#4 Greece – Wor(th)ship. A “Photographic fieldwork” on the World of Worship Places in Athens by Tassos Vrettos.

By Margarita Markoviti

When I first heard about Tassos Vrettos’ photographic exhibition on the worship places across Athens, though certainly intrigued, I was not expecting to see anything I had not already seen – or at least heard of – through my research on religious communities in Athens in the context of Grassrootsmobilise. As friends and colleagues were advising me not to miss this exhibition, I started to realize that there was much to be gained from a visit to the Benaki Museum, which hosted the exhibition between November 20, 2015 and January 10, 2016 (with an eventual extension till the end of January 2016).

As Vrettos told me, his interest in the topic began a few years ago when he read in the news about this beautiful Resurrection service on Easter Sunday at an Ethiopian Church. He picked up his camera, told his family “we won’t be spending Easter Sunday together this year!” and went to visit this Ethiopian Church, which was allegedly somewhere on Liosion street. It turned out that there was no such Church on Liosion, but after many exceptional circumstances, Vrettos was lucky enough to find out (with the help of a policeman who happened to pass by and who was willing to help) that the Ethiopian Church was actually in an entirely different district called Polygono. And this was the first time when Vrettos, using his discreet and soundless camera, was allowed to enter the Church in Polygono and capture instances of this service. In Vrettos’ own words:

“My entire photographic journey has been driven by a deep curiosity to see, as if I were opening a curtain and going inside. My ‘voyeuristic’ inclination was what got me started on this adventure in the first place. Looking back, I can see that my curiosity has been stigmatized by a single experience[1].”

From that moment on, he embarked upon a three-year photographic research into the worship places of Athens. Much like with his first experience with the Ethiopian Church, this research turned out to be an exploration, an ongoing journey for Vrettos to literally uncover where these places were, what they looked like and how believers organized their services and ceremonies.

Indeed, the world that Vrettos so beautifully and respectfully presents in his work has little to do with the idea of religious pluralism as we imagine it, hear about it in the news or even see it in the streets of Athens. And this is because Vrettos brings to light the many hidden communities of immigrants and refugees who, in their everyday struggle to survive and to organize their lives, also seek to create their very own places and ways of worship in the capital of Greece. And this is found in the most unimaginable places and, of course, unofficial spots across the city: from the dark basements of abandoned buildings and warehouses, which Vrettos hesitantly approached when he heard chanting coming from within, to fields and garages, including a building on the central Aiolou street, where different communities have created their own worship place on each floor. Though some of these spots, such as Churches or unofficial mosques, are visible to the public eye, residents of the areas and passersby do not even notice most of them. The discovery of this invisible complex of worship places, most of which function outside the limits set by Greek law, is exceptionally significant in the light of the ongoing struggle for the establishment of the first official mosque in Athens as well as of the recurrent public debates on the presence and rights of minority religious communities in the country.

Vrettos’ research constitutes a discovery of “the Other” in Greek society and is based not on identity but on difference, touching upon some of the recurrent questions of pluralism and coexistence. When I asked him about the ultimate aim of the research, Vrettos told me that his main concern was not to depict the everyday lives or concerns of these people, but rather to capture the different ways in which they remain faithful to their religions and traditions, seeking often to build from scratch their places of worship. This is reflected in the choice of title for the exhibition, which, in both Greek and English, is a very interesting play on words, albeit with distinct meanings: in Greek the «Τ(ρ)όποι λατρείας» means both places and ways of worship. Τhe English version – again, with a parenthesis – signifies simultaneously  “worship” and “worth” – perhaps alluding to the value of the world this exhibition reveals. Moreover, as Vrettos emphasizes, his interest was not on Western communities, but rather on those communities with Asian and African origins: Iraqi Christians, the Eritrean Evangelical Church, the Guru Nanak Darbar (Sikh) community, Pakistani Shias and Pakistani Muslims, the Nigerian Evangelical community, the World Without Walls [Oneness] community, a Hindu temple of Sewa Sangh Mandir, a Palestinian mosque and many others.

The way the exhibition is presented allows the visitor to begin a journey which gradually brings to light the makeshift, unseen open spots or buildings that these communities have turned into places where they can gather together and worship their religions. As the visitors move along the installations, they come across hidden corners with improvised worship houses, which believers have decorated with their own carpets, lamps, ornaments of different colors and shapes. The presentation of these installations is enriched by the music of composer Mihalis Kalkanis, who responded to Vrettos’ invitation to record in sound an indicative sample of what was captured by the lens. Kalkanis then musically processed this material so that it could be presented in the show in specially designed audio installations at various spots around the venue, corresponding to the places from which the 25 recordings were taken. A visitors’ guide is provided at the very start of the exhibition, which has a twofold objective: while helping the visitor move around the installations – providing the necessary background information on each community’s depiction – it also includes Vrettos’ own comments on his personal experience with the respective community. Bringing the visitor closer to this journey, Vrettos describes how the members of a community welcomed him, whether they accepted him taking pictures of their worship place or of their faces and how others were much more suspicious of his motives and decided to set some boundaries. Visiting the exhibition thus becomes a deeply sensory experience, which immerses the visitor in the visual, acoustic and experiential context of each and every visit to the worship communities.

The mosaic of communities that Vrettos exposes through his exhibition is placed in the margins of Greek society and law, since the main concerns of these people have to do with finding and keeping their jobs and setting the foundations for their children to live a better life. In this sense, and as Vrettos explained to me, claiming their rights and mobilizing in any way that would put their position and presence in the country at risk is, naturally, not amongst their concerns. Therefore, though not directly of relevance to the objectives of Grassrootsmobilise, Vrettos’ journey greatly enriches our own research, not least by revealing the unseen reality of religious pluralism in Greece, regardless of whether this pluralism mobilizes or makes itself visible in any way. And that was precisely my objective when I met with the photographer, namely for him to guide me – in a different way this time – through these communities and to advise me on who may in fact may be willing and interested to talk to me. For, though for the time being these communities remain unseen – and perhaps of little relevance to legal or other forms of mobilizations – Vrettos’ contribution may have significantly changed this. As theorist and visual artist, Kostis Stafylakis, notices:

“The presence of the photographer in these places of worship, the welcome he received from the members of the congregation and the relationship they developed with him, all bear witness to a reality that does not wish to remain hidden but endeavors, under certain conditions, to be made known – to claim its place in the public sphere.[2]

[1] Excerpts from a conversation with Theophilos Tramboulis.

[2]Stafylakis, Kostis, “Greek Society, Worship and Privacy” in Wor(th)ship. Tassos Vrettos. Benaki Museum, Athens 2015.