Chios is the fifth largest of the Greek islands. It’s mountainous and picturesque and, every Easter, home to a 100-year-old celebration that sees two church parishes of a small mountain town fire 100,000 rockets at each other. The aim: to hit the opposition church’s bell.
London-based photographer Marco Kesseler first learned about the annual event while working on several stories in Greece, where much of his family live, as part of a wider personal project. After being shown a short, homemade video of people firing rockets at each other, he recalls: “Obviously I wanted to know more and, from what I read, it sounded like such visual feast with an interesting story.”
Each year, locals spend their days collecting materials and hand-making the illegal rockets, before hiding their supplies (some might say ammunition) on mountainsides ahead of the festival. When it finally comes around, neither side can decide on a winner and so the whole thing happens again the following year. Naturally intrigued by the dedication shown to this incredibly dangerous tradition, Marco travelled to Chios with friend and director Matt Somerville to try and find some of the families making and storing the rockets away on the hillsides. “It was harder than expected but once we had made friends with some of the groups I found myself sitting in people’s front rooms with 25,000 rockets piled from floor to ceiling,” Marco tells us incredulously.
The images of the event itself are breathtaking. Bodies stand silhouetted, apparently surrounded by fire and sparks, engulfed by thick smoke. However, it’s a series of two halves, these vivacious images juxtaposed by still, serene renderings of the Greek countryside. “For most of the week, the town was incredibly quiet so I wanted the images to reflect a balance between that and the chaos of the rocket war,” Marco explains. It’s a visual quality apparent throughout much of Marco’s work, inspired by his early influences, including Renaissance and Baroque painters. “[They] captured a real quietness so I make a conscious decision to work in quite a slow and considered way, which hopefully translates into the aesthetic of the imagery,” he adds.
There’s one image, in particular (above), that Marco describes as capturing the atmosphere of the evening. A man stands among several other silhouettes, the air around them aglow with orange as several rockets erupt at their feet, leaving a shower of sparks in their wake. The photographer recalls: “Maybe 500 rockets get lit from one firing range in a matter of seconds. The air is so thick with smoke that you can’t breathe properly and apart from bodies silhouetted against the sparks and flames, you can see very little else until the smoke settles. The noise deafens and adrenaline runs high.”
It’s the kind of photograph that keeps Marco excited about photography; one in which the outcome is uncertain, its gravity only revealed in the darkroom tray. “I grew up shooting on film and, for me, that is still one of the most exciting aspects of my work – I love how the memory of images stick in your head until you see the results,” he says. “Sometimes the image is better in my mind than in real life but I enjoy that degree of uncertainty.”
During their time in Chios, Marco and Matt also produced a short film documenting their time. Together, the photographs and documentary film do what the two media do best: tell us a story – an amazing, almost unfathomable one at that – that, otherwise, we would never have known about.
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