The Greek photographer Stratos Kalafatis has spent the past five years documenting the surreal world inside the self-governed Greek monastic state, Mount Athos. “The first monks settled there prior to 9th century AD where they lived in huts and caves. Today about 3,000 ascetics cloister in the 20 monasteries and hundreds of hermitages, cells and huts that exist in Mount Athos. All the monasteries share prayer, accommodation, fare and labour amongst the monks,” the photographer tells It’s Nice That.
Stratos explains that Mount Athos is inhabited solely by men who travel from other parts of Greece as well as Russia, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia to live dutiful and disciplined lives. “For more than 1,000 years, men arrive there, change names and live there practising isolation, prayer, advent and primarily obedience. Obedience defines the solid hierarchical relations of the elders and the subordinate monks, who strictly follow the instructions and rules set by their spiritual fathers,” Stratos says. His pictures illustrate this sense of devotion, as monks walk, work and pray on the isolated, steep rocks overlooking the archipelagos.
The series perfectly represents this liminal existence between sea and sky. By focusing largely on figures dressed in humble black robes, Stratos captures these people’s proud reverence. There is no movement or interaction between characters, which highlights the monks’ solitary relationships with the otherworldly. “I was searching for a surprise, something unexpected, the balance between the human and the spiritual nature of the monks,” says Stratos. His pictures distil this balance. Standing upright against the peninsula’s electric green and blue landscapes, these tall and slim religious figures exude a mystical aura that magnifies the sublimity of Mount Athos.
The series was a demanding project. The monks were not suspicious of photography nor did they resist it. They were happy to pose. It was, Stratos says, the holy mysticism of the place that required patience to uncover: “The spiritually of mount Athos lies beneath the surface and it takes time to capture the subtly of the place.” The project took a long time, many returns to the place and patient sojourns in the humble monastic huts. “I organised 30 trips and stayed in Athos for a total of 200 days. The biggest impediments were the practical ones. It is not easy to access many of the places in Athos.”
Stratos approaches his art as a storyteller. He knew that in order to communicate something of the profound otherworldliness of Athos, Stratos needed to turn the raw material of his photography into a narrative; one that uncovers the contrast between the inner richness of the monks and their modest lifestyle.
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