Partial exposures – Photography and the visualization of Greek collective identities

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Photography and the modern state of Greece were invented almost concurrently, in the 1830s. Ever since, photography has visualized the unfolding historical developments of the modern Greek nation, mediating and narrativizing Greek history as well as Greek collective identities. In this thesis I explore how Greek collective identities and their close companion, memory, have been mediated and imagined through Greek photography. Thus, this thesis’ main research question is which collective Greek identities have been visualized by Greek photography in the twentieth century. A related question is what part Greek photographic archives play in the safekeeping and dissemination of Greek collective identities. I explore national identity by cleaving it into two strata: cultural-historical and social-political. This is a necessary heuristic device that allows me to structure my research into Greek collective identities’ photographic visualization.

I researched two nationally important Greek photographic archives at the Benaki Museum and the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archive-Cultural Foundation of the National Bank of Greece (ELIA-MIET), respectively. At the Benaki Museum I studied the archive of one of Greece’s most prominent photographers, Elli Souyioultzoglou-Seraidari (1899-1998), better known as Nelly’s. Through Nelly’s images I explored the visualization of a cultural-historical Greek identity, grounded in a national mythology of unbroken continuity to the ancient Greeks. At the ELIA-MIET, I studied a collection of images produced for and by the US Marshall Plan (MP) in Greece (1948-1951). Through this collection I studied the formation of a Greek post-war social-political identity geared towards a liberal, capitalist, Western modernity. In both cases, I paid close attention to the content of the images as well as the social-historical contexts in which the photographs were produced, archived, and used.

In both my research cases, I argue that we are seeing a partial image of Greece. National narratives and collective identities require stable, yet partial images to thrive. Photography’s truthfulness allows for these partial images of Greece to be formed and to be sustained in collective and cultural memory. Furthermore, I argue that what connects the two strata of Greek identity as well as my analysis of them, is the centrality of time. Nelly’s images collapse ancient and modern timescapes to visualize the continuity of Hellenism. The MP’s images elide the past and look towards the horizon of the modern future. Finally, I show that while photography has served broader Greek national narratives well, closer scrutiny of the partial nature of photographs unsettles established dominant narratives, such as diachronic Hellenism or the visualization of post-war Greece as a sun-drenched tourist resort without societal struggles.

Date of Award1 Mar 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorKate McMillan (Supervisor) & Gonda Van Steen (Supervisor)

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