We sat down with photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis to talk about his recent book, America in a Trance. Niko was born in Greece, but has lived in Pennsylvania for 20 years. The book features forty images from across post-industrial Pennsylvania; about half were taken in the Anthracite Coal Region. Journalist Seamus McGraw, who has an essay in the book, captures the essence of American in a Trace…
If you pull off [the] interstate and wander down some old U.S. highway… you can still find the fossilized remains of these coal patch and mill towns, places that still bear the names of the barons who owned them, though never the names of the men who actually built them. Those people… are not gone. They haven’t vanished. They still live in those fading towns and villages… You can see them in the pages of this book. You can feel the weight of loss and isolation, you can see how the pain of generations has weathered them, just as years of sulfur-tinged rains weathered the old stone wall that the Italian stonemasons had built all those many lifetimes ago. But if you peer a little deeper, you can also see the resilience that gave them the strength to survive and, at times, even prosper.
Anthracite Unite: Can you tell us more about how you approached this project? What were some of your goals?
Niko J. Kallianiotis: I went into this project without any preconceived ideas. I approached it more as an experience. Being an immigrant and without having any agenda, it wasn’t forced. The process was very smooth. The pictures just happened. I try to experience a culture, so I have conversations. I talk to people I encounter even if they’re not in the pictures and I try to experience and understand their values. Did I? Maybe.
One of the things that was very important to me was the connection with people that I had. People would message me on Instagram or send me emails and say: Oh, I grew up on that street! Hey, I used to play on that corner! Is this that street or that road? I have no idea where I am! Because I didn’t even do any research. I was just going in. But it turned into a dialogue. Because that was my ultimate goal. First and foremost, this project was a dialogue between me and myself and the place.
AU: One of the things that’s striking about your images is there’s this balancing of life and death. In the coal region, what we often see with mainstream media outlets is they fly in to do these stories and then fly out. And their intent, it seems, is always to focus on death – to depict a place in desperation and decline. What your photographs seem to be doing, however, is acknowledging that, yes, there is economic suffering that we cannot ignore, but at the same time sending a powerful reminder that there’s still life in these towns. These are people’s homes. The connection between the people and the place is still very strong. Can you talk a little bit about that?
NJK: One of the most difficult aspects of this project was to find pictures that will represent and reflect that balance you’re talking about. Because there’s so much destruction and a lot of artists capture that abandonment. I think the color in my work gives off a sense of hope, a sense that this place is still alive, that it’s still fighting. Sure, the destruction in some of these areas is a mess, but I didn’t want to only show that. I wanted to have some humor, I wanted to show life. Life both in terms of the people and the buildings.
There’s different ways to interpret the pictures, but a couple people have told me, You know, your pictures are clean. And I said, what do you mean? The composition? They said, no, despite the dilapidation, the derelict situation, the economic downfall and all that, there’s no trash on the streets. If you look at the book and you look at the streets – with maybe one exception – there’s no trash on the streets, and I equate that with how the people care about the community.
A lot of people when they look at my photographs, they ask me: Did you set this up? Did you remove anything? No, there’s nothing removed in these photos. I don’t remove things; I don’t add elements either. That I think is important. Is my photography real? Well, it’s not the “real truth,” but what you’re seeing is the reality of what I’m experiencing. It is my reality at that moment. The connection the photographer has to what they are seeing comes out in the work. And I’m literally in each and every photo because they are about me and my alienation and my loneliness and personal issues that I was going through and I still go through because I’m in between two worlds.
AU: The timing of your book is interesting. Places like the coal region suddenly became of national interest as representations of “Trump Country.” How did you navigate this?
NJK: Sometimes I think about it and I ask myself, what if the elections didn’t happen? I’ve been very fortunate and honored for my work to have gotten the exposure it got. But would this work have gotten the same exposure in a different political moment? There’s been some magazines that have treated it as like the fading American Dream.
More than politics, the question is what is going on? The big problem to me is, what exactly are we progressing to? If the future is in solar panels, which I agree with, why has no one gone to the West Virginia coal miner who goes underground and risks his life and said “You know what, my friend? I’m going to pay you $60,000 and you’re not going to dig coal, you’re going to make solar panels.” What is he going to say? No? Of course not. But nobody has done it. Yet they blame them because they support coal. Well of course they support coal! They need to eat. When you need to eat, you’re going to dig coal. And unfortunately, when you need to eat, sometimes you’re going to move drugs.
A good example is the Delano factory. Two years ago, there was 600 people working in a factory that made mattresses and it just closed. And the people said, what are we going to do? We’ve been working here for 20 years! The village has what – 1,000 people, 2,000? What about all of these workers? What are they going to do? This is my ultimate question, beyond photography – really, photography is the least of my worries. It’s more of a social concern for me.
AU: Let’s go back to what you were saying about your photographs and how they reflect your experience. Can you give us an example?
NJK: The picture that really stands out in terms of what I’m experiencing is this picture from McKeesport with the bus station and the brick buildings in the background. That was my very first trip to Western Pennsylvania. And when I got there, I stopped and I was looking around. I was shocked. I didn’t take a picture for 45 minutes. I was just asking myself: What exactly am I experiencing right now? You didn’t hear a word. It was like complete abandonment. You’d think you were in purgatory. Then I entered deeper into the city and that’s where I saw the total destruction.
And it’s like: What the hell? I understand what happened with the steel market. But you’re telling me that in the United States that companies don’t have the money and the power and the will to update the equipment and keep their business here?
At the steel mill in Bethelem there’s like a deck they have with historical panels where they give you information about the history and everything that happened. There were 35,000 people that worked at that steel mill. Half the population of the city. There were 850 job trades in that steel mill. When it closed they built Sands Casino, and they couldn’t find construction steel so they imported it from China. The irony.
AU: There’s somewhat of a debate about this term “Rust Belt.” On one hand, it might be depicting the region as only decay, when in reality there is life there, as your photos show. On the other hand, it does capture what is really going on and it’s important to acknowledge that. Why Rust Belt?
NJK: I’m glad you mention that. I’ve been thinking about extending this project and visiting all of the Rust Belt states. I don’t relate it to abandonment only. Maybe it should’ve been called the Industrial Belt, or something like that. It’s also not perfect because, for example, New York is considered part of the Rust Belt, but you’re not going to consider New York City as part of that. Either way, when you add up all of the populations living in those states, you’re talking about between 80 and 90 million people.
To me, I don’t like titles. Some people might take Rust Belt in a proud way. Some people might think it’s derogatory. It’s not derogatory to me. People should be proud because their families raised them, they were able to make a decent living. These were people who did important work for our society.
I wish there was some sort of reconstruction of that because it’s very disheartening to see all these places in that situation. Look at Detroit. You can call it anything you want. To me, it’s a sense of pride. Because you can sense pride when you go to a lot of these places. Even for me as an outsider, I feel a lot more connection to those regions than I do when I’m in downtown Philadelphia or downtown New York.
I’m going to keep saying this for the rest of my life: The urban and the rural gap in the United States is intergalactic. These people that live in Manhattan with those fancy clothes and such have no idea how a person in Ohio lives or a person in Kentucky or in Kansas or in Appalachia lives. They are familiar with it, but they don’t understand it. They don’t really succumb to the details and I think the details are very important. As an outsider, I see that there’s no interaction between the two.
AU: Do you have any advice for young artists, especially folks from places like the coal region?
NJK: I actually think the arts in our region, and in a lot of formerly industrial places, is booming. If you go to Scranton on First Friday, there’s a big interest in the arts.
I think we artists have a responsibility to go and photograph these places from within. Because you have all these outside sources who come in working from a major news organization. Sure, they are just doing their job; I have no problem with them doing their job, because that sells newspapers, but I do have a problem with them showing us as just caricatures. I always said, regardless of it’s in the Rust Belt regions, as young photographers, photograph where you grew up, where you’re from.
I don’t photograph in any places unless I feel a strong connection. I photograph in Pennsylvania or Ohio and West Virginia and I feel something, but when I go to New York City, it’s different. I went to Italy last year and I took some photos and I felt nothing. Yeah, there were some pretty pictures, but you can tell the difference between the pictures I took for the book and the pictures I took in Italy. There’s a very emotional connection.
Also, something to avoid like the plague is trends. Because many artists, they go after particular trends that sell. This is part of what I see with young artists: They follow a particular direction and the follow a particular aesthetic that sells. I think there is so much to cover – our region is of great social importance, but unfortunately the art market has a standoffish attitude toward that work because they consider it traditional, we have seen that. If anything, this area should be a good lesson about what the country was, what the country is, and where the country is going. That’s where young artists and photographers ought to concentrate more.
Related to that, there’s a little trap when you go to Bethlehem and they have the Arts Fest and the Musikfest and the Wine Fest and Beer Fest in front of the steel mill. You go there and people are having fun, and they’re drinking. But nobody looks around. If you ask them, they’ll tell you: This is really cool here. But it’s not cool at all! Because they sold you a dream. A dream that “this place is still alive.” It isn’t. You’re going to come here, have a few drinks and get wasted, and you’re going to leave tomorrow to go back to New Jersey and you’re going to appreciate it for an hour or two, but you’re not really experiencing the place.
Let me end with one picture from my book that nobody ever asks about. It’s the one of the guy with the briefcase. Nobody asks me about it. It’s from Harrisburg. The title is “The Capital.” I think this photo is key, because there is no other person in the book of that stature. When I was editing I was thinking, well this picture doesn’t really formally fit, but the context is key. That guy is responsible for everything. The banker. He is the representation of all evil.
Niko J. Kallianiotis was born in Greece and is an educator and photographer based in Pennsylvania. His formative years were spent in Greece, but for all of his adulthood he lived in the United States. Because of his hybrid background he views the world and his surrounding environs from two different perspectives, both culturally and socially. He started his career as a newspaper photographer, first as a freelancer at The Times Leader, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and then as a staff photographer at The Coshocton Tribune in Coshocton, Ohio, and The Watertown Daily Times in Watertown, New York. He is currently teaching at Drexel University in Philadelphia and the University of Scranton, and he is a contributing photographer for The New York Times.
You can purchase America in a Trance and learn more about Niko’s work at his website.
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Niko, thank you for your wise eyes and your nimble lens. I recognize these places. From 1977 to 1992 we lived in Lancaster (PA) and toured our grassroots theatre pieces all over the state, performing in church basements and school cafetoriums and such. And we spent a lot of time in Bethlehem, working with Touchstone. We drove the winding back roads past those porches and busted a gut laughing when we passed the highway sign for “Forty Fort.” What we write and what we perform comes from our own appreciation of the back roads of the heart.