Tassos Vrettos and the Universality of Worship

01/10/2017

Athens-based photographer Tassos Vrettos deftly works in both commercial and art photography, with his work falling under the latter category often involving or examining the human figure and its place within popular culture. Between November 2015 and January 2016, he presented an exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens titled Wor(th)ship. Tassos Vrettos, curated by Giorgos Tzirtzilakis and Nadjia Argyropoulou, which presented his photographic fieldwork in Athens’s many unofficial places of worship. There are of course many immigrants in Athens who organise makeshift temples, usually in rented apartments, basements and shops, both within the city centre and the suburbs. Tassos Vrettos has dedicatedly explored and documented these places of worship for over four years, and captured the universal power and need of faith and spirituality. In the following interview, taken in early 2017, he relates some of the unique stories and experiences he has collected during and after the project. Tassos Vrettos has kindly provided photos from the series, some of which were taken after the 2015 exhibition have not been published before.

Text by Kiriakos Spirou
Photos copyright Tassos Vrettos, published with permission

When did you start Wor(th)ship and what made you embark on this project in the first place?

This project began about four years ago, or maybe more. This whole story started because of my curiosity to see the Holy Saturday mass at an Ethiopian church. I had read in a newspaper that there’s a very nice Easter mass at the Ethiopian church of Athens, and I took the risk of missing Easter with my family to go to a church where there was the possibility that they would not let me take photos. Despite all that, and after a little adventure and some fortunate coincidences—one of which being that the address on the church’s website was wrong, so I had to ask a policeman whether he knew where the Ethiopian church of Athens was, who then actually called HQ and found the address for me—I managed to do this project. If I hadn’t been curious enough to go to that mass that night, this project would have never happened.

So I finally manage to find my way to the Ethiopian church, and the experience of my first time there was overwhelming, it was as if I was dreaming it all. They allowed me to take photos and stand on a spot where I had a good overview of what was happening. There were people dressed in white, in a state of ecstasy, and I could not believe the images I was seeing through my camera were real. So this was the initial material, which I let rest for two-three months, then I visited some temples I had seen in Marathonas—which are kept by mostly Indian workers there, Sikh and Ravidassia. Well, that opened up a journey for me, and the deeper I got the more I discovered places, all with the curiosity of a young child that walks into a playground or the circus—feeling something between awe and fear, but not the fear that I was in danger, but the fear that they might not let me in and missing this experience. So I was trying to convince these people that my intention was good, that I’m not a cop nor a member of Golden Dawn, and that this work had the potential to evolve into a body of work and to be shown somewhere, to become something else.

How many such places of worship have you documented up to now?

Up to the [2015] exhibition I had documented some 45-50 spaces. Since the exhibition—although I’m not planning to release a second part of the series—I have been to as many more. It’s shocking, only within a year. That’s because now I’m considered part of these communities, they invite me to their festivals, their christenings, it’s fascinating. My life has changed because of this, and I keep collecting this material, both for archival reasons and because of momentum. But there isn’t going to be a second exhibition with the new material.

And which religions are using these spaces?

The majority of the churches I have visited are mostly Evangelical Africans, mostly Nigerians; these are in the general vicinity of Omonia and Kypseli. There’s one street in that area that has three churches, all Evangelicals. I won’t try to explain why there are so many churches of the same religion so close to each other, it’s possibly because there are some small differences between them that have to do with their beliefs. The bottom line here is that most of them are Evangelicals. There are also many mosques, mostly by Sunnis and less by Shiites. There’s only one Buddhist temple, just for the mention. Many Hindu temples, mainly in the suburbs and in areas where there’s farmland, like in Marathonas and Koropi; there’s also a very big Sikh temple in Tavros, which is the main gathering point for Hindus on big holidays. This Sikh temple is open to everyone to visit. All the places I have listed are not secret; they don’t advertise themselves either, but they have a façade, a sign with information outside, and they are open for all to enter, as long as one respects their etiquette. For example in some places you must only enter barefoot, or you’re not allowed to talk loudly or talk on your phone during mass. As long as you respect certain rules you can attend their masses, and you’re welcome to participate in the experience of their prayer.

That was in a way my next question, as to whether these places are secret.

There are some who are more cautious, where they might not let you in if you don’t know someone, if not someone from the church takes you there. But in most cases you can say that you’re going to attend mass, and if your body language doesn’t raise any suspicions or if you don’t seem like a threat to their eyes, they’ll let you in. Others are completely open, and they are very happy when we participate and attend their events.

Would you say that these minorities are in danger when they perform their religion in Athens?

I believe there have been some incidents where churches have been vandalised. I know of such an attack in Marathonas, in this wonderful temple of Ravidassia Hindus—who are very peaceful and are a community that has been living there for many years and their children have been going to Greek schools and speak Greek—so one day they found their temple completely smashed. They are afraid because of that incident, but also because of the general rise of racism against foreigners.

And how has your relationship with these communities evolved?

There are some communities with which my relationship has been very good right from the start. The exhibition has been the catalyst so to speak for them to understand that my intention was after all pure. I mean, at the exhibition many churches came, and felt proud for being there, they thought it was a great honour that I showed them [at the exhibition] and the chemistry that developed between us was amazing. All these people came together at the opening and the closing of the exhibition, they talked to the public at the presentation of the book [1] and later at the café of the Benaki museum they played church music from their own rituals, it was an amazing evening.

Yes, I was there that evening.

Ah you came? That whole experience, I mean their experience in relation to my own process, made them understand that I was on their side, and that this whole work was after all for something good.

My relationship with them now is very close, they consider me a citizen of their county, which I find stunning. There’s a very telling example of a Senegalese church, with whom I have a very good relationship: they phoned me a couple of months ago to ask me whether the [Benaki] museum could host their big prayer, because their mosque did not fit them all and they couldn’t rent a space. So their celebration was on that coming Saturday, and they like to follow their calendar very accurately, and they called me in complete innocence to ask whether the museum could provide a space for them to pray. So I call the museum director and explain the situation, and she tells me that even if the museum couldn’t host, she would find something. Kudos to the museum for that. So after all the museum provided the space for the community to pray for 24 hours—and let me tell you, the experience was amazing, you can’t imagine. When the event was over, they didn’t leave a single thing, not even a trace of garbage, they were very hospitable, they literally dragged the museum guards in to feed them. So, these people celebrated their biggest holiday in a museum, and they felt that it was a way for us to honour them.

As for me, even now that this whole series is over and the whole project culminated with the exhibition as a travelogue so to speak, I keep on taking photos of these people, mostly because they keep inviting me; I mean, there’s a Nigerian photographer who came up to me on the closing night and asked me whether I would like to go with him to the churches, because he’s a photographer for Nigerian weddings and christenings. So now I go to these events as the assistant of a Nigerian photographer, I mean his clients know me as Eze’s assistant. Which is OK, because I make sure I take photos that are good for Eze, but also some photos that are good for my project too.

You mentioned before that this experience has changed your life.

Yes, because first of all I got to know the entire planet in a city, so to speak. I mean, when you think about it, you’re witnessing the entire world in a very private moment, the moment of prayer and going to church. And I’ve said this in other talks I’ve done about this exhibition, that [through this project] I have re-encountered normality. I renegotiated and met normal people, peaceful people, happy people, not miserable at all, not complaining at all—although they live in extreme poverty. I have encountered the very concept of faith in all its aspects, on different worshipping horizons so to speak. And I now have the impression that all these [horizons] meet, it’s very clear to me that all these faiths have a common reference point, that simply changes its name every time. For me, although I’ve never been devout in the sense of going to church and so on, I reconsidered, I redefined in a way my own understanding of faith, my own concept of believing.

Have you come across a ritual or event that has made a lasting impression on you?

Look, for different reasons each place I’ve visited had its own fascinating moment, even when it didn’t shout, even when it was in complete silence or sustained. The most impressive moment of course, and we all know it, is Ashura Day, the day when Shia Muslims mourn in large groups and self-flagellate with blades. But before the actual flailing ritual, the most shocking moment is inside the Shi’ite mosques when the imam finishes his speech and the congregation begins to weep, all men, a mosque full of men sitting on the floor and weeping like little children. And after they finish weeping they strip from the waist up and start beating their chests rhythmically, to the point you only hear a thud, a drumming that is unbelievable; from the beating their chests bruise and some open wounds as well.

Another thing that I find impressive it the absolute quietness and kindness of the Buddhist temple, where nothing is happening but there’s something that gives you peace of mind, something very soft. But in all these places I entered with awe and amazement, and with the fear that they wouldn’t let me live the experience, that I would miss out. Even when I visited a second or a third time I would discover something magical I hadn’t seen. Now I know all the rituals, I’ve almost memorised all the words.

And from your whole experience, from your travels abroad, how unique or not is this phenomenon for Athens?

Actually I think in Europe this is a unique phenomenon, as far as worship is concerned. In Western countries as far as I know there are official mosques and places of worship [for non-christians]. Foreigners who have seen my work, and when it got published in a few serious foreign magazines, people saw this paradox, that in a European capital there are no official places of worship.

Have you seen any change after the recent influx of refugees from the Middle East to Athens?

I’ve noticed an increase of the population in mosques, because most of these people are Muslim, but because of the crisis a lot of people have left Greece as well. There are some places where the number of worshippers has diminished over the years. There has been a peak, which as I was told it was because of the refugees, but they also left.

For me, what we need to learn is that this is who we are, this is our society, and those who still resist this idea should finally conciliate with it. These people live here and will continue to live here; I told you already that many of them have children, have families, I’ve met their children in church and they speak Greek and they play at the church bands. Especially in gospel music it’s the children who play in the bands and sing in the choirs. This is all an experience that is worth having. I’ve been inviting my Athenian friends to come with me to mass, to live this experience. Every temple you visit is like visiting a different country, a different continent. Also the music is amazing: my friend composer Mihalis Kalkanis recorded some of these musics and released a CD that was for sale at the Benaki Museum during the exhibition, and all the proceedings went to the churches. It’s worth going to one of these places. There’s an Ethiopian church in Polygono, somewhere on the street that connects Gyzi with the Galatsi bypass. Or behind the Syggros hospital and Caravel hotel there’s a little park, where there’s an entrance with a Virgin Mary and a Christ over it; that’s a Coptic Eritrean temple in a basement, which is covered with posters of icons and is amazing as an experience. These people really want to share their presence and their religiousness with us, so they’re open and you’re always welcome to live this experience with them.

[1] Giorgos Tzirtzilakis and Nadjia Argyropoulou (editors), 2015. Wor(th)ship. Tassos Vrettos. Benaki Museum, Athens.