I am Not a Voyeur: Michael Katakis and His Photographic Approach

Michael Katakis
BY Ralph Elliott Starkweather

A versatile voyager over the past three decades, Michael Katakis is keen in portraying images that speak with a strong social integrity. His photographic art also reflects his travels across different continents and wide-ranging cultural interests. To date, venues that have exhibited or acquired his work include the Smithsonian Institution, the British Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Army Museum in London, Stanford University, the Wright Museum of Art, the Monterey Museum of Art, the Center for Photographic Art, and the National Portrait Gallery, among many others.

Katakis has also authored photography books such as The Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Crown, 1988), Evacuating Voices: Listening to Photographs of Native Americans (University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaelogy and Anthropology, 1998), and most recently, Traveller (Burton & Parks, 2008) among several others. In 1999, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London. Currently, he lives in Carmel, California with his wife, the anthropologist Kris Hardin, while continuing to visit France, which he regards as his second home. His website is www.mkatakis.org.

Having been a photographer for more than thirty years, do you have a credo for your art?

As a photographer, I always feel responsible for creating images that people can invest in. A beautiful photograph is not enough. Sometimes, it can even risk being frivolous, or trivial. A good photograph must be a declarative statement. It needs to bear out the “major part of the story” right on the spot. But that does not mean that photography cannot endure beyond an instant. Quite the contrary, it is an ethereal art that must last.

How has your relationship with the camera evolved over the years?

I have been working towards caring less and less for the camera. Solid photographic artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson understand the importance of the camera being invisible to himself. It is very easy, actually, to have the camera invisible to others, but not to the camera man himself. It is like a pianist, constantly working to render the piano invisible to himself. Although a camera is small, many who hold it are very conscious of it. Some even end up constructing impressions of themselves with it. The truth is, you don’t need to look like a photographer in order to be a photographer! Defining photography is very different from defining camera.

Being invisible is crucial to taking the most subtle photographs. When I was in India, my camera never came out until one month later. I think being invisible is one way a photographer shows respect for others and his environment.

Writing seems to be a vital component of your creative process, for you often furnish text for the photographs. Does the process of expressing yourself through words contradict the silence behind your images?

What you said is very interesting. For some reason, word and image are always one thing for me. Word and image are the same thing, that is. No difference betwen them, at least for me. The relationship between the two is such that one leads to another.

I have been writing daily for more than thirty years. I have also been traveling for more than thirty years, and I don’t feel tired. In fact, I feel tired only when I stop writing or am no longer taking good photographs! So switching gears from one medium to another is not tiring for me. I don’t want to stop traveling, either. Sometimes, I feel that I am “everywhere.” I keep a journal. Traveller begins from there: it unfolds as a series of journal entries, except without a chronological sequence. I don’t like things that match or are strictly symmetrical, and I don’t think in numbers or sequences! In a way, I also like to think of the prose snapshots in my texts as the photographs I took.


Traveller

Traveller: Observations
from an American in Exile

BY Michael Katakis
FOREWORD BY Michael Palin
(Burton & Park Publishers, 2009)


From the Publisher:

“‘How could I have known then with no maps acquired and my bags not yet packed that my journey had already begun? …The tools of a traveller are compass and map. They calculate distances covered and destinations sought but cannot measure the consequences of experiences on a human heart,’ writes Michael Katakis in his introduction.

Traveller is a collection of letters and journal entries that bring the immediacy of experience together with perceptive reflections of the authors own past. The entries in this volume are not travel guides. They are personal, like letters from the most desirable sort of friend. This friend carries you with him as he meanders through the medina in Fez or into the hills of Gallipoli. His voice is such that you can almost smell the herbs and dusty soil of Crete. Always you are introduced to the people he meets along the way.”

That said, I don’t necessarily take photographs every day. It is not up to me to say, “Oh, this is the perfect photograph I must take today.” I can prepare the moment (which usually does not render worthy pictures), but I can’t choose it. A photographer can’t say that it is/was him (or someone else) who brought him to the image; rather, it is the moment that brought the photographer to the image.

In fact, I practise a “one picture per day” policy or philosophy. My students used to find that overtly harsh. It is not. It makes you think and choose, versus the attitude of “consumerism” — taking pictures with a cellphone, for example, and click, click, click all the time without any real reflexion. I strongly believe that when you have nothing to say, pass it. This is likewise for taking responsible photographs, which should be “pure” and not polluted scenes. They are instants of prescient vision.

Do you imply that moments are the hardest obstacle to overcome in producing good photography?

Yes and no. Anticipating moments is vital, but there are so many magical fleeting moments as well.

I can’t emphasize more the importance of streets and street life as far as these fleeting instants are concerned — life is right there in the streets. You don’t need to prepare moments for a good photograph, they’re right there in the streets. Kurt Vonnegut once described a life as “unstuck in time.” The act of taking photographs translates into portraying these “unstuck” moments that constitute life.

Speaking of that which is hardest to achieve in photography, I think it could be silence. Also, the eye can get tired. It’s not a machine. When it’s tired, it must rest.

You’ve also just mentioned traveling and the feeling of “being everywhere”…

Yes. I haven’t had a country for long time. I live everywhere and nowhere.

Being a traveller is not being a tourist. A traveller does not ask the question, “Where is the best place to eat? The best hotel to stay?” A traveller is always awake, he stays engaged in life. That is living, which is also the definition of photography.


Child and Her Reflection
at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

(Washington, D.C., United States)
BY Michael Katakis

You have a particular interest and commitment in taking photographs that synchronise with society at a precise point in time, the ones regarding the Vietnam War Memorial, for example. How did this strong sense of consciousness and instinct come into being?

You see, as opposed to the banal notion of photography being a form of objectivity or truth with a capital “T,” there are no answers in my photographs. To a large extent, I don’t believe in seeking answers in photography. The images concerning the Vietnam War give no answers, as far as absolute proof is concerned. This is the same case for the series of images I took in response to the September 11 attack, a way to confront the violence that our world faces, even though we may not have the necessary “scientific answers” or so-called “empowering technological solutions.”

Concerning taking photographs that correspond strongly to a social statement at a precise point in time… it means taking specific images, not overviews. I want to say that taking such photographs means not just spotting a line or movement. It is something else — you can call it humanity or empathy. For me, it is simply to have a heart. I am not a voyeur. I’m an observer and I step in the situation or circumstances that make up the context of my photographs. If you want to take a real photo, move closer. This is the secret.

I want to say that taking such photographs means not just spotting a line or movement. It is something else — you can call it humanity or empathy. For me, it is simply to have a heart. I am not a voyeur. I’m an observer and I step in the situation or circumstances that make up the context of my photographs. If you want to take a real photo, move closer. This is the secret.

What usually happens before and after the “click” is in fact the photograph itself. You can’t just take voyeuristic photographs or aesthetic images of victimised soldiers. You can’t imagine being able to take these photographs with the idea of them being “beautiful,” and without reading the newspapers. There is a big difference between “manipulate” and “illuminate.” I’m skeptical of the notion of “being aesthetic” for the sake of aesthetics. Photographs are not small and they’re never neutral. Further, they aren’t mine once I take them. They always belong to someone else — the viewer, the people in the photos, the moment, the place, the memories…

I like to be informed by history. I think it’s important to have a solid working knowledge of history before going (into) somewhere. This is necessary in order for one to take photographs that reflect the society’s present. Also, photography is about knowing yourself. And beyond that, knowing others. Otherwise, you just can’t be able to take photographs that will speak and reach out to the wider world of different levels and cultures. Neither will they have meaningful consequences in time to come.

Is there ever something that you would not photograph, that you would not try to create an art out of?

That is easy. I would not wish to photograph celebrities because they are of little interest to me. They are always posing even when they are living their lives, and I must say that bores me.

I am far more interested in an unnoticed street sweeper or a doctor’s child or an elderly person standing alone in the metro. I am most interested in the life that is composing itself around me — its joys and tragedies, its sweet and sour.

TRANSCRIPTION OF AN EXTENDED INTERVIEW ON 3RD MARCH 2009 AT LE SELECT IN PARIS, FRANCE
View with Pagination View All

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

Permalink URL: http://www.cerisepress.com/01/02/i-am-not-a-voyeur-michael-katakis-and-his-photographic-approach