Lonely Photos of Daily Life in the Rust Belt
Photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis captures the anxiety and joy of living in small-town Pennsylvania.
Greek photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis's earliest memory of America is from Astoria, Queens, where he witnessed the shocking dichotomy between big-city affluence and homelessness. When his father moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the early 1990s, his mother remained in Athens, and he traveled back and forth. "I was caught between two cultures and countries," he said. His search for his own identity began here in his late teens.
In 1997, Kallianiotis immigrated permanently to the United States. In the ensuing decades, his early sentiments of alienation slowly faded and were replaced by a sense of belonging. "My love for Pennsylvania and its people has grown equal in status to my love for my homeland," he explains. "I consider myself an outsider with an insider's perspective."
Over the past two years, Kallianiotis has driven throughout the state, stopping in various towns to photograph the communities. His ongoing body of work, America in a Trance, is in some ways a continuation of the conversations started by Robert Frank and Walker Evans nearly half a century ago: a poignant and ambiguous portrait of a country, its people, and its values.
The 43-year-old Kallianiotis told me that I could write anything I wanted about his photographs, but he had one clear request: "Do not make me political." He saw photographers and journalists flock to rural Pennsylvania in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. He's also seen images that present people in neighboring towns as caricatures and cartoons. It's not something that interests him.
In order to understand a place and a culture, Kallianiotis thinks you need to be submerged in it. "Don't pretend to understand," he told me, "just get a cup of coffee and start driving."
That's exactly what he's done. In a few cases, he's stopped traffic to pull over and get the perfect shot. Multiple pictures were taken straight from his car window.
When he travels, Kallianiotis takes with him only the barest of necessities: "One camera, one lens, and one memory card." He doesn't enter houses, diners, or stores. He prefers to imagine them from the outside. "If I do decide to enter, I most likely will not take my camera inside," he told me. He keeps a certain distance. It seems almost superstitious—like he's afraid of breaking something precious by getting too close.
"There are moments where I may regret that decision," he admitted, "but the last thing I want is to find myself photographing close-up portraits of a man or woman with intricate physical characteristics with a particular social and political affiliation."
America in a Trance documents the facts of daily life, but there's still room for mystery. In the spaces where reality becomes murky and uncertain, our own stories fill in the blanks.
The artist has no pretensions, and he doesn't have any big dreams of changing the world. His pictures are his memories—nothing more and nothing less. In Kallianiotis's Pennsylvania, anxiety and joy walk hand-in-hand.
There have been painful and somber moments along the way. For instance, he can't get the sight of a desolate McKeesport bus stop out of his mind. Buildings were abandoned, and the people— few and wandering—seemed forlorn. Still, he insisted, his America isn't lost to despair. "Every day that I photograph is a day of hope."
After 20-plus years, pieces of America and Greece have begun to overlap in the artist's mind. "Separated by the Atlantic, one finds the same pride and humility in the villages and countryside of Greece," he explained. If you're ever in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, you'll find a doomed, closed steel mill that's been turned into a casino. But that's not all there is in Bethlehem—Kallianiotis, retracing the steps of Walker Evans, has found warm sunlight and scents that remind him of his childhood home.
Kallianiotis receives emails from people who recognize the streets and buildings in his photographs. There isn't a particular note that stands out for him—they're all similar, but that doesn't make them any less meaningful. Maybe a woman remembers growing up around the corner from one picture, or perhaps a man recalls spending a few years down the block from another. In lonesome places, these pictures have forged connections.
If Kallianiotis doesn't want me to make him or his photographs sound political, what does he want? What is America in a Trance about, if not about empty buildings, lost jobs, the economy, and the state of the union? "It's about me," the photographer said finally, "And maybe, it's also about you."
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Ellyn Kail is the staff writer at the photography blog Feature Shoot. She lives in Bronxville, New York.
Follow Niko J. Kallianiotis on Instagram to see daily updates from his series.