Socrates Baltagiannis is a 35 year old street and freelance photographer from Athens, Greece. Originally trained as a graphic designer, he worked in that field until 2011. He developed his skills into photography as a self-taught photographer and also attended workshops on photography and photojournalism to learn the technicalities and broaden his vision. Now he’s working as a full-time freelance photographer. Many of his images have been published in reputed and prominent newspapers and journals. Socrates has covered many events of crisis and conflicts in his country and his street photos capture the drama and triviality of the moments. Here’s our Q&A with this very talented photographer:
Hello, my name is Socrates Baltagiannis and I was born in Athens, Greece, where I still live in. Although photography was always in the back of my head, I studied and worked as a graphic designer until 2011. A self-taught photographer, in 2009 I began taking part in seminars and workshops on photography and photojournalism, trying to expand my knowledge on the medium. Since then, I work as a freelance photographer, mainly in the fields of photojournalism and documentary photography. Other than that I like drawing, BMX riding, driving around with no purpose (as long as I have the gas). I am a fan of the warm and sunny weather, I love freddo espresso coffee as many Greeks do (a cold version of espresso… you should try it) and I am trying to make my name worthy of my ancestor Socrates the philosopher… just kidding…
Photography was always in the back of my head since I was a kid. Drawing was an important factor of my life back then so it was kind of natural for me to look for shapes, light and things like that in real life too; and on the other hand I was getting excited looking at magazines like National Geographic, Life etc. showcasing places and situations happening in other parts of the world. The weird thing is that back then I never thought I could be a photographer, maybe because of the drawing thing, but as the years went by my need to tell stories through a medium closer to reality (if I can say that and I hope you know what I mean) got bigger and so I started to use photography more. Now, I am represented by Invision-images photo agency and I can’t really say that I am counting my clicks any more (always when speaking of digital photography).
Photography is a part of my life even if you see it as a profession or just as a way to express myself. Photography has taught me a lot of things when it comes to my vision and personality and to address some of those, let’s say that I have learned that life is beautiful even if sometimes it’s a bi***, that small things as well as small moments are precious, that nothing in life is black or white (even though I love black and white photography) but the truth is always somewhere in the middle. Also I have learned to be patient and respect people for what they are. In the end though, the most important thing that photography has taught me is that you never stop learning.
My key areas are photojournalism and documentary photography but as a professional photographer you have to be able to do anything, from travel to editorial, even some wedding photography when speaking of making a living. I also love street photography but I would put it somewhere close to documentary photography even though I know some people will have another view on this matter. As for the equipment, I have a Canon 5D and a Canon 40D. For film I use a Leica M6 with a 35mm lens and a Canon AE-1 with a 50mm and a 28mm lens. I also use a Bronica SQ-Ai medium format camera that I love!
I am into film photography for long and the reasons are many. First of all I began my photographic journey using film, back in the 90’s; the other reasons are that film photography makes you more selective and a quicker thinker at the same time- that the feeling itself is great, not to mention that I still love the smell in the dark room… To tell you the truth I do like both, digital and film photography as well. Sometimes I see them as a tool and I use each one of them depending on what I want to do. My workflow in film photography is as following: I send color film to the lab and I develop the black and white myself in a dark room; sometimes I print my own black and white but I always scan both. When it comes to digital, I mostly shoot RAW but sometimes I shoot Jpeg just to be quicker when I have to deal with news worthy stories and the deadlines are tight. I use Photoshop and I try to do what I would do in the dark room but always staying within the ethical code of a photojournalist.
Working as a photojournalist you come across with many challenges but it is very rewarding as well; so let me start answering this question with what motivates me and makes me want to continue doing it. One thing is that you get to know and interact with other people, getting into their lives and their daily routines; I always feel compelled when people trust me by letting me get into their houses to tell their stories. Other things that cross my mind right now are that as a photojournalist you are inside the news at the right moment when they happen and that you have the chance to see places that you wouldn’t see otherwise. But believe me, if I stay longer on this topic we will never end this interview so let me get back on the challenges and I will try to be as concise as I can. The most important and challenging aspect of my work in my opinion is to be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of the stories that I do and treat all subjects with respect and dignity as well.
When I am in a situation that I know might turn bad, I always feel nervous at first but when these moments come I don’t think that much, I just act… Of course I always look around to see where I am, where my colleagues are and where the potential threats are. Whatever the situation is, there’s always a risk you have to take to be able to have the picture you might want, so you balance the situation and do what you think is right. I wouldn’t say that I have been in a place with an actual risk for my life (let’s say a warzone for example) but I have been in situations in my country where you never know what might happen. When for example you have to deal with a protest, you are in the middle of the protesters and the riot police and nobody wants you there. You might have your cameras stolen or broken by protesters or even by the riot police and you might be in the unpleasant situation to visit the hospital with a broken arm, for stitches etc. or even to get arrested for doing your job.
Once, I have been punched in the face by a protester and another time a marble landed on my head resulting in a broken helmet (imaging what the result would be if I didn’t wore that helmet…the right equipment is essential for this kind of work). Many of my colleagues have been treated bad or abused by the riot police while they were covering protests in Athens since the crisis hit my country, but this is something you can see all over the world right now with more and more journalists and photojournalist to being mistreated, kidnapped or killed in hot zones or in places with a political instability and this is something that deeply worries me.
I really don’t know what makes me click and most of the times you don’t have the time to think a lot as things happen very fast… In those moments I’d say there is a combination of instinct, experience and luck. Luck is a great factor in photography in my opinion!
What’s photo scene like there in Athens?
In terms of street photography you can’t compare Athens with cities like NY or London but there is always something interesting going around. Light sometimes can be a pain in the as* as it might be very hard with a lot of contrast, but in general, light is good most of the year.
My future plans are to be able to finish some work in progress projects that I‘m in for a while now. I’ll see how it’ll go and then we’ll see what the next steps will be. Any assignments are more than welcome off course (because as we all know…no money no honey)! I usually don’t remember quotes but this one has stayed in my mind for quite some time now and it goes like this “line is a dot that has gone for a walk” if it make any sense to you but anyway.
To that I‘ll steal Magnums photographer Larry Towell quote: “Be yourself and look outside of yourself.” But I will also add that you have to read a lot and educate yourself, be nice and always smile. Try to find and work on a personal project. Take your time with it and it will teach you a lot. And because I don’t want to look clever or something, those are advices that I am working on myself too!
Note: All images used with permission. Please do not copy or distribute without the approval of the photographer.