Young Greek photographer Yorgos Yatromanolakis shot to fame last year with The Splitting of the Chrysalis & the Slow Unfolding of the Wings, an intensely personal work that also reflects his country's turbulent recent history
“I believe that collective memory and individual experience, politics and personal beliefs, are interrelated,” says Yorgos Yatromanolakis – and it’s easy to see why. Born in Crete in 1986, he got into photography in December 2008 because he wanted to document the riots that broke out in Greece after a 15 year-old, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, was shot dead by the police. Shot in grainy black-and-white and printed by Yatromanolakis, the resulting images were later self-published as a book, Roadblock to Normality.
“Roadblock to Normality is a small, personal, but at the same time collective notebook emanating from my participation in political and social movements in my country,” says Yatromanolakis. “It certainly captures, in a subjective way, some critical political events.”
Shortly after the riots, Greece’s then-rumbling economic problems erupted into a full-blown debt crisis, which consumed the country for the next eight years. In order to win a bail-out from the Eurozone and the IMF, Greece was forced to impose harsh austerity measures, which saw the country’s GDP fall by 25% and youth unemployment rise to nearly 50%. Meanwhile from 2014-15 Yatromanolakis was forced to undertake nine months of military service – which is still mandatory for Greek men aged between 19 and 49 years old.
Feeling that this service was “obliterating my personality and identity”, as Yatromanolakis has told LensCulture, he again turned to photography. This time using film and printing his own work wasn’t practical, so he picked up his mobile phone instead, shooting lo-resolution colour images that exuded a feeling “in complete harmony with my emotional state and with the whole experience I was living through”.
He published the resulting book, Not Provided, in 2016, prefacing the book with a text by Errikos Barbis: “‘Think about your fellow countrymen!’ They will tell us. Then we will show each other, comrades of all counties and we will answer: ‘Here are our fellow countrymen!’ And we will tear apart the silky rags of the colourful flags, we will throw away from us all this fun-fair theatre, where only suffering and death were not comedies, all these disgusting praises of slaughters.”
It was “a dark phase” says Yatromanolakis, but it also proved transformative. Returning to Crete and seeking refuge in nature, he started a new body of work – The Splitting of the Chrysalis & the Slow Unfolding of the Wings, whose title embodies the idea of rebirth. Experimenting with different cameras, shooting techniques, processing methods, and materials, he discovered “a new photographic” language, imbued with distinctive inky hues.
“I liked to photograph in the liminal light that shines between night and day – the dreamy shades of dawn and the constant change in the intensity of the light in those hours visually create a very particular, powerful atmosphere,” he explains, adding that the intensity of the darkness on Crete made him think of the darkness inside a chrysalis. Through this work he was able to “connect with myself” again, he says, but while the project represents an intensely personal journey, it is also – like Yatromanolakis’ other works – bound up in the circumstances in which he found himself.
“Certainly in my first two books their subjects themselves, and the socio-political context within which they were created make some political positions apparent,” he says. “Nevertheless, The Splitting of the Chrysalis & the Slow Unfolding of the Wings captures the chronology of a personal period of introversion and reflection during a time when my country was immersed in a deep political depression, and my generation faced an economic and ideological stalemate.”
Back in Athens, Yatromanolakis published the work in 2018 with Void, “a new independent publishing house with a very dynamic presence in the field of contemporary photography”. Though it was the first time he had stepped away from self-publishing, he found working with Void “harmonious and on the best possible terms”, and the resulting book quickly sold out. He’s now decided to return to the project to create a new handmade edition, which will be published through Zoetrope – an artist-run space in Athens that he helped set up.
“The great success of the book and the fact that it sold out within a few months gave me the opportunity to fulfil a deeper inner need – to repeat the production process in a slower and more experimental fashion,” he says. “Producing a book in 2019 using hand-crafted artistic techniques may appear to some as a kind of fetishism. However, it allows the creator to be present, to exercise control and to be involved in all decisions concerning the production of his/her work. I feel that even some imperfections, which always occur during such a process, give each copy its own memory, making it unique and special.”
The book’s success also helped bring Yatromanolakis’ work to an international audience, and he has an exhibition coming up at the Circulation(s) festival in Paris; photobooks are special he says, as they allow photographers from all over the world to present their work, in their own aesthetic terms, to a wider audience. “Indeed, in many cases the works emanating from peripheral countries are the ones that stand out,” he says. “Because they incorporate the special characteristics, culture and history of these places, and are not the crafted mass photography works produced artificially following the manner of specific schools of photography.”