IN CONVERSATION WITH MELITA VANGELATOU
Greek photographer Melita Vangelatou was born in Alexandria and has moved around the world throughout her life. Currently based in Casablanca, Morocco, she enjoys documenting the cultures and lives of people around her, immersing herself in her environment on foot and by bicycle. She usually likes to get to know her subjects before taking their picture, and then prefers candid shots that respect her subjects. She wants to capture emotions and tell stories with her photography. Melita's work has been exhibited internationally and been published in photobooks. She spoke to us about what drives her passion for photography and how she approaches it.
“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”
Hello Melita, tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
I am Greek, born and raised in Alexandria. My parents moved to Greece when I was a teenager and that is where I later met my husband, who is Greek, born and raised in Africa. Together we have lived in different countries and travelled extensively.
Ever since I remember I loved photography. When we were in school, I used my brother's cameras, first a Yashica and then a Canon. He also had a darkroom in our basement where we would go and print. Later on in my life, after I studied photography, I had my own fully equipped darkroom. In school I was the class photographer. When I got married, my family, and my friends knew that I always had my camera with me. I loved taking family pictures, since it was a subject readily available, but at the same time pictures of the places where we lived and visited.
Every country I lived in had something different to offer, and I tried to get to know it through observing its customs and its people and studying its history. I feel privileged and enriched to have had this experience. Even though there is an emotional price to pay, I feel that what you gain far outweighs it. I now live in Morocco, which is the country I have lived longest in and I feel a close affinity to.
Do you have a favourite quote/lyric/saying that especially resonates with you?
One quote that really resonates with me is Alfred Eisenstaedt’s: “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”
I always like to speak to people, to get to know them, to understand what they are doing and why and then to take a picture. I never take pictures that I feel will hurt people, even if I think that it is the best picture.
On the island of Cephalonia, where I am right now, I love to take photos of fishermen. I spend time around them, asking them where they go fishing, if they go every day, year round, if they have a family and how hard it is. I know their names and they know mine, and this way they just ignore my camera when I am around them. I always end up by buying fish too!
This island is famous for its Loggerhead turtles. I like following the researchers who walk around the island observing the turtles, taking them out of the water to measure them, inspect them and tag them.
The other quote I like is Robert Kappa’s: "If your pictures are not good enough you are not close enough." The lens I have always used and still do is a 75 mm. I never use long telephotos because I always like getting close to my subject.
There are endless quotes that I like and think about when I photograph, like Ansel Adams: "A good photograph is knowing where to stand."
Where do you find your inspiration? Do you have a favourite place to shoot?
I like to shoot on the street, where there is a lot going on, so I find inspiration. I just shoot haphazardly in the beginning, and then I slowly get to know the country, and I look for specific things. In Morocco, for example I know my favourite places to shoot. I like shooting around the 'hammams' or the traditional bakers or in markets where there is a lot of activity.
Tell us about your project 'Casablanca' you submitted to us.
Casablanca is where I live for most of the year, so obviously I am very interested in the city and its people.
In order to be able to communicate with the people and understand them I start by learning the language. The inhabitants of Casablanca, the 'Casaoui' are very impressed and like it very much when you speak their language because it is a language spoken only in Morocco and very few foreigners try to master it. By speaking the language I break the first barrier. I can then move a step further and try understanding their traditions and customs. The fact that the weather is mild year round and that all activities take place out of doors is an extra bonus for me.
The project 'Casablanca' is a very long one because I am studying a very complicated subject. So with the pandemic I narrowed down that project a bit to focus on 'Casablanca During the Pandemic'. By studying the 'Casaoui' during this state of lockdown, I could see more facets of their behavior, like how much they protect their children and how once the lockdown ended and the city was in a 'state of emergency' the rules had to be enforced because nobody observed them.
These days, when we see scenes of people gathering together, the fear of the Covid-19 pandemic is always present in our minds. In what way were/are people in Morocco affected by it, and how did it affect your photography?
During lockdown everyone in Casablanca behaved and did exactly as they were told. Often there were police cars going around enforcing the rules primarily in working class districts and in shantytowns because people there live in the streets. They keep their doors open, sometimes covering them with a cloth so that they can go in and out easily.
When lockdown ended, it was as though people were free to do whatever they wanted. The carts were out again selling goods and people swarmed around them, and gathered on the beaches, making things dangerous again. I still went out to photograph wearing a mask, but it became harder as I had to keep my distance from others. The fact that I am always on my bike with my camera makes it easier for me to take pictures. When I locate an area with interesting things happening, I just tie up my bike and walk around.
In general, what do you want to express through your photography? And what are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
I always include people in my photography. I like capturing emotions and I like photos that tell a story. People who see my photos often tell me that they enjoy 'travelling' with me through my stories. I observe people, and when I foresee that something interesting is about to happen, I follow them. The anticipation excites me, and I don’t want them to see me for fear that my presence will make them change their behaviour.
Do you have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just 'come to you', or is it both?
It is both. Sometimes I just take my camera and go out on the street hoping to find something that will grab my attention and I always do.
When I am travelling somewhere I have a very general concept in mind, which is to capture the life there, but I also have sub-concepts about very specific aspects of the people’s lives. I am very interested in weddings and religious festivities and how they are celebrated in different countries.
In Morocco, for example, the application of 'henna', which is a reddish brown dye used to decorate the body, is very important and is used to mark different stages in a woman’s life. One day I learned that a young girl that I knew would have henna designs applied to her hands and feet to celebrate the fact that she would be going to the notary public to sign her marriage certificate, in other words to get married. I accompanied her, together with her mother and grandmother that day, and I also was invited to her wedding celebration, where again I photographed the much more grandiose henna ceremony there. I am now waiting to photograph the henna ceremony at the birth of her child.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers? Who do you think has mostly influenced your style?
The photographers that I really admire are Henri Cartier-Bresson, Fan Ho, Robert Doisneau and Constantine Manos, a Greek photographer living in the United States. I look at their photography and hope to be influenced by their great style. I know that for them, framing and timing was extremely important, and for me these two elements are the essence of photography.
Are there any readings that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
Michael Freeman’s “The Photographer’s Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos”, helped me with digital photography aesthetics. Freeman details what it takes to make a good image, breaking down composition into its founding elements.
The other book that I always keep in mind is Ralph Steiner’s “In Pursuit of Clouds. Images and Metaphors”. When Steiner was unable to go out and photograph he took photos of clouds from his porch. This book helps me keep in mind that you don't have to travel to exotic places to photograph; you don’t even have to go out of your house. There are endless images all around you.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
My first film camera was a small, manual Canon with a 75mm lens. Many years after I acquired two medium format Mamiyas, where I added a panoramic adaptor on one, which gave me a format that few photographers used, so it was interesting. Still, every ten shots I had to change the film and I soon realised that these cameras were the worst choice for me. Apart from being bulky they slowed my street photography so much that I missed many shots.
My brother offered me my first digital Canon and that is what drove me to stop using film and go into digital photography. In the beginning I found the images too sharp. Now I would never switch back to film.
One day I told my husband that my dream had always been to own a Leica. He got me my first one for my birthday and from then on I have used only Leica cameras. The first thing I like about them is their size. Photographing in a country like Morocco, where people like to keep their privacy is easier with such an inconspicuous camera. Also it is simple and doesn’t have all the frills that other cameras possess, but that I never use. Of course the lenses have the best image quality and finally it is less bulky for when I am travelling.
The lens I always use is a 75mm, that was actually always my preferred lens, which helps me in street photography as I don’t have to get extremely close to people.
Have you been involved in the artistic world before or other than photography?
Photography was always my passion. I like all forms of art but have never been involved in any.
What are some of your goals as an artist? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
My goals are to continue exhibiting, I prefer museums, but there are other interesting venues too, and to make photography books. That is what I love doing and that is what I want to keep doing.
I would also enjoy talking about photography and communicating my ideas, but I haven't seriously thought where and how.
"When I am not out photographing, I like to...
When I am not actually taking pictures there are still so many things around photography that I like doing. I read and look at photography and art books, I visit exhibitions and museums and also make photography books, both family and travel.
I always liked sports and was a maniac tennis player. I have for some reason lost interest in tennis, but I now scuba dive, swim and bike wherever I have to go, always with my Jack Russell Zippy. This is my major form of exercise because in the countries where I live I can do it all year round.
My family and extended family are very important to me and I love spending time with them."
Thank you Melita!
All photos © Melita Vangelatou
You can also read a pictorial story by Melita about Casablanca right here on the website.