.

To wrap up this interview, for people who are watching and want to find more of their own style and guidance—what are some last advises might you give them?

For the beginners out there, if you love something or fall in love with something—if you want to progress, give it time. Shoot, study it as much as you can, and hopefully you will see progress on your work.

Any other last things you would like to mention?

I would like to mention I am a beginner; I am a baby in this kind of thing. So this is a view of a beginner, if I said something stupid, that are my thoughts—cheers.

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