Text: Nikos Kontopoulos
Photography: Marina Shacola
Though your studies originally pointed in a very different direction, your love for photography ultimately prevailed. At what age did you discover photography?
I studied Law and Sociology, and then History of Art followed by an MBA. Photography has always been of interest to me, as of a very young age. This may sound cliché but I had the opportunity to grab hold of my father’s camera at all times, it was a passion of mine as of a young age. I had other passions as well; this was not my only one…
I had also a passion for sports. As a teenager I discovered travelling and in this sense I was truly lucky as photography and travelling make a perfect match.
You mentioned your father’s camera. Was your father’s hobby photography?
For some reason, my father’s camera was always close at hand and he continuously snapped pictures. The oxymoron here is that when he heard that photography would become my way of life, he acted as though he heard about my love for photography for the very first time. Did he not expect it? He refused to comprehend it? I don’t know. If I had the opportunity, I believe my studies would have begun with photography; this is not to say I regret my studies. I believe our identity develops through all our life’s experiences.
I still remember the moment in my early high-school years, where we learned about the Maasai People in Kenya. I remember how enthralled I was studying this topic. I set a personal bet that at one point in my life I would go live in Kenya among them and capture it all through photos. Years later when I went to Kenya, not only to photograph but to try and make a difference in their lives through Sophia Foundation for Children –where I volunteer– I felt as though I fulfilled this childhood dream.
When was your first trip to Kenya?
Relatively late… When I worked on “Athlos” project for the Athenian Olympic Games. It was a project approved by the IOC which combined photography, athleticism and travelling. I photographed athletes in training for this Olympiad. And so, I went to Kenya to photograph long distance runners. At a younger age, around 16, I had gone to Nigeria with my family. That was my very first trip to Africa, the trip that would change my life, my outlook on the world, everything. Reality in Africa is a reality unlike any other on all levels. The nature is incredible, the contrasts are enormous. You can see the sweetest image and the most brutal; you can smell the most fragrant odour, but the most putrid as well. This trip was certainly foretelling for who I have become today.
The Sophia Foundation was founded in 2008. When was the idea born for the creation of such an institution?
One year earlier, I had gone to Kenya through invitation by Doctors Without Borders to assist as a photographer. While I was there, on the last day of my trip I visited the orphanage. Upon my departure I could not forget the children. They were ill, malnourished and stacked in inappropriate spaces. Imagine that the building they were in (an orthodox monastery) had been abandoned 20 years prior. It was an unacceptable situation. When I got back to Cyprus, we founded the Sophia Foundation along with a team of volunteers who shared common beliefs. We wanted to figure out a way to help the children not only to survive but also to provide them with the resources which would ensure a better life through education and security. To allow them to break out of the vicious circle of poverty. Today, 10 years later, I can say with pride that we have accomplished our goal. This year we have our first set of graduates and these children are now grown up and out in the work force! John, for instance, was a child who lived in the streets; his life was in constant danger. When we first brought him to the Makarios Οrphanage, he kept running away, not believing he was worthy of shelter, a better life. John turned out to be our first university graduate in criminology. Not all children continue onto university. Eva for instance studied hairdressing and went on to open her own salon!
How many children are currently at the Foundation?
The Sophia Foundation for Children cares for and sends more than 3,000 children to school annually. At Makarios Children’s Home we provide complete care to 200 children.
What are your goals for Sophia Foundation?
Due to its success, we wish to continue. Cyprus is a very small country and I wish to share that through the actions of the Sophia Foundation I learned to love my homeland since I realized how giving Cypriots are. I discovered that Cypriots can be suspicious but when they realize that the scope is a worthy one, they will offer their utmost support. Even after the 2013 economic crisis we continued collecting quite a few sponsorships for Kenya even though we had begun this action for Cyprus as well.
Tell me about this action, the “I Cook and I Offer” programme?
Yes, this programme is very important to us. We had first worked it out in Kenya and it is due to our experience there which helped us succeed in Cyprus. The idea is simple: I run the daytime kitchen in school by hiring unemployed mothers whose children attend the very same school. We supply all the ingredients and fresh meals are cooked daily and offered to the children sans exceptions.
This, we first did for the very first time in a school of 700 children, in the depths of a jungle on a different continent. So when in 2013 Cypriot elementary schools were threatened to shut down because parents could no longer afford children’s lunches, we brought the idea and know-how back home.
The programme is in place at 16 full-day elementary and kindergarten schools. It is very important that every child has access to good education, to be able to play and to grow up to become a respectable civilian and in turn, give back to society. Along the way we have had sponsors who have each assumed the financial support for a particular school. Examples include Alpha Mega which supports a school in the centre of Limassol and Hermes Airports which supports two schools in Larnaca which are part of the programme.
What are your personal goals? Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
For me, photography and the Sophia Foundation are one in the same. And I am most happy for that. That is where I wish to be 10 years from now, to be as fulfilled as I am today. Additionally, I hope that as I get older I will continue to find common minds as to keep evolving and remain essential to the children who need us most. I realize that what we are offering these children may be little by comparison to everything they need. However, it is important to begin somewhere.
Your most recent photography projects include “Green Room” and “Sunscapes”. Tell me about them.
As hard as you try to turn a foundation into a home, it is very challenging because the personal care of a mother is missing. When 100 children live together what they miss is your attention. This is what catapulted the project. One night when the old rooms got flooded and we were emptying out the water from the green room, a sole child was left in the room with me. This turned into a mini project in itself. The green room became the spot where one child at a time was alone with me and received my undivided attention. The “Green Room” was published as a book and all the proceeds fund the Sophia Foundation for Children. Currently I have an exhibition with the “Green Room” in Munich and then in Berlin. In May, I have another group exhibition in London for the “Sunscapes” project with photographs of a friend of mine from the Turkana tribe who lives in the Turkana desert, in Kenya. The exhibition is called “A Shade of Pale” and my contribution is called “Sunscapes”, from the sun, in lieu of “Landscapes”.
Last question concerning Cyprus. Tell me the one thing you would never change Cyprus for.
Since travelling is my passion, my life, I always find something I love in every location I visit. Having said that, I always feel the urge to touch base. And my base is Cyprus. A sweet caress, perhaps because my family is there, my friends and the things I love as well. Even though I believe that as Cypriots, there are countless things we could have done a better job at for our country, Cyprus nevertheless remains just that for me: a warm embrace, a deep blue sea, a clear sky. I count on the energy it provides me with to leave again. In order to leave again, I must come back here first.