Interview: Bambos Demetriou | Photographer

In a city that’s bursting with raw talent, Bambos Demetriou is no exception. His eclectic character embraces the unapologetic nature of a life worth living and a journey worth pursuing. Avoiding the use of titles to label his creative process, Bambos shares his sincere perspective on the art of photography. Founded in 2014, Unmasked Photography aspires to ‘unmask’ the sitter and portray each individual in their truest form, saturated in the beauty of his or her own imperfections. Bambos believes in connecting to ‘the soul of the moment’ through the eye of his lens and connecting to the diverse individuals that find themselves in front of it. Meeting Bambos in the comfort of his studio was a conscious choice where I hoped to ‘unmask’ the man behind the camera as he employed that very same technique on me, seated on the other side of the lens. In this sense, it was a vulnerable experience for us both. Bambos is available for private portrait commissions in Amsterdam.

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Maybe you can start by telling me a little bit about your work.

I spent most of my childhood looking to be loved by my family or looking to be accepted, to fit in. Around the age of 8, I really couldn’t find that feeling of safety and I started to create a lot of stories in my mind, stories which eventually I started to believe myself. Stories that would bring me a lot of ‘likes’, and help me find social acceptance. At the age of 25 I kind of stepped outside of myself and realized that I’ve been living my entire life like this. It wasn’t acceptable for me anymore. I had a drug addiction, which I also decided to end at this point. Somehow, by becoming more conscious and aware, I decided it wasn’t acceptable anymore and that I wanted to change. The way I photograph is the way I’ve been aiming to live by always removing the mask. I can use today as an example; today I feel quite vulnerable. There’s always this part of you that wants to show a certain face when you are about to meet a client or a friend. There’s also the awareness of myself wanting to do that. As soon as I become aware of this, I tell myself to drop it. I have a lot of compassion and accept myself even if I am not my usual ‘bubbly’ self. But that does not define how the (photo) shoot will go. If I force myself to be someone else, I don’t think (my clients) will trust me as much as when I am more centred, more aware of my limitations. My photography involves me bringing that aspect into my life, into my work, with complete honesty. You were quite raw as well. You came in this morning and you shared with me how you were feeling, what was going in on in your life… you were quite clear actually. You didn’t make my job easy (laughs), which is fantastic, because you made me get out of my own comfort zone.

I did warn you in advance…

Yeah, that’s right. Nobody likes getting his or her picture taken. Take, for example, the picture of a ballerina I shot a few days ago. Many people liked her picture, and she is one the most awkward people I know. She hates photographs. I connected with her and asked to her to do a few things that she likes doing, and you might notice that she never makes eye contact with the camera. She’s somewhere else, which feels safe. Most of my (clients) tell me ‘I hate myself in photographs’ or ‘I don’t like my (eye) rings’ or ‘I don’t like my wrinkles’ or ‘I look too fat; can you make me look slimmer?’ It starts with me telling my client that I won’t make them do anything. If they don’t feel comfortable smiling, they don’t have to smile. We start from there. Towards the end of the shoot, the best pictures tend to come out because it hasn’t been a forced shoot. That means I also have to let go of the outcome. I want to make amazing pictures for you but, you know what, I’m also open to the possibility that maybe I’m not the right photographer for you. Or we just treat this session as us connecting two hearts or connecting to a deeper space within ourselves. There is always values at the end of it but maybe the end result is not as expected.

How do you deal with those situations?

It may have happened three times in the last four years where the end results weren’t there, and we (I and the sitter) both acknowledged that I wasn’t the right photographer for this person. Unmasked means taking off your mask, and some people simply prefer to remain masked. Some ask ‘make me look strong’; if they are not strong inside, the pictures will reflect that. Obviously you picked me because there is some form of authenticity in my work.

That’s right. What does your creative process involve? What do you think about when shooting people?

I notice any thoughts, which might cause stress within me, and just stay aware of them. I feel that I want something in a certain way. I’m also a bit of a controlling person. When we are having a shoot, I expect you to give me control because then I can guarantee results. When you don’t give me control of the situation, then it comes back to the unknown and then I have to work within a space (of uncertainty), which is pretty scary actually.

Scary in a good way?

Scary in a way that I don’t want anything from you. Exploring the unknown will always bring you insight, if you are open to it of course.

Going back to what you said earlier about most people being awkward in front of a camera. Do you feel that some people give you the opportunity to capture a better image of them?

Yes, but that comes with trust. You need to be able to trust the person in order to get good pictures. If you don’t trust them completely, then you also have trouble letting go. I’ve had clients coming in who are life coaches, and I’m sitting on the other side watching them speak about what they’ve accomplished. I often have the impression that they are trying to sell me something. In my experience, if I don’t feel something it generally means that they are not connected to themselves while they are speaking, or they are trying to convince themselves of something.

Something like a rehearsed pitch.

Yes. Normally if someone is really connected to (himself or herself), like ‘oh fuck, I’m really nervous about this, but I’m here now’ or ‘I never take part in photo shoots’. It already tells me that, for you, just being here is a success. So, how far do we push it? It’s always in the moment. I’m also aware that if you force it, then it just doesn’t work. We’re always trying to get somewhere. If arriving in this space is the acknowledgment of success, then what does a ‘good’ shoot mean? I’m here looking at your pictures and I already see a journey of a woman who came willing to try things out. Can the images get better? Of course, it can always be better. But today, this is how you feel and this is what we got. And there is a picture I might like to use for my website, so we’re probably going to argue about that one (laughs).

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You mentioned a journey; is that something you anticipate will happen with every individual you place in front of your camera?

If I am not free of the outcome, which means that the moment is all we have, then I am already projecting a certain outcome. There is a sort of mediation while we are working. It allows me to have a little more fun, and the more relaxed I am the more fun we can have. Fun in the sense that I am just there with you, behind the camera.

Is it important for you to connect to every person that you photograph?

Sometimes I might ask the questions that I asked you (when you came in) and they might respond by saying ‘I don’t want to answer your questions, it’s too personal’. Then I experience the resistance within myself, the 8-year-old coming out of me, ‘okay, then maybe we shouldn’t work together’ (laughs). This childish response comes out. I respect their privacy of course, so then we just continue working. I use these questions to help open up your heart, and if I don’t have that, then I just explore something different with you. If you have personal input, or if you want to take full control of the shoot, that’s also another way to get to the outcome.

What’s your favourite part about being behind the camera?

Funny enough, it’s never about the click. It’s always about that space between meeting the person and the few seconds before the click. Once you’ve had the click, it’s done. That place of exploration is what I find most interesting.

At what point in your life did you know that this was something you really wanted to pursue?

When I realized I was afraid of it. The camera was always in my bag ever since the day my daughter was born. I bought the camera to take better pictures of her. Having the camera turns your body into a satellite dish, always seeking to find moments to capture. ‘Look at the shadow’ or ‘look at how the rain left an imprint on the ground’. You naturally begin to view the world in a different way. I see you, but your shadow is more interesting. I love how your hands are tensed, there is a beautiful feminine energy bursting out. You start to notice lines you hadn’t seen before. There was a moment where I decided I want to be a photographer, but how do I do that? Everyone said ‘you need an education’ but where could I begin if I had already quit school? How can I compete with them? Your mind is set to sabotage you and prevent you from reaching that point. Every time I held a camera in my hands, my heart began to beat very fast, and I realized ‘fuck, this is really cool, I need do this’. At that time, I was only halfway into it, still holding onto that conventional job, when my heart began to tell me ‘you need to be doing this all the way’. That’s when it became real.

Would you say that intuition has guided your creative process until now?

Let’s just say that I did take it too far at a certain point. I didn’t pay my bills for six months and I lived in fear for a whole year in 2014 when I got started. I had to think about food, basic necessities. I felt ashamed when I had to pick up the leftovers at the market at the end of the day. But still I thought, ‘this is my decision, this is what I want’ and these were a few of the necessary steps I had to take to reach this point. It wasn’t comfortable, but I knew I had to do it. Back then, I was 37 years old and my mind was telling me I was a disappointment. But then, there were days when I’d be riding my bike and seeing people in their daily routines and I would be reminded of my purpose and why I chose this path in the first place. So intuition has brought me here today. And a bit of luck (laughs).

When you think about your objective in life, what is the one thing that keeps you moving forward?

That’s such a fucking difficult question.

They’re all difficult, aren’t they?

At this moment, the theme of my life is energy. I live life at an intense pace. Lately I’ve been sleeping about five hours each night, and instead of seeking to reduce the tension in my life, I find myself hoping to find more hours in each day. Life is so beautiful and I want more of it. How can I get more energy? I went to visit an osteopath last week and he advised me to stop eating anything with sugar in it. I’m already eating quite healthy – I’m also a vegan – but we’re talking about fruit sugars now. For the last four days I have been on a sugar-free diet, and I have to admit that I really feel it. Yesterday I felt as if I was coming off of drugs. I had a bit of a shake and I couldn’t fully focus on my work. I’ll try it for a month and I’ll see what it brings me. For me, it’s all about energy and having more focus on the things you do. You can imagine how productive we are in an 8-hour span. I think I’m constantly searching. At the moment it’s about energy, maybe in a month I will be focusing on how to take my business to the next level.

Do you like to take things on that trigger a sense of fear?

If there’s a level of fear involved, it means I probably don’t want to deal with something. Relationships scare me, being with someone. But when I think about her I can feel my heart open. This is what I’ve chosen, so I’m going with it. I don’t know where it’s going but it feels good.

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So the journey is more important to you than the end point.

I don’t know where the fucking end point is. Things could change in a second.

How do you perceive your role as a photographer in the current state of our world, where so many people label themselves as ‘photographer’?

Like (my friend) Andy says, ‘every Dick, John and Harry is a life coach nowadays’. I have a few friends who have recently blocked me, or unfriended me, because they’ve decided to copy some things I do. They copied my flyers and used their own images. This makes me think, ‘well at least I’m doing something right’. I think I’m on the right track. You can never copy someone’s blueprint if you can’t understand the intention behind his or her work. For me it’s always about what lies behind something.

My photography involves me bringing that aspect of myself into my life, into my work, with complete honesty.

Do you think there will always be a need for ‘real’ photographers, despite so many people appropriating the title and the craft?

I don’t even want to say I’m a real photographer. I learned how to photograph using YouTube. I invested in my equipment at the end of last year, which was one of my biggest goals at that time. I never imagined having the latest lighting equipment. But does it make me a photographer? No. I think the skill is connecting to people’s hearts and clicking that moment. I’ve learned the hard way not to give myself a title, because titles make you arrogant. Most of the time, I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing. I’m a big control freak, so living in that moment gives space for me to grow.

How do you escape from the constraints of knowing that you’re a control freak?

Keeping my doors open for anything and everything that comes my way. Admitting sometimes that the quality I gave wasn’t enough, and not defending it. Your mind will always defend you and just blame the others, but it’s important to take the responsibility and think about what you can learn from that situation. Cause there will be another John that comes to me, and I will be better equipped to deal with him next time. I can say that I want to ‘unmask’ people who want to be ‘unmasked’ but I can also say if someone chooses not to be ‘unmasked’ and they still come to me, I am willing to go along with them and see what comes out. And that’s scary. Just exploring it, actually. Finding that space where you can laugh at yourself. Sometimes I have days where I am so vulnerable, it hurts my heart. That moment of weakness where you judge yourself and catch yourself in that same moment to bring awareness to that judgement.

Definitely. And learning to let go of that control not only for your own sake, but for the sake of others around you, and admitting that you can’t always be completely in control.

Consider the goal of earning money; maybe you want to achieve financial abundance. But once you get that, you want to hold onto it. Your mind is never satisfied. (It’s about) finding satisfaction in where you are now and accepting yourself as you are now, because that moment alone doesn’t define who you are as a person.

All images are courtesy of the artist. For all enquiries, please visit his website for contact details.