When photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis started travelling across the state of Pennsylvania it was a way to familiarise and assimilate himself with the USA, even though he’d already been living in the country for more than 20 years. Kallianoitis was born in Greece and spent his formative years in Athens, but has lived in the USA for all of his adult life. It was initially through his father that he was first introduced to American life.
“My father moved to this country, specifically New York City, in the late 70s for his postgraduate studies. His professional career led him to the Keystone State, Pennsylvania, which was only my second experience in the country after New York,” explains Kallianoitis. “Recently I’ve been pondering and it’s left me feeling conflicted about my initial and current perception of the American dream. Whose dream have I been concentrating on, America’s faded dream or my own?
This exploration has created America in a Trance, an ongoing series capturing the northern Pennsylvania landscape where the American dream is so often typified. According to Kallianiotis, Pennsylvania was once a prosperous and vibrant region where small town values and sustainable small businesses thrived under American industry and provided a place where European immigrants crossed the Atlantic for a better future.
Kallianiotis’ initial perception of the USA was based on what he was exposed to while living in Athens, which was a glamorous picture of Hollywood life that danced between fiction and reality. When he actually arrived, the photographer at first felt alienated and it was a steep learning curve. “The transition from Athens to New York City to Pennsylvania proved to be an invaluable experience, an education about America and its traditions, values, but also its concerns,” notes Kallianiotis.
The photographer’s creative process was fairly straightforward and the series is built up from a collection of day trips and longer-term stints. “The only specific plan in place was in what direction in Pennsylvania I would drive: north, south, east or west,” explains the photographer. “In the three full years I’ve worked on America in a Trance, rarely have I researched a place…. It was important for me to learn firsthand, leaving preconceived ideas behind.”
The images capture daily, humdrum life in the state, with lush green trees being offset by the grey and red industrial buildings that share the landscape. While there are a few characters appearing in shot, like a topless man sunbathing on his porch and a woman in an all-green outfit waiting at a bus stop, it was a semi-conscious decision to keep the images relatively crowd free. “Most of the locations were desolate and therefore naturally represented the loneliness and alienation,” says Kallianiotis. When people do appear, it’s mostly from afar which offers a change of pace in the series and also heightens that sense of distance.
Though there’s a lack of people in the images, Kallianioitis was keen to engage with the residents of these places and was soon privy to the history of these small towns and the people who created them. “There is an immense sense of pride people express when they speak about the prosperous days, of what those places used to be,” says the photographer. “This pride still holds strong in their local values, regardless of their current economic and social issues.”
In America in a Trance, Kallianiotis wants the viewer to take a journey into the land, and to start a conversation. “The images in this project are first and foremost a personal visual anthology, but unavoidably they have become social and political references, especially when Pennsylvania and other former industrial regions often appear in the political forefront,” he says.
“There are many perceptions, and misconceptions, about these places and they are mostly shaped from afar. I hope these images inspire the viewer to visit these areas to try and understand the issues and values, even if those beliefs differ from theirs.”