An Interview With Charis Ioannou

The street photography of Charis Ioannou resonates with cool clarity and balance: of light and shadow, movement and stillness, noise and silence. A remarkable depth of field coupled with a stirring piquancy of unexpected angles allows us to look at ourselves and our fellow humans from a new perspective, and adds to the power of each perfectly captured moment.

You alternated between music and photography in your studies and in your career.  Do you see a correlation between the two practices? Do you feel that an understanding of one helped you to explore the other? Were there various stages in your life or career where one appealed more than the other, for any reason? You worked, specifically, as a jazz musician. Do you see a particular affinity between jazz music and street photography?

Being a professional jazz saxophonist for more than two decades, I found getting into street photography very natural to me. I find many similarities between how a jazz musician improvises around a tune that has a specific structure and the way a street photographer improvises around a scene to get the maximum out of it.

The delivery of a seasoned jazz musician is often clear and confident even if the actual musical content is very complicated. This can also be translated into street photography: a complex scene should be portrayed with great clarity and often simplicity even if there are lots of intricate actions and nuances taking place.

The way experienced jazz improvisors manage to have successful story telling through their playing is very similar with the way street photographers compose successfully the scene being immersed in.

The delivery of a seasoned jazz musician is often clear and confident even if the actual musical content is very complicated. This can also be translated into street photography: a complex scene should be portrayed with great clarity and often simplicity even if there are lots of intricate actions and nuances taking place.

Lastly, all great jazz musicians have a unique voice whether playing over a beautifully structured composition or a simple tune and even if their voice is unique, it is always different every single time. An experienced street photographer also has a unique “voice” or eye, if you want to call it, and is recognizable immediately even when shooting an everyday scene or a very unique and rare scene, and will never shoot the same thing twice despite multiple visits to the same location.

Every street photographer will improvise their own story. This is mine.

I’m struck by the angle of many of your photographs, which are shot from below. There’s a beautiful sense of being in a space under the wings of birds, and being privileged to see the world as we don’t often see it. It’s almost discombobulating, at times, but it gives the images a real sense of space and movement. How do you achieve this effect? 

I am always trying to figure out what is the best angle to shoot from. When shooting dogs and cats I try to get down to their point of view. It seems like I am photographing these animals but I am mostly trying to be aware of what the background is so that I can have a well-balanced composition with things taking place around the main subject, sometimes to the left or right of it and sometimes underneath it. 

I also love the balance of light and darkness in your images. Clear whites and rich blacks give the images a beautiful simplicity and strength. How do you achieve this? Do you search for compositions that offer these contrasts, or do you work at certain times of day or in certain lights or certain spaces?

Having studied the zone system of Ansel Adams I try to be aware of how to expose the scene in order to get the maximum detail out of it taking into consideration of the post editing in Lightroom. So, I try and keep all the highlights from not getting blown out so that I can retrieve as much of the shadows I can without losing any highlights. Having said that, and since my main focus is street photography, I don’t really aim at specific times of the day to go and shoot usually. I am mostly driven by the location itself and what it can offer as far as subject matter is concerned rather than the light it involves.

The planes of motion and action are beautifully composed in your work. You capture wonderful moments of composition in which the juxtaposition of your subjects’ placement in the foreground and background create surprising and sometimes amusing effects. Do you start to see the world as a collection of these remarkable moments? Can you discuss your attitude towards humor or absurdity in your work?

When composing a street shot I try to fill up my frame of my wide angle lens. Usually, that means having different subjects on different spots within my frame. So, since things in front of my lens are not usually in the same plane that creates an absurdity with respect to the size of my subjects. Juxtaposing is another way to create such effects and can be very difficult to detect on the street at first. When I started composing, I would mostly try to allocate a specific spot within the frame for each one of my subjects. After studying the photographs of many of the modern masters of juxtaposition I now sometimes question whether a photograph can be even more powerful when the subjects are laid on top of each other rather than perfectly next to each other without any overlap. It’s an ongoing process and personal development in my work. Yes, humor and absurdity are things that draw my attention as well as beauty in the always-changing-geometry of the subjects moving in front of you second after second. 

On a similar note, there’s a lovely sense of affection for the foibles of humanity in your photographs. Even when the people you photograph are seen in, perhaps, not their best moment, I still feel that you are viewing them with respect and love. Is this something you’re conscious of? Do you feel this is an important attitude for a street photographer to maintain?

How do people react to having their photograph taken? Do you try to hide what you’re doing and disguise the fact that you’re taking photos? Do you find people react differently in different parts of the world?

As a street photographer I am naturally drawn to scenes that catch my eye and hopefully the viewers of my photographs. Sometimes these scenes have a funny aspect to them. At the same time I’m trying not to ridicule anyone by capturing such shots. This can be a very tricky thing to work around and has gotten me in trouble quite a few times…people calling the cops on me, threatening to kill me, or just getting really aggressive with me… living in Cyprus where street photography is not really a common practice like in a big city, people look at me with suspicion, sometimes fear, and are generally not too keen on having their photos being taken by strangers. I mostly shoot without looking through my camera…after maybe hundred thousand shots I get a pretty good idea of what my lens can see without having to look through the viewfinder or the LCD… so I try to do everything incognito. 

How do you use shadows and reflection to compose your shots?

As I kind of implied before, I don’t like to think of myself as a dog or pigeon or reflection or shadow type of street photographer. I am intrigued by all of the above and more that could possibly give me a composition that I consider worthwhile making. So yes, both working with reflections and shadows especially since I am shooting with a black and white digital sensor can yield very pleasing results when composed elegantly. 

Your work seems very classic and timeless to me, which is something I always think must be a difficult effect for a street photographer to maintain, working in a world of modern cars and advertisements and clothes. Is this something you think about when choosing subjects and composing shots?

I don’t really let the environment we are living in be an obstacle in taking pictures. I am not trying to be timeless. I’m just trying to make beautiful compositions of the world we are living in.

You have many wonderful shots of dogs, birds, and even cats in your work. I think this helps to add to the joyful movement of the photos, but it also adds to the notion that we’re viewing humanity from an unlikely and unusual perspective. What draws you to photographing animals?

Photographing animals gives a great opportunity to play with perspective which is very appealing to me in creating a balanced composition. At the same what is great about shooting animals is that you don’t need to worry about getting permission from anyone to do that …even though 99/100 times in these shots I would have some people somewhere in the frame 😉

The dogs, and to some extent, the humor in your work call to mind Elliott Erwitt. What photographers do you admire? What music or musicians inspire you?

First you imitate, then you emulate and then maybe…just maybe you can innovate.

I’ll take that as a big compliment! What I learned through music is that you cannot become your own unique voice before you copy and internalize the work of previous masters. First you imitate, then you emulate and then maybe…just maybe you can innovate. The list is quite long where I get my inspiration for both music and photography. Just to give a few names of photographers that have inspired me other than the grand masters Cartier Bresson and Elliot Erwitt I would have to mention people like Moises Levy, Jeremy Paige, Vineet Vohra, Gokhan Aner, Tavepong Pratoomwong, Denis Cherim, Emma Wright, Richard Sandler, Mattik, Bruce Gilden, Nikos Economopoulos, Joakim Moller, Dimpy Bhalotia and of course my own teacher Nick Johnson …and many more. 

In music the list is even longer so I ll stick with the masters such as Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Lockjaw Davis, Johnny Griffin, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Rollins and many many more…and that’s just the saxophone players…;)

Cyprus based street photographer Charis Ioannou started his photographic journey as a teenager in the early 90s using his father’s cameras and experimented in his home darkroom. Being drawn to music from an early age he eventually studied jazz music in Boston and New York. In 2004 after his music studies, he enrolled in New England School of Photography where he studied under the guidance of Nick Johnson who introduced him to the 4×5 camera and Ansel Adam’s zone system. After a year of continuous practising of the craft he returned to Cyprus and went straight into his music career while his photography remained dormant.

As a jazz saxophonist he travelled extensively and performed in various countries in Europe, Middle East, Asia, Africa and the United States. It was during one of these travels back to New York where he got intrigued by his surrounding environment and using his old i-phone started his street photography endeavour. In December 2019, a few months before the pandemic he bought his first digital camera and his street work started getting more and more serious. He now specializes in street photography shot in black and white on a digital monochrome camera. See more of his work at charisioannou.com and on Instagram at thecharisioannou.

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