America in a Trance: A journey through the Keystone State

Whatever Niko J. Kallianiotis is looking for, it’s out there somewhere in Pennsylvania’s small towns and out-of-the-way corners. Ostensibly, his photo project is an exploration of the state he has called home since moving to the U.S. from his native Greece two decades ago.

But as is true with so much art, his moody, stark images are as much a reflection of Kallianiotis’ inner journey as it is a portrait of what he calls “the fading American dream so typified in the northeastern Pennsylvania landscape.”

For Kallianiotis, as a foreigner who became a naturalized citizen, there’s a certain alienation in being in a place but not being of a place. In an interview with PBS, he said, “I’m in every picture, too, in terms of the loneliness and trying to assimilate.Trying to blend with the culture, since I have two countries. I’m a U.S. citizen and I’m Greek, and I love both. This hybrid situation is complicated.”

While he says he didn’t set out to document the desolation found in these once vibrant communities, there’s often no way to avoid it.

“I search for images that reflect, question, and interpret life in the towns and cities across the Keystone State, and the yearning for survival and cultural perseverance,” he says.

In many of his images, you rarely see more than one person, and that person is usually small in the frame, as if Kallianiotis is putting them there just to show that the town is not entirely devoid of life. The people in these small towns are struggling but they are, as he puts it, soldiering on.

Kallianiotis, a former newspaper photojournalist, teaches photography at Marywood University in Scranton and at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He’s also a contributing photographer for the New York Times.

He spent his childhood in Greece but has been in the U.S. his entire adult life. His role as an “outsider” is a recurring theme in his work. In a 2013 article on the New York Times Lens Blog, Kallianiotis describes the alienation he felt as a native Greek wandering around photographing Astoria, the Greek-American enclave in Queens.

The same feeling of being an outsider permeates his work in “America in a Trance.”

He calls the project a “product of love.” And it’s true, while there is a sense of isolation in the images and the buildings are weathered and worn, this is not a series where the blight and decay is the central character. The images seem more about capturing the fading echo of an era when these communities were thriving, as Kallianiotis puts it, “under the sheltered wings of American industry.”

Kallianiotis says he imagines “these towns as vibrant communities looking towards the hot stacks and brick factories; a past where prosperity was possible on the local scale, and the streets and storefronts were bustling.”

But there are some exceptions to this theme. One that stands out is his image of a group of young boys at football practice. He shoots the boys from a low angle to make them appear heroic. There are hopes and dreams in these kids who are too young to remember — or yearn — for the way things were.

Kallianiotis concedes he’s debating whether to keep the image in the project for the very fact that it is so different from the others. And just as the other images reflect his feeling of being the constant outsider, he sees himself in these kids, too.

“As a kid, I had a dream of becoming a soccer player in Europe, so this is also a reflection of me, kind of looking at the past, but also the future.”

All images © Niko J. Kallianiotis. You can see more of his work on his website.