Someone once told me that everyone has a story; you just have to know the right questions to ask. This is a concept that photographer Nicki Upstairs (the professional name of Nicki Panou) understands all too well, identifying as an innate storyteller.
“As far back as I can remember, I always had the need to tell stories,” she tells Neos Kosmos.
Over the years, her passion has taken various forms. In the beginning, she wrote short stories and poetry, and at just 10 years old even started a book, which she never got around to finishing. She even went on to dabble in theatre.
Meanwhile, photography was always a medium she enjoyed, and after getting her first DSLR camera, she set out to teach herself how to use it, and hasn’t looked back.
“I started with mostly landscape and travel photography until I came across the works of conceptual photographers that combined storytelling and photography in a very theatrical way,” she recalls.
“I realised then that this was the kind of photography I wanted to practice and I have been passionate about it ever since.”
Born and raised in Mesolongi, Greece, after finishing high school at the age of 17, she moved to Thessaloniki to study Applied Informatics. Having fallen in love with the city, she decided to officially make the city her home, going on to work for the ARGO Alternative Therapeutic Program for Addicted Individuals, and now resides there with her husband and daughter.
She recently completed her Masters in Graphic Arts and Multimedia, lending itself to her unique aesthetic that is both conceptual and surreal, employing symbolism and other storytelling techniques to create images that are atmospheric, poetic and cinematic.
Endeavouring to give her photographs a timeless feel to emphasise their message, she prefers to shoot outdoors with natural light, which is in part why she likes to have every detail of the shoot planned ahead.
“I usually shoot alone and I use myself as a model,” she says.
“So it is very important for me to know beforehand exactly how this story is going to unfold. I usually shoot around sunset to get soft light, so I have to be as quick as I can.”
She is as much a stylist as she is a photographer in a bid to do justice to the story of each image.
“All the elements in the picture, from the location to the colours, need to help tell this story. The outfit and the posing have to match the mood I have decided on, and the same goes for any props that I will use,” she explains.
Meanwhile, post-processing plays a big part in the final result and can take anywhere from a few hours to several days.
As a storyteller, Nicki believes taking the viewers of her photography into an imaginary world is important, and goes on to quote Albert Einstein: “Imagination will take you everywhere”.
“I have always been a daydreamer and I have always liked to lose myself in books or films. I like to say that my photos show a different kind of reality, and that is actually my motto,” Nicki explains.
She says that people sometimes need a break from reality and art is something that has always offered that in her personal experience.
“When a person exercises their imagination, they tend to find better ways to cope with reality as well,” she reflects.
“As we get older, life gets harder, responsibilities grow larger, and time never seems to be enough. Through my photos, I want to give people the chance to dream and help them travel to other dimensions. That is not always pleasant though, just as dreams are not always happy, they can also be nightmares.”
While Nicki’s photos are anything but ordinary, it is in the everyday that she finds inspiration – from a song, a story, or even a conversation overheard on the street.
“Just a single word can lead to a whole story, which I then impress onto an image,” she says.
With a curious mind, what particularly interests her, is discovering the lesser-known pieces of history.
“I always find myself wondering about the background stories of places or people that I see or read about. This sparks my imagination and leads me to either discover forgotten stories or make up my own.”
This is exemplified in her latest body of work, which also happens to be her favourite, a series titled ‘Unseen Thessaloniki’, which she worked on for just over a year.
It features a combination of known and obscure sites across the city, shown in a different light through Nicki’s ‘lens’, each image accompanied with a story, including information on the location and its history.
“Thessaloniki is a city with centuries of history. It is a place where multiculturalism formed a very special mixture of characters, customs and architecture – this is evident even today, if you look close enough,” she says.
As Nicki started to take a deeper interest in the city’s history, it didn’t take long to discover that there is much people know little about.
“The unknown stories of the city led me to create this series of images, where I present these hidden aspects in my own way,” she explains.
“The creation of ‘Unseen Thessaloniki’ helped me better understand this city that I have made my home,” the experience leading her to feel even more connected to it than ever before.
Satisfied with the result of the project and the response she has received thus far, more than anything she says it was the process she enjoyed, which was both challenging and a learning curve.
“I spent many hours researching locations and reading up on their history; I visited places I had never been before and I had the chance to create something unique for them,” she says.
“There were failures and setbacks but, in the end, I found that perseverance is the key to reaching your goal.”
To view ‘Unseen Thessaloniki’ in full and to see more of Nicki’s work, visit http://nickiupstairs.com/