Digging through Prod Antzoulis’ archives, a 26-year-old photographer from Cyprus and Dubai and London, you see a Middle East that’s particularly foreign. Not because it looks war-torn or faded or however else we imagine this huge part of the earth to be, via small news items, but because it’s the opposite. Antzoulis shoots professionally, as well as for the heart, capturing daily sparks of attraction, fashion set ups and casual moments between friends.
Shot over the last five years in Cyprus, Jordan, Lebanon, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Morocco, his archives are full of flamboyance and off-kilter aesthetics. Super mesmerising. I spoke with Antzoulis over the internet to discuss his work so far, looking for answers particularly relating to representation, feelings, and what being able to reflect on the past means for surviving the future.
Let me get it straight — where did you grow up and where are you living now?
I was born in Cyprus and grew up between Dubai and London. I moved back to the Middle East last year; I was given a few opportunities to work on some commissioned and personal projects here. It was also a chance for me to further explore the region, and to pinpoint things that relate to me and my work.
These photos are a collection of favourites from your archives, right?
Yes they are indeed, the selection I chose is a collection from my return to the Middle East, a combination of everyday life, fashion, and mood images.
What kinds of feelings does your work span?
I’d like to believe that my work portrays a different and honest perspective on the life here. I’ve always like photographing people who have sort of an unconventional look, but also represent the strong features that Arab women and men have. The relationship I have with each of my subjects plays an important role in my photographs, whether they are close friends or friends of friends. It’s a lot about human connection and comfort.
What kinds of messages do you hope your work brings out?
It’s hard for me to answer that as instead of being the outsider I’m the insider, in this case. What can I say? I hope that it shows people a peaceful and pleasant energy that is coming out of the region, away from the politics and chaos that revolve around it a lot of the time. I choose to photograph the things I do because it makes me happy. It helps me cope with everyday life, it helps me have ambitions and hope for the future. I guess, most importantly, is the self-satisfaction I get from doing what I do. If I’m able to make people understand that message through my work, then my mission is complete. Before considering others, always prioritise your feelings first.
When you refer to yourself as an insider, it makes me wonder what documenting your world means to you in terms of, as you say, coping with life. Do you think being able to accurately reflect on the past and present helps with surviving the future?
The past and present definitely help me a lot in terms of survival for the future — when I recall certain memories from my past it reminds me of the beauty that exists in our world and the people that are part of it. I move around a lot, each city has given me reason to progress and create new work. An example of how the present affects me is when I travel. It’s a basis for me to think of the future long term. It helps me ease into considering my future — when you’re on the move, you’re always thinking about what’s next. The future does excite me.
So travel is the impetus for you work?
Documenting while I travel plays a big role in me, ever since I was a child I needed to tie something tangible to these memories. When I look back at certain images I’ve taken, it almost gives me an instant gratification. The present keeps me grounded; it reminds me of where I am today, it reminds me of where I want to be tomorrow. Without those two elements I don’t see myself sustaining the future.
Do you worry about life in the future or are you just excited by it?
It definitely excites me to think of reaching a certain stage in my life and making my ambitions a reality, but on the other hand there are other questions that come into play. I’m so attached to this part of the world, the Middle East, but what will it look like in the future? What will all of these cities look like – Beirut, Amman? Will they remain an organised chaos or spiral?
What is your greatest strength in life?
Growing up in Dubai, I’ve really learned how to communicate with people across the board. I’m pretty good at making people feel comfortable — regardless of how old they are or where they’re coming from. It’s hard to pinpoint a greatest strength, because I feel like I’m constantly evolving, but this is something I’ve carried with me since I was younger.
So you said that when you were young you were documenting travel, but when and why did you first pick up a camera?
The first camera I picked up was at the age of 12, it was a Polaroid i-Zone camera. While going through old archives of mine in my family home I actually came across the first self-portrait I had ever taken of myself. The camera was very simple to use which allowed me to be more creative with the output. It was one of the first of its kind, analogue, and would print your images out as stickers.
Do you consider your photography more as ‘art’ or as ‘documentation’? Why?
I wouldn’t consider it as either, there are times when I enjoy documenting while I’m travelling and there are times when I want to create art with the subject I am photographing, weather it’s tying them to old memories of mine and nostalgia, or photographing them because their characteristics or look intrigue me. It develops into more of an art for me when I try to understand their personalities. It comes to me as a challenge because I sit and think to myself: okay I love the way this person looks and I want to prove to myself that I am able to make them see the beauty inside of them, by understanding their personality. I sit and talk to them about what makes them feel comfortable, what makes them feel good about themselves. Is it me photographing them one on one with no stylists or hair and make-up involved? Or is it a specific space, type of music that they love listening to?
Why do you want people to understand their own beauty?
It took me a long time to learn to appreciate the way I looked, my personality, my likes and dislikes. I had a lot of insecurity about my nose, or my body, for example. People used to talk about my eyebrows. I always had a more eccentric style. There were a lot of things I had to accept. I feel like accepting your looks is a big element of survival — the first thing you do when you wake up is in look in the mirror. If you can defeat the judging, you’ll live a better life. When I finally accepted and felt confident about those things, it made me focus on the things that made me happy — I know it’s easy to just say, “Accept the way you look!” Which is why I slowly try and do it through my practice — when working with analogue photography especially, it defeats the back and forth of previewing images as its not instant — so when it comes to working with people I’m able to focus the conversation on them trusting me much more, and them having to open up to me and share their beauty with me through my language and creative direction.
Do you think if people could see themselves the way everyone else saw them, that the world and life would be better?
I believe if people’s perception of today’s beauty changed, which would be followed by letting go of individual insecurities and accepting yourself for who you are, life would flow a lot more smoothly. Less focus would be on the beauty that is on the inside and a lot more attention would go to easing the everyday struggle for survival.
Images: Prod Antzoulis