For many Chinese people, Santorini is a dream destination – particularly as a setting for wedding photos
Oh no, not another one! It’s a glorious fall morning, and 45-year-old photographer Vangelis Beltzenitis is standing on the roof terrace of a whitewashed stone house, camera in hand, giving directions to a young wedding couple. He has them posed in front of a church’s blue dome, when he notices someone has followed him. Another photographer appears a few meters alongside him, an Asian with long black hair. Beltzenitis lowers his camera. “Hey, does he even have a work permit?” he calls across to the Greek coming along behind, carrying the Asian’s equipment. “Yes,” the Greek yells back, “I’m his assistant!” “Just a couple of weeks ago, the police caught another two Chinese photographers, who had no permit,” Beltzenitis snorts. He turns back to the bride and groom, raises his camera and says, “Smile, my friends, smile!”
Beltzenitis says he is the most expensive photographer on the Greek island of Santorini. He calls himself “Vangelis”– like the Greek composer and e-music pioneer; it has a ring of quality to it. He specializes in wedding photography, and the U.S. blog Junebug Weddings has included him on its hot list for the title of World’s Best Wedding Photographer. Business is going well. Beltzenitis certainly cannot complain, but he is faced with a dilemma. The Chinese are storming Santorini. In 2014, some 100 000 Chinese tourists came to Greece, 70 percent more than the previous year. Last year, according to the Greek National Tourism Organisation, that number rose again. Most tourists come to the small volcanic island of Santorini to take wedding photos – and they are not all Chinese, some couples are from Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan. While this is a blessing for Beltzenetis, who makes 50 percent of his annual income in October, the month when most Chinese take their vacation, it has to be said that the Chinese are not the easiest clients, to put it mildly. To them, nothing is sacred, explains Beltzenitis. They will climb on any church roof, they bring their own photographers along without a permit and open up one Chinese snack bar after the next. There are only a few restaurants left on Santorini, where the food still tastes genuinely Greek.
Santorini is the cliché queen of the Cyclades. A veritable beauty, on the one hand – a volcanic island set against the brilliant blue sky, its gleaming white houses clinging to steep cliffs up to 350 meters high, its villages a haphazard confusion of narrow streets and steps. An effrontery, on the other – a honeymoon hell of shops overflowing with trinkets, pumice stone and natural sponge, and donkeys straining beneath the weight of tourists. On Santorini, Greeks and Asians have entered into a strange symbiosis. The Greeks have come up with some services to earn themselves some of the Asians’ cash, and the Asians have some formed certain expectations of the old continent as their personal backdrop.
Two hours or so before he’s due to start shooting, Beltzenitis knocks at the door of a Malaysian couple’s hotel room. With him are stylist Bella Damigou and his assistant Takis Darzentas, carrying the photo equipment. It’s Wednesday, and Virginia Koh and Jimes Kho flew in yesterday. They will be leaving again on Saturday. Beltzenitis has not yet met the pair, just seen photos of them and emailed back and forth with them until Virginia and Jimes “passed” muster. Not everyone looks good in front of a camera, and Beltzenitis only takes couples that do. Virginia opens the door and blinks into the morning sunshine. She’s dressed in bathrobe and white toweling slippers. Beltzenitis greets her in English: “Good morning, welcome to Santorini.” Virginia nods drowsily. “We have to get going,” he says, “we start with the styling in five minutes.”
Beltzenitis has been working on Santorini for five years. From his experience, he has distilled three rules: Number one, start early. Drive out to the cliffs too late and every spot will be taken by other couples smiling into cameras. Number two, don’t publish all of the photos. Beltzenitis does not put Santorini’s loveliest spots on his homepage because then he would find at least three Chinese photographers there the next morning, he says. Number three, only take good-looking clients. It’s simply better for your reputation.
A couple of hours later, Virginia und Jimes are pushing their way through the streets of Oia. Beltzenitis is not happy with the morning’s work. The stylist got the curler tangled in Virginia’s hair, and they left too late so there were already several tourists and photographers out and about. He was also annoyed by his Chinese “colleagues” on the coast and even skipped one place altogether because even from a distance, he could see that it was overcrowded. But Oia is a must, even though it is always packed. For many, this village with its narrow, winding streets is the loveliest on the entire island, making it a fixture on the shoot itinerary for photographers and their clientele. In the evening, the tourists gather at the northern end of the village – for the best views of the setting sun. The residents have devised a few tricks to cope with the floods of tourists: placing chairs on roof terraces to discourage visitors from walking on them and Private signs beside pathways, even though there are no private roads in Oia.
No one really knows how Santorini of all places came to be the dream destination of high-earning Asians. The word “aiqinhai” probably played a role. It is the Chinese name for the Aegaen Sea, but it also sounds very like the Chinese word for “sea of love.” The fact that parts of a Chinese romantic comedy were filmed on Santorini two years ago has not exactly slowed the trend.
Virginia and Jimes are now casually dressed – she in chinos, he in jeans. She was wearing a pink dress in the morning, and he a suit. They are both in their early thirties and Chinese Malaysians. They work for the same travel agency, she in Shanghai, he in Beijing. They are not yet married and they won’t be tying the knot on Santorini, either. Instead, they plan to wed next year in Malaysia, with more than 200 guests. “Pre-wedding portrait session” is what Beltzenitis calls the service: photos, from which the couple can not only put together a few souvenir albums, but also a slideshow to entertain the guests at the wedding. This pair booked the shoot with Aegean Dreams, a Singapore-based agency that specializes in booking photographers on Santorini for Asian couples, and paid the agency 4500 euros for it. That’s quite a lot, they feel, but they can afford it – as can more and more Asians. Private wealth is growing faster in Asia, and especially in China, than in other parts of the world.
I only take good-looking clients. It’s better for my reputation
Virginia and Jimes are perched on the rim of a roof, looking out to sea with Beltzenitis standing behind them, about to take a photo. He has just got the angle right when a Taiwanese travel group rounds the corner. “Look, a wedding couple!” one woman exclaims. Murmurs, amazement, applause. Cameras are whipped out, and now the Taiwanese are photographing the photographer himself – and not just a single snap, but shot after shot and with great attention to detail. Beltzenitis rolls his eyes, leans against a wall and puffs on his e-cigarette.
In the evening, Beltzenitis takes the couple to a promontory for a portrait of them against the sunset. The sun is already going down and it’s grown cool. Virginia has a jacket draped over her shoulders. The couple brave the evening air one last time, share one last loving smile, and then everything is in the can, and assistant Darzentas can pack up Beltzenitis’ equipment. While the photographer drives them back to the hotel in his Toyota, Virginia and Jimes sink into the back seat, wordless and weary at the end of a long day. As the car glides around another bend in the road, the sun dips into the ocean. The last orange rays cast their glittering light through the car window. Virginia sits up. “Wow, that’s beautiful,” she says, “even more beautiful than I thought.”