Yiannis Roussakis in-depth interview: Songs for Everyone

Yiannis Roussakis in-depth interview: Songs for Everyone

Yiannis Roussakis is currently showing with a solo exhibition at Etihad Modern Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi.

His signature style of mostly black and white social photography with a pensive and soulful compositions comes alive in Songs for Everyone with exceptionally beautiful portraits of indigenous faces captured in Asia.

We interviewed Yiannis to find out behind-the-scenes knowledge on how he develops his artwork, how an exhibition is put together and his thought processes on the creative journey.


EMAG: Yiannis, what can viewers expect from your latest exhibition, Songs for Everyone?

YR: “Songs for Everyone” is a project about the great journey of being human. It’s about coming to terms with the fact we are not so unique and as complicated as we would like to think. A great part of our behaviour is defined by 2-3 basic questions that linger in the background since the beginning of our history as a species: “Why am I here?” “What is meaning of all this?” “Why am I going to die?”…. Underneath all the posturing, the unshakable beliefs, the grand plans and the never ending drama, it’s just us, all of us, united in the alarming realisation that we “really don’t know life at all”, as Joni Mitchell would put it. We are just a bunch of very tired and confused human beings on the same boat, on the journey to the Great Unknown.


EMAG: There are lots of portraits in the exhibition – do you adhere to the maxim that ‘the eye is the window to the soul’?

YR: Everything can be a window to the soul, for an experienced observer, not just the eyes. Personally I trust things like a person’s hands, the posture etc to reveal the details about his or her journey.


EMAG: You photographed in exotic places for Songs for Everyone pieces… How do you manage to get a person to agree to be one of your subjects, in a highly personal setting, when perhaps you share no common language?

YR: Regardless of the language barrier, or the culture differences, it is possible to have an honest, intimate interaction with somebody, recognising each other’s humanity. I’m grateful that they trusted me to get closer and interacted with me. In some cases it took half an hour, in other cases it took days. I was there to share a part of who I am too, that’s what made a difference in the experience.

During shooting this project, I met people of various education levels and backgrounds that gave me the impression that they have found a way to stand still, stop the incontinent narrative in their heads and calmly observe themselves and life around them, transforming their reality into an expanded vivid dream, a tale of consciousness. Being manically active, mentally and physically, being “on” all the time, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are conscious and present in your life. I wish that all of us could experience the clarity and profound presence of “Grandma”, the deep, calm awareness and subtle, quietly ecstatic joy of the “Housekeeper”. I tried to transform these portraits into symbolic iconography about states of being, going far beyond the personal story of the protagonists.

EMAG: I assume that you take many many photos of a person in a sitting – What is it about one particular shot that tells you that it is the one to develop into a piece of exhibited art?

YR: I choose a frame in which everything is in place – the action, the emotion, the subject position and placement, the movement, the light. Perhaps, many of the frames would be ok, but I finally pick one that “represents” the series to show in public. There’s usually one in the end that I become obsessed with.


EMAG: In some photographs from Songs for Everyone, you have a black and white scene with highlighted colour in parts, for example, a Tibetan monk’s orange robes. Can you describe the process that comes up with the decision to colour, or not to colour?

YR: I use colour sometime in b&w photos to highlight an emotion. In other cases this one colour is an “anchor” for me in the composition process or the narrative, so it has to be used as an element in the photo.


EMAG: When you have a finished piece of photographic art ready to go, how do you determine what should be the correct dimensions of the piece? For example, how do you decide between say A4 or a much bigger A0 size?

YR: There is a variety of factors. Some of the pieces will work better in large format, like mock ups of a stage scenery design, for others got to be small and intimate, like a postcard in a drawer or a small intimate portrait in a bedroom. Some pieces are full of details that need space to exist as an environment within an environment and surround the viewer. Other pieces are very focused, like a little amulet or a talisman. A life-size figure in a wall will communicate with the viewer in a different way than a photo of a person in small image, attracting the viewer to lean close and almost whisper to the piece. It’s all about creating a “significant moment” for the viewer, serving the concept of a particular piece.


EMAG: When you are putting together the artwork for a solo exhibition, how do you decide on the final number of pieces? Is it a physical case of fitting to the space allocated to you by the gallery or is it more of a question of telling a story/answering questions with certain pictures?

YR: It is a combination of practical factors like space availability but also creative reasons, i.e. successful final editing of the work. I want the work to be strong and to the point, the viewer to remain engaged and in tune, so I must avoid loose ends or “blind” spots in the exhibition space. For this, I need to be strict and edit, ignoring my emotional connection with pieces that at the end will never go on the exhibition wall.


EMAG: You say in the exhibition description that ‘the wider that you travel, the faces appear to become more and more similar’. Could you expand on that?

YR: I once met a retired old catholic priest who told me that, after decades of listening to confessions from members of his flock in rural Ireland, he realised that more or less people are the same in so many ways. “Most of their sins and regrets were boring, everybody worries about the same old things”, he said with a trace of a smile on his face. He looked like a wise old naughty child. “All I could do was offer to them some comfort, telling them that there’s nothing really wrong with them, it’s just human nature.” Although organised religion is not my cup of tea, I found what he said so honest and endearing.


EMAG: In an ideal scenario, how would you hope that visitors will react or engage emotionally to what they see in Songs for Everyone?

YR: In general, I don’t like giving descriptions and analysis for the photos in a show. I don’t want to interfere with the way a visitor will see one of my photos. Once I’m done creating a project, I feel it has a life of its own and speaks for itself. Any relationship between the viewer and one of my pieces is between those two, it’s none of my business. I’m just happy that a piece “worked” on some level for somebody.


EMAG: How do you react to seeing your own art when it is hanging on the wall of the gallery? Do you experience the same anguish as oft-quoted musicians and authors, who say that once their art is released to the world at large, they can only hear or read the faults in their work and how they could have done things better?

No. What’s done is done. There will always be alternative scripts, parallel scenarios and potential outcomes. There’s no point obsessing with all that, I would go nuts. In quantum physics theory (and Tantric Buddhism too), all the possible event scenarios exist simultaneously, it just happens that one possible trajectory has higher probability to occur.


EMAG: Finally, which part of the world is next on your hit list to find Yiannis Roussakis-esque subjects for your next photographic exhibition?

YR: Long list. Dream projects: Surrealism and stillness in Korea and Japan. Getting lost in Myanmar villages. Buddhist colonies in Nepal. Cuba before it becomes a shopping mall. An existential angst adventure in east Berlin. Mumbai and Varanassi. Shooting nudes in Iceland. Portraits of artists, faith healers and tribe leaders in Madagascar. Travelogue through Argentina, all the way to Patagonia.

EMAG: So, it looks like you have a lot to be getting on with then! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer the questions.


Songs for Everyone Exhibition continues at Etihad Modern Art Gallery until March 1st, 2017. The gallery is open from 10am to 10pm Sunday to Thursday.

To enquire about purchasing artwork by Yiannis Roussakis, please contact EMAG artistic director, Zsuzsanna Petro (zs.petro@etihadmodernart.com)