From the witty use of the human body (all of it!) as an instrument of exploration to the discreet digital manipulation of landscapes – there is quite a lot going on in Kostis Fokas’ work. The Greek photographer who grew up in what he calls a ‘very religious environment’ seeks to convey his innermost fantasies through his art. In doing so, Fokas unloads a truckload of references – sexuality, Dada and popular culture among them. Perhaps most strikingly though is a postmodern sense of human incapacity. How else could we explain the helplessness of a man buried under a basket or a woman hauling her legs up in the air as if spatially disoriented? In some images, it seems, body and mind have difficulties walking parallel lines.
Mixing a contemporary visual approach reminiscent of Jürgen Teller with ‘80s aesthetics, Fokas takes photographs practically predestined for fame in the tumblr community. Yet his goal is to reach beyond internet stardom and thrive as an artist and fashion photographer.
Hi Kostis, how is it going? Where in the world are you at the moment?
Hello, I'm in Crete right now, a beautiful island in southern Greece. It is a place with great history and an amazing landscape which I would love to explore to the fullest.
Tell us a bit about your background – when and why did you migrate to the UK and how did you become a photographer?
I was born and raised in Athens. My mother is an amateur painter and showed me how to draw at a very young age. Through time she has captured beautiful female portraits, which inspired me to paint and which later on became a key component of my photographic work. At the age of 24 I attended a photography school while working as a photographer and since last year I have been working on my personal projects. As I became addicted to my art, I felt a strong desire to move to different places where I could get inspired and one of them was London. It was actually almost a year ago when I decided to start from scratch so I left my job as a photographer and started travelling.
You have a very distinctive direction. Through recurring references to youth culture, sexuality and questions of identity, an existential amount of your photos express similar concepts. Seen in its entirety, does your work create a bigger picture? For example one of your own experiences or generation…
My work is very personal. Through my photography I seek to explore my own identity and fulfill desires that emerge on the spur of the moment. The references to sexuality and questions around identity come spontaneously and, at least until now, there are no hidden messages behind my images. Nevertheless, I wish to directly penetrate people's subconscious, to stir feelings / memories / emotions and make them feel connected to what they see.
Something I could not help noticing is the amateur-like style in which you capture what happens to be in front of your lens. It looks like you are having a party with a bunch of models who do not consciously pose for the camera. What is a Kostis Fokas shoot like?
These raw, amateur-like images happen to represent samples of my early work. They are the outcome of the intimate relationship I have with my close friends. It's my way to push the boundaries between us in a humorous way. It's like a diary of human intimacy. Despite the spontaneity that seems to exist behind those images, many of them were already captured inside my mind for quite a long time even before embarking upon the actual shoot.
How do you get your models to cooperate with you and e.g. light candles on their breasts? Can you recall a special situation from a shoot?
A lot of my friends are artists or see art in the same way as I do. I often consult them and they encourage me and trust me all the way. Many of them are fans of my work and they enjoy having for example candles on their breasts, maybe even more than you think!
Coming back to your non-staged style of taking pictures, I felt strongly reminded of German photographer Jürgen Teller. Is he a big influence?
Jürgen Teller is one of the pioneers in his field. His work sets a great example for contemporary artists who want to marry art with fashion. I have to admit that some of my pictures strongly remind me of his work. In the past year my perspective towards inspiration has notably changed, so I now prefer to get fruitful insights by studying the history of photography.
With advertisement campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Vivienne Westwood and Céline as well as regular contributions to the world’s most celebrated fashion and lifestyle magazines, Teller has been commercially successful for many years. Do you think your photography works in fashion advertising and is this something you aspire to do?
I believe that my artistic essence can be expressed through fashion, especially when the brand's vision and ideas communicate with mine. In my opinion, an artistic picture does not become important only when it is hung on a gallery wall. I am very pleased to see that the relationship between art and fashion is interpreted in a more substantial way. And I would be very happy to achieve the correct balance between those two.
As a viewer, I often get a sense of availability to or even possession of someone’s body when I cannot look them in the eyes in an image. Is this why you choose to hide so many of your models’ faces?
I started this project without too much thinking. Through the process and results I have discovered aspects of myself. This is why I find it so interesting and continue until now. Ηow someone perceives it depends on their idiosyncrasy. Availability is a good word to describe my characters. It is in front of your eyes; it is your turn for conclusions; to think about it.
Apart from the obvious sexual undertones of my last question, there are more signs of sexuality in your photographs: masks, sex toys and – sometimes very graphic – nudity. Where does this occupation with fantasies come from?
Sexuality is a very strong energy transferred between people. It’s an inside need everyone wants to express. Most of the time I expose my deepest fantasies and my addictions through the images I create. Though I understand how bizarre and hyper-sexualized they may seem to others, it is a way to discover and accept myself and my specifics. My art is an environment for me where I can feel safe even though I expose myself totally!
Considering that people like Kim Kardashian have appeared completely naked on magazine covers and former Disney star Miley Cyrus is currently licking hammers and riding wrecking balls with no clothes on in a video shot by Terry Richardson, it is obvious the playing out of fantasies has gradually found its way into mainstream media. How do you, as an artist, feel about the selling of sexuality?
I think that a lot of artists want to explore their sexuality through their work. I say "explore" and not "sell" because I want to believe in this theory, as it is my own way of thinking. A naked body can be porn, can be cheap but, on the other hand, there are ancient Greek statues of naked bodies of men and women. It depends on the purpose of the artist, the value of the subject photographed and the audience it addresses.
When I see a used condom hanging from an oil painting, a cross on a woman’s breasts or I’m being flipped off from in between a woman’s thighs, I feel provoked. Are you rebelling against established values? If so, what are they?
Ι’m not against these values in any case. I am certainly aware that issues such as religion or sexual abnormalities can be easily misjudged. But I‘m still dealing with them because they concern me immediately. I grew up in a very religious environment where my aunts are priestesses. Nevertheless I developed my own way of perceiving them. I think that my work deals with lightness towards these subjects. But I don't consider myself revolutionary or offending to any values. This is not my purpose for sure!
You have also done a couple of landscapes. Where does your fascination with cones come from?
Landscapes entered later into my work. I prefer these images without people. I used cones because I wanted to create a physical / metaphysical coexistence. I could describe these images as silent and still. When I photograph landscapes it's because I want to escape from everything. It's like when you are in a place where no one has to speak and can hear only the silence and their thoughts clearly and loudly. It is a place where I always want to be alone.
Lastly, you have used digital picture manipulation to increase or change the effects in some of your photos. The way you used it is very unpretentious; it seems like your aim is not to embellish your subjects but to create new meanings. Is this the direction your work is headed to in the future?
Lately I am very interested in Glitch Art that obviously has infected the way I think and create. I use digital manipulation because I try to achieve an abstract quality; it is mind-extending for me. It frees my imagination. I am in an experimental phase where I still have a lot to learn and the direction I want to follow is something unknown. I want to create images where the viewers can't exactly understand what they see. Is it a reality or a fantasy? I want to explore the gap between those two situations. It could also be described as a sort of confusion.