This photographer chronicles Pennsylvania’s forgotten industrial towns and people

Photographer Niko J. Kallianiotis was born in Greece. But he has spent the last two decades — half his life, now — in Pennsylvania’s small towns and big cities, taking photos as he crisscrossed the state.

When he first immigrated to Scranton 20 years ago, he said he came with a fictional idea of America in his mind from the movies: vibrant, prosperous, thrilling. This wasn’t exactly what he found. Instead, he discovered that once-thriving towns in Pennsylvania were beginning to struggle. He watched as industry left and casinos rose in its place. More recently, he began to see parallels between the troubled economic situation in his home country and the one in Pennsylvania: a glut of services, but no industry, and rising unemployment because of lack of opportunity. He felt he was chronicling the “fading American dream.”

Now, he has turned those photos into a project called “America in a Trance,” which is on exhibit at Marywood University in Scranton. He also shares his work on his Instagram page. Though he took the first photos for this project two years ago, he says it took on special resonance during the presidential election.

Kallianiotis spoke to NewsHour about the project from the road in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Taken in McKeesport, PA. Kallianiotis said of the photo: “I took this photo during my first trip to western Pennsylvania. This photo is as you enter the city of about 18,000. It can be difficult not to show the desolation and abandonment of some places. When one visits these places I think it makes you a better human being, because it forces you to reevaluate some things. It almost feels that the people are trying to assimilate in their own towns and considering my hybrid background I try to reflect that.” Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

ELIZABETH FLOCK: Tell me about how this project started.

NIKO J. KALLIANIOTIS: Well, as you drive through these towns — this project is from Scranton to Pittsburgh, it covers the entire state — you notice a lot of services, but at the same time no industry. In Scranton, they used to make clothes for Manhattan in New York City. Now they don’t. For somebody who has no desire to leave a small town because of finances, or another reason, there really is no way to keep doing it. So if you’re unemployed there are no opportunities to do anything. And then the election happened, and then I started to think about photography’s role here.

ELIZABETH FLOCK: What about photography’s role?

NIKO J. KALLIANIOTIS: After the election, there was a story in Time about how photography has failed in the representation of Donald Trump. Photographer Ed Kashi was saying that photography has failed. But there have been a lot of photographers that have covered Pennsylvania or other rural areas in depth for years. Many photographers.

The media, on the other hand, for the most part was jumping in when Trump was there. People for the most part were represented as caricatured. I think there is big gap between metro citizens and people who live in rural Pennsylvania. We here were shocked that people were shocked with the result.

ELIZABETH FLOCK: How do you try to capture these towns differently?

NIKO J. KALLIANIOTIS: The use of color serves as a sense of hope. I’m driving through this town and people will express their feelings and I will listen. We’re having this connection. And the photos are basically a response, not only to describe that connection with pictures but I’m also trying to show emotions. How it looks but also how it feels. It’s very easy in this area to become really cliché and exploitative. There are a lot of interesting characters. You can stop and use the hard flash and show the way they dress and look. And you’re coming in and taking in something and then you’re leaving. Throughout the election this kind of thing played a role — you have to go in there and really understand it.

ELIZABETH FLOCK: What does the project’s title, “America in a Trance,” mean?

NIKO J. KALLIANIOTIS: The meaning is the way the country is right now. I’m sensing that after the election, people walking in these towns are disoriented and alienated. Including me. 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. The trance is: you’re aware, you’re listening, but you can’t really respond. I think that’s where we are right now.

Taken in Mt. Carmel, PA. Kallianiotis said of the photo: “I was in my car, taking a break, when I noticed the girl in a vibrant red dress walking her dog. I made some pictures but they were not working. For a moment she disappeared and all of sudden she appeared again, running with the dog. ‘Lady in Red’ from Chris de Burgh crossed my mind.” Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

ELIZABETH FLOCK: Despite all of this in the background, you’ve said your work is not political. What do you mean by that?

NIKO J. KALLIANIOTIS: When you’re experiencing the nation through the movie screen, [like I did as a kid], and you come here and see this thing, in a way it’s unacceptable. We’re the most powerful country in the world. Take the Bethlehem Steel Mill in Pennsylvania. There were 350,000 people working there at its peak. Now they’ve closed it and built a casino on that place. There was a bit of irony there, because it was an old steel mill, and they couldn’t find the construction steel for the casino and so they imported it.

At the same time, in Delano, Pennsylvania, about six to eight months ago, there was a mattress factory that closed. People were devastated and there was not really a documentation of that.

But I try to keep my work open-ended, not just about that [devastation]. In some ways, I’m also not getting close to the people, because I’m not doing portraits. I include the human element. But it’s more about the place, and passing through it, and so in a way the photos are more candid. It’s often me driving, taking a lot of pictures from my car.

ELIZABETH FLOCK: How do you decide what to capture?

NIKO J. KALLIANIOTIS: When I travel, I have one camera and one lens. It’s an intuitive connection with a place and a response. I’m trying to figure out the world. I’m selecting, subtracting, editing. When you paint you add, but when you photograph it’s subtraction. You have chosen that moment among hundreds of other moments in the day. It’s that emotional connection.You’re photographing a particular corner and all the sudden this person comes in. It’s going back to what photography is. That’s why I try to keep it open ended. I don’t believe in Trump country [or] Hillary country. That’s our first mistake.

Below, Kallianiotis has shared more of the stories behind his photos:

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

Scranton. There is an interesting story behind this image. I photographed the same man from a different angle, with black and white film, about 10 years ago. I was driving around on the same street when I noticed a four-wheeler with a mechanical problem being towed and I stopped. Then I noticed the same man sunbathing in the same pose. I started making some images and he noticed me. He said, “You had my picture in local gallery years ago.” I thought: He is probably pissed off. But we ended up chatting, and I said, “I do have the picture framed. would you like me to bring it to you?” After a week, I did. He was really happy. We chatted, he told me his name is “little Buddha” and during our conversations he mentioned that he used to own two to there restaurants in Scranton back in the day. Family businesses, although still around, are competing with chain restaurants; the character of those places, just like the “little Buddha,” is lost. When the weather is good, he is still out there, sunbathing. I took this [latest] image in 2016.

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

Aliquippa. Besides the design elements present in this picture I took it particularly for the name of the place, ‘Union Grill.’ It really interests me when photograph scenes of how things looked years ago; the vibrant atmosphere inside Union Grill, the conversations, the smells, people coming in and out. Now, it’s all pretty much gone. It’s an eerie and unsettling feeling.

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

Scranton. I took this image about three days ago. I always return to the city where I live to explore locations I have previously photographed. I was driving up the street and I noticed the light quality and I thought: how great it would have been if the human element was incorporated in the scene. I kept driving and noticed the man with the walker coming down towards the building. After I passed him, I immediately turned and started photographing from the car window; there was not really anywhere to stop but when he was getting closer to the building I pulled over and waited. I noticed the other man in the far distance coming up from the right side of the frame and you can say that I got lucky with this one. The man with the walker, with his slow pace, and the younger man passing him fast, creates a nice juxtaposition. I am very interested in photographs that blend the descriptive with the emotional while at the same time have an open-ended tone and mood.

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

Lehighton. For this project I rarely get close to the people. But this moment reminded me of a photo from photographer Robert Frank, “Parade Hoboken NJ,” and his book “The Americans.” I don’t like to interpret or force meaning, but I took this picture because it reflected my situation at the time, and was an attempt to discover my own state, while at the same time relate with the people and the setting.

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

Unknown. I took this photo mostly for the overall mood of the sky, and secondly for the [sign] “Coal Keeps The Lights On.” Mostly, although it’s about photography (obviously), and how the atmosphere in the scene creates a dialogue, it’s also about the feeling. It’s how it feels to be there and experience the moment intuitively. Everything else is, and should be, open.

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

Scranton. My city used to be a vibrant railroad hub, as was the entire state. Some parts, of course, still operate. These tracks cross the city, once a vibrant manufacturing place. The same scene exists in other parts of the world: the fog, and the lines, represent life and direction for me.

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

I don’t remember where I am here. Regardless of the socioeconomic situation of these places, which is unavoidably ingrained in some of the images, the photos are really about me. As an immigrant myself, knowing and loving two countries, is both a blessing and a curse. Well, mostly it’s a curse. You don’t really know where you want to be at times. People can relate in some way or another but relating and understanding are not always the same.

Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis

Unknown but on the way to Braddock, possibly outside Rankin. Together with the photo below, this is about the formal qualities and the play between the human element, the topography and the play of text. I try to use color as a sense of hope, because, despite the unfortunate circumstances of those places, I still believe there is a future. When there is will, there is always hope and a solution. The question is: Do we and the people in power have the will? The gap between people in metro areas and rural is immense. I don’t have a political agenda with my work besides the love for the place and the people.

Taken in Reading, PA. Photo by Niko J. Kallianiotis