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Τhe Way We Were

Apostolis Giannakopoulos, Untitled, 2012. Coloured photograph. Courtesy of the artist
by Alain Chivilò

© Alain Chivilò

National Museum of Contemporary Art Athens (EMΣΤ), the Schwarz Foundation is pleased to present the exhibition Τhe Way We Were: A Photo Album from Carlovassia and Beyond, its annual summer exhibition at Art Space Pythagorion, the foundation’s venue in Samos since 2012. Developed from a collaboration between visual artist and filmmaker Georges Salameh and Photonisos, a Samos-based collective of photographers founded in 2014, the exhibition aims to showcase the rich social history of the island and identify the threads that connect it to its present.
In 2020 Photonisos started the digitisation of family albums belonging to residents of Kontakeika village in Samos, and from 2022, the programme was extended to include the archives of residents of Karlovasi town – the second largest town on the island – as well as other neighbouring Samian villages. Karlovasi has a rich cultural and industrial history; in the first half of the twentieth century, it had a reputation for its tanneries and was a tobacco manufacturing centre. This period of prosperity is reflected in the magnificent neoclassical mansions of the period as well as the remains of the large stone-built factories by the seaside.
After the Second World War and the collapse of the leather market, the economy shifted to small-scale trade and retail and, locally, ceramics production. Today the city bears prominent traces of its former self – like many places with a significant industrial or commercial past and is seeking to redefine its character, while retaining the charm and distinctive character of island urbanity.
The Photonisos archive has been instrumental in preserving the legacy of Karlovassi and its environs. It currently contains over 3,700 digitised photographs and documents which together form a coherent record of the island’s social history of the last one hundred years.
A selection of images from these family albums will be presented alongside photographs of contemporary Samos taken by Georges Salameh during his residency on the island, in an attempt to create a dialogue between them. The exhibition is a meditation on both continuity but also transformation and change as the island has transitioned from agriculture and small industry to tourism.
The selection of archival photographs together with Salameh’s images reveal unknown micro-histories, latent or unseen aspects of the island’s life and traces connecting threads between the present and the past of Karlovassi and the surrounding areas. The title of the exhibition is a reference to the town’s original name “Carlovassia”, according to the Samian historian Epaminondas Stamatiadis, which originates from the Turkish words Karli-ovasi meaning snowy valley.
The images included in the exhibition range in tone and theme – from photographs of people working and groups of friends on holidays to outings, local festivals, athletic and other community events. They thread together aspects of the social, cultural, commercial and political history of the island from early twentieth century to the 1980s, before the advent of digital photography.
Τhe Way We Were: A Photo Album from Carlovassia and Beyond explores photography’s role in documenting everyday lives and recording personal but also collective memories. Family photo albums contain emotional, psychological, and affective qualities that reach further than the individual owner, they carry with them stories that are part of a collective memory and that often exist outside mainstream historical narratives.
At a time when the whole of the Aegean archipelago is undergoing significant transformations under the pressures of tourism and the pursuit of economic monocultures, the exhibition reminds us of a time when islands were more self-sufficient, communities more close-knit and consumerism had not distorted peoples’ understanding of identity. At the same time, it highlights many of the values and practices that carry on today, and could constitute future models of existence and co-existence. The Schwarz Foundation and curators especially wish to thank Apostolis Giannakopoulos, one of the founding members of Photonisos, who single-handedly spearheaded the digitisation of the archives.
Press release courtesy NMCAA, Schwarz.

by Alain Chivilò