An Interview with Maria Antoniou, Fashion Photographer

I first met Maria in high school, when photography was still one of her hobbies. Seven years have passed since then, and when we caught up on a March afternoon I had in front of me a full-blown fashion photographer, with a portfolio packed with astounding – often extravagant, often provocative, but never basic – projects. 

Maria studied Photography in Florence, at Academia Italiana. After her studies, she moved to London for a year to work and simultaneously continue her education, and returned to Cyprus in 2018. She has worked with established and promising Cypriot brands and has been featured in global digital magazines like AXD, Schon, and Contributor – only to name a few. 

In most of her work, deep contrasts and vibrant colours illuminate the unique faces of her models (sometimes amateurs she scouted herself) in what results to dazzling images that never fail to capture the very essence of pride in being oneself, of playful, almost provocative, self-assurance. She’s adamant on the importance of developing your personal style to make it in the industry, and she has tirelessly worked on perfecting hers for years. 

We talked about starting out in the field, the challenges of trying to make it abroad while building a name for yourself in Cyprus, and also about the importance of young local talent getting the gears going for the progress of the creative industries on the island.

Nguyen Hoang Anh by Maria Antoniou (2021)

How did you get started with photography? How can a young photographer find their way into the fashion world in Cyprus?

In high school, we used to have a photography class and my teacher encouraged me to participate in a National Photography competition. I agreed just for fun, but once I started looking into the subject I was going to choose, I started becoming obsessed with it. I would take pictures all the time, use my dad’s film camera to experiment, and that was when I first bought a camera for myself. I submitted my picture, and I won second place! This had a tremendous motivational impact on me. 

I wasn’t thinking about it very much as a potential career path as I thought my parents wouldn’t be very supportive about it (although I couldn’t have been more wrong as my parents now are my biggest supporters). I thought it was too difficult to make a living as a photographer, but deep down, it was what I wanted to do. 

I made the decision to move to Florence for my studies, which was completely last-minute, and the rest is history. One of my teachers there, who had worked with major fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood, pushed me a lot to find my personal style, and I found myself more and more intrigued by fashion photography. It was tough, as my teachers had very high expectations of me and there was a lot of pressure, but in the end, I realised that they wanted to get the best out of me. 

I moved to London after my studies. I was trying to find a job there for two months, until I finally got hired as a Visual Merchandiser at Bershka. I had to have a full-time job to cover my expenses, and at the same time I was doing some specialised courses at UAL. I was living there with my cousin who is a stylist, and we would do all sorts of projects on our own, like finding models and styling them for shoots, collaborating with vintage stores, and submitting projects to magazines. 

I did find an opportunity to intern with a magazine, but I couldn’t accept the position as taking it meant that I wouldn’t have enough income to cover my expenses. So trying to balance a full-time job with my personal projects meant I was working Monday to Sunday, from early morning to nighttime. After a year of this insane schedule, my confidence in my work took a hit – did I really have enough talent to make it? What sets me apart from the thousands trying to make it in London?

‘Ailleurs’ by Maria Antoniou (2021)

I eventually made the decision to move back to Cyprus. I was struggling a lot to adapt in the beginning, I needed time to get used to it and I barely had any connections here. In London and Florence, I could easily come up with a list of creatives to work with, but in Cyprus, I started from square one. Eventually, projects came along – some smaller, some bigger – and now that’s been almost three years since I moved back, I feel like I’ve met lots of key people in the industry.  

My advice to someone just starting with photography is first to focus on finding your style, your direction. Whether you like fashion photography, landscape etc. People should be able to understand what your expertise and strengths are by simply looking at your portfolio. When it comes to fashion photography, you should develop a style that has a personal identity, something unique. You can do so by experimenting and devoting a lot of time to it. There were countless times when I had to say no to coffee or drinks with friends so I could focus and refine my work. 

“If all Cypriot artists start thinking that we have to leave in order to be successful and achieve great things, then simply no one would stay to take this place forward.”

Having lived in Florence, London, and Cyprus how do you feel your experiences have affected your work?

Moving abroad and getting exposed to crowds packed with diversity, opened my eyes and sparked an interest and curiosity in me about the people who stood out the most. This helped me become more open-minded myself. In Florence, I had a very diverse circle of friends and this was also reflected in my work – I was photographing drag queens, genderless people, and also experimenting with some more provocative concepts. At university, there was also a heavy focus on a more classic fashion photography, in true Florentine style. But once I moved to London, the classical collided with the modern/urban and eventually I found my style.

What inspires your work, and what kind of stories are you most keen to tell through your photographs?

I’d say that I get inspiration from everywhere. Before I sleep, I listen to music and create scenarios in my head and visualise images. I also draw Anime, which helps me plan how I would like a photograph to turn out. I used to collect magazines to get inspired, and there were times when I would be getting heavily influenced by what I was seeing in them, so I’d have to stop myself from replicating stuff and focus on creating work that felt true to my self, authentic. I get inspired a lot by LGBTQ+ people. I once did a documentary at university about a genderless person which changed my perspective a lot, and this is why I wanted to focus a big part of my work on this subject. 

If you look closely at the models I use for my shoots, most of them do not conform to conventional beauty standards. What people might think as ugly, or provocative, intrigues me. I look for uniqueness in the people I want to photograph. I find people at completely random places that might capture my attention and I’ll ask them to model for me. I’m guilty of freaking people out because I was just a stranger going up to them and asking to photograph them! (laughs) Although I am shy as a person, I am confident about my work and the concepts I can come up with. Some people have started out their career in modelling after I approached and photographed them.

My aim is to tell the stories of people that are often marginalised, to bring forth beauty that most of the time goes unnoticed. I also like to highlight the fragility and resilience of womanhood, and often I attempt to break down stereotypes by dressing male models in women’s clothes, or the opposite. 

How would you like to develop your work in the future? What are your hopes and aspirations?

I’m keen to reduce the pressure I put on myself because often it doesn’t let me enjoy my work. I want to experiment more with film and using the darkroom. I think film is a real indicator of whether you have talent or not, you’ve got to get everything right in the shot, and everything is more natural. 

I would like to collaborate with bigger magazines, and my number one goal is Dazed. Ideally, I want to work with clients that give me lots of autonomy, and the ultimate dream is to work for big fashion houses like Gucci or Vetements. The perfect plan would be to be permanently based in Cyprus but have lots of clients abroad. 

I realised how much it means to me to have my base in Cyprus. If all Cypriot artists start thinking that we have to leave in order to be successful and achieve great things, then simply no one would stay to take this place forward. I think it’s crucial to build relationships with clients and work on local projects, so this way you can be part of the progress of the creative industries here. 

In the last couple of years, there was a creative explosion on the island. I’ve seen incredible new talent, that have worked on some truly fascinating projects. I think the pandemic may have contributed to this, as for most of us it seems that staying home meant resorting to creativity for escape.

‘Nuages et Ombres’ by Maria Antoniou (2017)

“You have to put the effort in and be passionate about it. You must find a style that’s unique to you, that feels personal and that will set you apart from other people in the field.”

What would you advise young photographers starting out? 

First, to relax and make sure they are in touch with their creative flow. I know people who have incredible talent but because they neglected it, they didn’t achieve as much as they could. You need to practice constantly to evolve. It’s been a while since I’ve done my last shoot and I feel like I’m stagnant, and it has even affected me emotionally. 

You have to put the effort in and be passionate about it. You must find a style that’s unique to you, that feels personal and that will set you apart from other people in the field. Try and experiment with all kinds of photography, because there’s something to learn even from the stuff you won’t like as much. 

Part of what I do for at my full-time job is photographing and video-recording weddings and admittedly, it’s something I don’t enjoy as much but I’ve learned so much from it. It’s an incredible challenge for me – I’ve learned how to collaborate with clients, worked on perfecting my portraits, landscape shots, still life, and the most crucial, video-recording live-action when there’s constant movement and bustle around you. Capturing people in the moment and making it look natural and emotive at the same time is a difficult task that is often dismissed by people, as they tend to think that wedding photography is easy and basic. 

This is why I keep stressing on the experimenting and trying out new things part, as there’s something to be gained from every little thing you do; which will eventually help you find your personal style. Don’t be afraid to make sacrifices, to put in the time and effort, because there is no shortcut to perfecting your skill.

Ariana Demian by Maria Antoniou (2020)


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