A series of photographs taken by Greek Australian photographer Nick Mangafas in Vienna over the last 20 years.
Obscured by history’s tangent
Thomas Andronas travelled to Vienna to chat with Greek-Australian photographer Nick Mangafas
Nick Mangafas is tangled up in history. The Australian-born son of Greek migrants, he now lives just outside Vienna, Austria, where he takes photographs.
It's easy not to think about images at all, but to consume thousands of them every day without even noticing. Our world is saturated by images because let's face it, the old adage is right. Every time that shutter clicks it captures a moment in time, a thousand words that may never be spoken again.
"As a writer observes and writes down, a photographer observes and photographs," says Mangafas. We're sitting in the dimly-lit dining room of his warm, creaky Perchtoldsdorf home where he invited me to stay, despite the fact we had met only 24 hours earlier.
"My work is photography and I'm very passionate about it," he continues. "It's my profession and I pride myself on being a professional, being able to get the shots regardless of the time and the conditions and whatever pressures and stresses are around. I think that's the difference between an amateur and a professional."
Nick Mangafas was born in Adelaide in 1960. From the time he first visited Greece at age 12 he knew he wanted to take photographs, and he wanted to live and work in Europe.
"Taking photos was, I think, automatic," he says, thanks to the influence of his father, Michael Mangafas, who spent much of the 1960s, 70s and 80s photographing and documenting the development of the Greek community in Adelaide.
"I remember spending countless evenings standing next to my dad in the darkroom listening to him counting down the exposures. He didn't have a clock, he didn't use a stopwatch, he didn't use a darkroom clock like we have now, he would count under his breath," Mangafas says.
"When I learnt more about photography I was able to appreciate more of what my father was doing with his photography, because he did a lot of really good work with a lot of very basic knowledge."
In 1992, after the break-up of his first marriage, 32 year-old Nick Mangafas took a daring step. He packed his gear and bought a one-way ticket to Greece.
Having developed a bent towards theatrical photography and social documentation, and having worked with Theatro Oneiron, the Adelaide University Theatre Guild and the South Australian Multicultural Arts Trust, Mangafas dreamed of continuing his work in his parents' homeland.
A string of unhelpful appeals and chance encounters in Greece saw him end up in Vienna, arguably the arts and theatre capital of the world, where over time things started to fall into place.
In 1993, at the premiere of an Australian production in Vienna, Nick Mangafas was introduced to two Austrian theatre-makers, Airan Berg and Martina Winkel. It was a meeting that solidified his decision to stay in Vienna and had him in work for the next fifteen years, photographing all sorts of productions from puppet theatre to experimental street theatre, to events in the grandest venues in Vienna.
In particular, he did a six-year stint as house photographer at the Schauspielshaus Wien, under the direction of Berg and Australian Barrie Kosky. "I've never photographed a production that I haven't liked," he says. "When I work on a theatre production I see it over a period of weeks, I see how it grows, how it builds up, how it develops, how it stumbles, how it makes mistakes."
"When I'm working with a production I document it and I fall in love with it, whether it's rubbish at the end or whether it's fantastic, it doesn't matter, I'm part of it, so I like it and I see only its good things."
"It's like when you have a kid, your kid's never ugly, it's always beautiful, and that's how I feel about my work," he laughs. But almost two decades of photography in Europe has inevitably seen Mangafas discover new areas of interest, which have extended his repertoire beyond the theatre and into social historical documentation.
In 1994 he became involved with the Kristallnacht Eyewitness Report, a theatrical project that aimed to feature and document survivors of the Jewish Holocaust during World War II.
"I had always been interested in the Second World War and the effects of Nazism on the rest of the world," Mangafas says. "To be given the chance to be involved in the process of documenting people's experiences with surviving that period was an honour. We spent 14 years doing it."
In the process he met and documented many survivors, including Austrian doctor Ella Lingens, who while working in the Auschwitz concentration camp hospital, witnessed experiments conducted on human twins by Dr Joseph Mengele. Another man, a Greek named Gerasimos Garnelis only survived the bullets of a Nazi lynch mob by playing dead and biting down on the hand of a dead man to stop himself from screaming.
"It was pretty amazing to hear the stories and understand what these Holocaust survivors had gone through and what they had done to survive.
It was very moving." He considers this Holocaust documentation among the most important work he has done to date and says it's vital to record the experiences of the past. "They're eye witnesses, they're first-hand, they're prime source. They lived this stuff and when they die that's all our primary sources gone," he says.
"My biggest fear is that we'll make the same mistakes again because we don't want to learn from what we did in the past.
"I feel that by constantly reminding people of the horrors that we're capable of that maybe we can keep reminding people not to be so susceptible to all this bullshit right-wing rhetoric, all this pointing the finger at foreign people, the continual blaming other people for your own mistakes and problems."
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