Two foreigners from cold Northern Europe, inspired by the sun and light, moved to Greece and established a photo company to always capture the beauty of this country...
This is in short the story of Anton Harfst and Laurien van den Hoven, a couple who lives permanently in Laconia and gives photography seminars all year round. We talked to Laurien, who eagerly and passionately explained us the way she sees Greece...
Laurien, why did you decide to make such a company in Greece?
Greece is a beautiful country and has so much to offer to its visitors. And not only during summer and on the islands. The Netherlands are cold and wet, but the country has tourists around the year. So, why should people avoid Greece from October till May?
We started our company, Photothema, with the idea to promote the Greek mainland as a great place to visit in all seasons. We offer our photographic services to travel agencies, hotels or travel magazines. And as we found out that most photo workshops are held on the islands and in summer only, we ourselves organize photo workshops close to Sparta, the whole year round. Spring, autumn and winter are perfect for photography, and unlike high summer, the weather allows us to be outside all day.
Why did you choose particularly Greece? You moved from the Netherlands to Athens and then from Athens to Xirokambi, a small village in Laconia with less than 1,500 people. How did you take this decision?
We chose Greece - or maybe Greece chose us - because it is a fascinating country. Life is less easy and organized here than in the Netherlands, but full of surprises and challenging. We like to enjoy a meal with parea - good company - and the fact that the seasons still decide the pace of life (at least here in the country side). And we love the space, the quiet and the clean air. Here, you share every square kilometre with 45 people, in the Netherlands with 450!
While living in Greece, our love for outdoor photography grew. We would use every free minute to escape Athens and to shoot photos elsewhere in Attica. So, we decided that it was time to move away from Athens. Xirokambi offers everything we need for our work: a lively village with plenty of restaurants and accommodation for our workshop participants, (high speed) internet connection so we can contact our customers all over the world, kind and hospitable people and a huge backyard: the slopes and valleys of Taygetos that is great for outdoor photography and very appealing to visitors, both Greek and foreign.
Do workshops address to individuals or groups? How many people should constitute a group to make a workshop?
Photothema organizes workshops both for individuals and small groups. We offer custom-made workshops for individuals, based on their experience, the things they want to learn and their time and budget.
But people can also sign up for workshops of four or seven days, and maximum 6 participants. Our workshops are not the regular kind of photo workshops. Participants will not be in a class-like group, attending lessons about digital photography, knowing that there is a coffee break at eleven and lunch at one. When people join one of our workshops, they join up with us -photographer Anton and workshop guide Laurien- and maximum 5 other like-minded photographers. There is no minimum. In the case that we have only one or two participants, we will just make some changes in the programme.
We will spend most of the day out in the field. The field being any place that offers great photo opportunities: the Byzantine city of Mystras, a busy village square, a quiet beach, an olive grove or just our garden with its citrus and olive trees. After a full day in the field, photos are stored, viewed and discussed. In principal we do this with the whole group: selecting photos, either good or bad, and looking at technique, composure and used equipment. Although photo critiques, in the sense of pouring out all the negative, have become main stream, we insist on a positive and constructive approach. After all, knowing what went right or wrong, knowing what to do differently, helps you keep doing the good things and makes you improve what needs improving. Arguing about taste does not make better images.
Our way of working also means that whatever one's level, participants will learn a lot. As we understand that one participant has more knowledge and experience than the other, learning is not limited to the workshop curriculum. They learn from having an intense amount of guided practice and from their fellow-participants. Specific "assignments" during the photo shoots help to increase the learning curve. And don't worry, most of these "assignments" are big fun.
We like to see all our participants leave our workshops with hundreds of photographs and an enormous amount of extra baggage to take better images once they are back home.
Do you organize just the workshops or the entire trip to Laconia (transfers, hotels, etc)?
Everything is organized from the moment our participants arrive. Included in the arrangement are the workshop sessions and handouts, local transport, and the entrance fees to the sites and museums we visit. Our participants stay in an ecological and traditional inn located just a few hundred meters from our workshop location. But we must say, everything organized, does not mean fixed. Our schedule is flexible: if we expect a perfect sunset, we change course. If we have a rainy day – yes, that can happen in Greece, too – we adapt.
We may return to sites, to see if we can catch our subject in better light or from a better angle. We enjoy coffee and lunch breaks "en route". Especially in villages where tourists out of season are rare, these stops offer good opportunities to meet locals and get invited into a kitchen, an otherwise closed church or a tower house. And we always carry food and drink, in case people want to satisfy their appetite during a photo shoot, or if we simply do not encounter a nice place to eat or drink when hungry or thirsty. Later in the evening, when it is definitely time to unwind, we enjoy a good Greek meal in one of the taverns in Xirokambi.
Do you provide photography material?
No, we do not have a shop where we sell cameras, photo paper or memory cards. What we do offer, besides the workshops, is photography in assignment and photos of Laconia. Starting in 2010, we make photo souvenirs: key chains, fridge magnets, rulers and coasters to promote our beautiful Laconia.
What are your favourite places to visit in Laconia?
We are glad you are not asking me to mention just one or two. For us, Laconia is one of the most beautiful part of Greece, and a paradise for photographers who love the enticing combination of nature and culture. The Evrotas Valley with the high-rising Taygetos Mountains in the west and the more sloping mountains of Parnonas in the east, the gorges and the endless olive groves hiding small ancient sites or Byzantine churches, the cities of Mystras and Monemvasia, the tower houses on the desolated Mani, Ancient Sparta, and the lively harbour town of Gythio: all offer a dramatic stage for photography.
Among these, our favourite places are the Anakolou Gorge from Xirokambi to Koumousta, never boring, always different and the perfect place to walk Ajax, our German Shepherd; the Menelaion, this temple dedicated to Menelaos and Helena, with the superb view towards the Taygetos Mountains; Agios Vassilios Hill on the road Sparta-Gythio at the turn to Xirokambi, where excavations indicate that here stood an important Mycenaean palace, possibly the palace of Menelaos, king of Sparta; and Mani, a fascinating peninsula to discover old churches and beautiful beaches, and to stroll through its deserted villages and peculiar graveyards. We expect to add many to this list in the years to come!