An Interview with Alexandros Stamatiou, photo reporter from Athens, Greece, interviewed by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator
Alexandros Stamatiou is a photo reporter originating from Athens, Greece. Mr Stamatiou has an impressive portfolio of photographs and documentary videos relating the political issues of the last few decades in the Balkans: documenting the situations after the wars that happened with the decay of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; the name issue in North Macedonia; Greeks in Albania; coverage of conflicts between Albanian paramilitary troops UCK from Kosovo and authorities in North Macedonia; coverage of NATO’s bombing of Kosovo and Serbia and many others. While recording the moments of history he was arrested and hurt. His photos have been published in a lot of prominent journals and media such as: To Vima, Ta Nea, Eleftherotypia, Epsilon, Kathimerini, Eleftheros Typos,Naftemporiki, Time, Elsevier, Het Parole, Newsweek, Xinhua, New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung etc. Since 2006 he has been working for the Greek tv documentary show “BALKAN EXPRESS”, broadcasted on the Greek National Television ERT3, which depicts the traditions, music, history and culture of all the countries in the Balkans. Since 2000 he relocated in Skopje while still travelling for his work.
Witnessing and documenting a lot of scenes from our recent Balkan history and hearing a lot of narrative related to culture, geography, decays, wars, conflicts he will attempt to shed some light on the topic of ‘shared or contested heritage’.
We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?
Alexandros: I am well acquainted with the history of our region, even though my professional experience is in photo reportage. In my opinion, in the last few decades we are witnessing a very serious situation, in which everyone wants to grab some part of history from the other. Instead of building closer cooperation and nurturing coexistence, history is being used as the most dangerous weapon for digging wider discrepancies on the Balkans. The divulged histories are not correct and consolidated according to the facts, but rather tailor-made, one history is served to the Bulgarians, another to the Greeks, a third to the Macedonians. This is shameful and should be stopped. We need to rebuild the broken bridges between the countries and my opinion is that culture and art are the best conductors for strengthening the bonds between our neighbouring countries. I currently live in Skopje, North Macedonia, I am married to a Macedonian woman, and I am working hard on bringing a lot of Greek artists here, to work closely with the Macedonian ones, in order to help in overcoming the prejudices’ and the political imbalances, since this daily political playing with our people is disgusting.
What does heritage mean to you as an individual and as a citizen of your country and the world?
Alexandros: Cultural heritage is a universal value. I look at everyone’s heritage in the same way, no matter of the origin, country, nation. All is ours; it belongs to the whole of humanity. Once, I had an exhibition in the Museum of photography in Thessaloniki, and an American visitor asked me, where were my photos taken. I answered that they come from different parts of the world. He said that I need to sort the photos according to the state, nation and geographical territory for better understanding. I neglected the critic coming from him, since for me, everyone in this world is the same, no matter where they come from, or what is their origin. I feel the same whether I am in Greece, North Macedonia, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, everywhere I have very close friends I feel the same.
How we choose to remember the past and how we choose to move forward are the critical issues of today. What does cultural heritage mean in different national and regional contexts? Who can claim it as theirs, and who decides how it is preserved, displayed, or restored? How to share cultural heritage?
Alexandros: Politicians use the history, culture, cultural heritage for their daily political needs. In the past there were no borders, we were all the same. My father comes from Kallikrateia, Chalkidiki, so according to some parts of history I am a Macedonian. In the past my father’s relatives came from Izmir, Turkey, so there were no clear borders then. After that the borders were made and everyone went mad, grabbing and attempting to take possession of the past, the history, the heritage. I will insist on my opinion that only through culture we can go forward. When I saw how well Greek and Macedonian artists got along (on one residency that I organised) that was the biggest pleasure. Just with the power of the artists and the culture we can show our teeth to the politicians and celebrate humanity. After the signing of the Prespa Agreement, I experienced a very interesting situation, in which many of my friends, Greeks, called me and told me that they do not agree for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to be renamed North Macedonia, but should be namedsimply Macedonia. This means that that there is still hope that we can reconnect the broken bridges.
Do you engage in cross-border cooperation with professionals from North Macedonia and do you find any difficulties in its realisation?
Alexandros: Yes, I do have great collaboration with Macedonian colleagues, and I had never had a bad experience until now. Here I feel like home. I use to live in the centre of Athens, here I live in the centre of Skopje, and I feel like a “Skopjanin”. If something bad is happening with or in the city it hurts me because I feel this is my native town.
“I look at everyone’s heritage in the same way, no matter of the origin, country, nation. It belongs to humanity.”
Do you think that being more polyvocal, engaging, diverse, (self-)reflective and participatory may solve some of the obstacles on the way of presenting cultural heritage (shared or contested)?
Alexandros: Yes! I took many photos and recorded documentaries for museums throughout the Balkans, in Croatia, Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, but at the National Gallery in Sofia, Bulgaria I had one of the most impressive experiences. We met and talked with their director, and I saw a great, positive reaction in his communication, he was a supporter of the idea that we are all the same, mainly humans of the world. He did not care if I spoke Macedonian or Greek, his main interest was to see what we could show to the public. So, accordingly, we organised a great exhibition in their Gallery.
Admittedly, we live in a time of lies, served by the politicians, but the art and artists do and can change the direction of the wind and the atmosphere. I am a photo-reporter that has dealt with politics for 35 years, but now I am fed up of politics.
Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history, photography etc.) and how would you approach its presentation?
Alexandros: The photography is an artefact, so it helps a lot in confirming cultural heritage or issues regarding shared or contested history. I am very often thrilled by the human eyes, the manner in which they interpret pictures, especially when it’s children’s eyes. Once, I photographed a child refugee from Kosovo, I photographed his emotional eyes. 15 years later, on an exhibition in Skopje, a youngster of about 20 years approached me, and asked if I recognise him. I answered negatively. Then he introduced himself being that refugee child on the photo, and said that I was an inspiration for him and that he is going to be a photographer. He learned to speak French, English, Macedonian and Albanian. So, this is one happy story. There are a lot such examples, good and bad. So, by the help of the photo or video documentation there are facts that cannot be neglected.
“What signifies the national narratives are that they do not include layers; they are one-sided, often chronological and has a sense of a fixed, static, historical truth, about them”, said Anderson in 1991. Do you agree with this citation and why?
Alexandros: I do agree, a multi-layered approach is one of the keys in solving issues related with shared or contested heritage and history. Changes in history are influenced by politicians, so the best way of adressing the issues are talks with local people from small communities. I have recorded and interviewed many villagers and old people from small communities in a lot of neighbouring Balkan countries, the most interesting thing is that they all share the same history, which is different than the switched and changed one, offered by the states through the educational institutions, as a part of the political agendas.
Another method of challenging the national narrative, regarding shared or contested heritage, would be to go from the particular to the universal. Cornelius Holtorf writes: “(…) the new cultural heritage can transcend cultural particularism by promoting values and virtues derived from humanism and a commitment to global solidarity.” What do you think about this?
Alexandros: I definitely agree with Cornelius Holtorf. We should overcome the bad experiences of our fathers and grandfathers, let the past be the past (there are historians that can sit down, emotionless and discuss the specific and problematic moments arising from using different facts) and we, with the great help of culture, shall keep on being the active creators of the new era of humanism and global solidarity. I don’t say that we should forget about our past and neglect our history, but that this should not be the obstacle for being good neighbours and collaborators, a trap in which we are falling down over and over again for the sake of the daily politics.
When we discuss about shared or contested heritage the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?
Alexandros: Yes, as I already said, the past should remain in the past, not influencing our contemporary life, and it is only with the help of culture that we can reconcile, reinforce and strengthen the relations and communications.
The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers. The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interviewee and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.