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Philoxenia by Stella Johnson

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When my Grandmother’s sister turned 100 years old, I asked her about her life in Mytilene, the city where she was born. She told me stories about her father’s olive oil business, the flowers and the trees, and seeing her mother being taken away as she was dying of tuberculosis. As I listened, it became clear to me that I needed to visit Greece, the country my grandparents emigrated from in the early 1900’s because of war and hunger.

Mytilene is the capital city of Lesbos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea. Built on the southeast edge of the Island, it is a small town filled with a rich culture, history, and an enchanting sense of hospitality and acceptance. Although I was born and raised in Boston and never learned to speak Greek, I have always been immersed in the Greek-American community. My parents took me to Greece in the 1970’s, a trip that influenced my earlier photographic work.

In 2006 I returned to Greece. Upon my arrival, my Greek family immediately adopted me. Meanwhile, my cousins introduced me to their world in Mytilene. Since then, I have been photographing my cousins, their children and friends in their working class neighborhood. I have become a part of the family and the extended neighborhood. To them, I am Aunt Katerina.

As time passes, the resemblance between family members in Greece and those living in the United States becomes more evident. My 8-year-old cousin, Themis, reminds me of my father; he is a smart child and in perpetual motion. I realize now that this project is both a personal family album and a portrayal of a family and its culture.

As I walk around the city, I meet more and more people, who turn out to be either relatives or friends of the family; it is a beautiful thing. When photographing this daily life, I often have a posse of children and dogs accompanying me. The Greek women who sit in their courtyards like to invite me to join them. Even strangers invite me for coffee when I wander into cafes. This kind of embracing hospitality is testimony to their belief in the Greek concept, philoxenia, which means friendship to strangers.

Besides Mytilene, I have been photographing Chania on the island of Crete, where I teach a workshop every spring. Here I have also been invited into people’s lives and homes.

Crete has been able to preserve its culture including the Cretan dialect, its wine and music, performances with the lyre, and folk war dances. In the mountain villages men still wear traditional Cretan boots and headscarves and the shepherds continue to milk sheep in their huts every morning. Chania and Mytilene are both tourist destinations and port cities, yet most families preserve their customs. A large part of Greek culture is that it revolves around food and family.

This series is an exploration of my roots. In essence, it is autobiographical. At the same time, it is a documentation of the daily life and culture in Greece, one I hope to also preserve.

Stella Johnson 2010 | View Stella’s Profile

Posted in FV Features   //   2 Comments »

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  • Susan Bank says:

    Stella, who has mastered black and white photography, now turns to Color using her talents in a humanistic documentary approach, rich in the humor and the poetry of daily life. Her work always brings a smile to my face. Brava!

  • Alan Davis says:

    We are so enriched by Stella Johnson’s vision. She pulls exceptional imagery from ordinary life. What an eye – what heart.

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