Louie Hankins, owner of Rito Loco/El Techo Credit: Violetta Markelou

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The pandemic has greatly impactedVioletta Markelou, a small business owner, local photographer, visual artist, and DJ. To navigate the difficulties, she created a portrait series with accompanying interviews calledInbox Full, currently available to view on her website and recently published byWashingtonian, which captures 12 small business owners in the District, with a focus on their mental health.

“If we really say that we care about small business owners and they’re the backbone of America, well, who are they?” Markelou asks. “Why don’t we know them, and why don’t we know what they’re going through?”

Markelou held a yearlongDJ residency at The Four Seasons Hotel Washington, D.C., until January 2020, and a four-year DJ residency at The Ritz-Carlton, Washington, D.C. When the city began closing down in the middle of March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, she says, the Ritz paused her residency until further notice.

The idea for Inbox Full came to Markelou during a meditation in mid-April, a practice that helps her manage her own mental health during the pandemic. “It was like a lightbulb moment for me,” she says. “This is something I need to do. I need to put my camera on my community and tell their story.”

She first spoke with her friend Katina Georgallas, the owner of MASTIHA Artisan Greek Bakery, about photographing her in front of her closed business, and the series took off from there.

Markelou was born in Greece, then lived in Maryland with her parents. She moved to D.C. in 2008, and built her creative home in the city. In her nearly 20 years of working as a photographer and visual artist, she’s collaborated as one of eight artists in the all-female, D.C.-based art collectiveSUPERFIERCE, and shown work at multiple exhibitions, including at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

City Paper spoke with Markelou to learn more about the vision behind Inbox Full, as well as her personal connection to the D.C. small business and creative communities.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

WCP: What does the name Inbox Full mean?

VM: You know when people ask you how you’re doing and let’s just say they ask you in an email or a text message, which I hate. Because it’s too much for me to write to you. It’s too much for me to text you. It’s too much. I would have to have a conversation with you for you to understand the clusterfuck of emotion in my mind. So Inbox Full was a metaphor for all the stuff circling in your mind. It’s full. It’s just full. There’s too much there. 

WCP: Why did you choose to focus on this topic?

VM: I feel that small businesses haven’t been given the proper spotlight during this crisis, and it’s very important to me to show the community and what they’re going through. Because I think when you have small businesses, you have employees and there’s multiple levels of stress. I really care about these people and I care about my community and if these places succeed or fail.

WCP: Did any of these small business owners stand out to you?

VM: I think all of them are [heroes]. Anybody who has the guts to start their own business and have financial uncertainty and just push every day for their vision and for their passion is a hero.

WCP: How do you hope this portrait series impacts the public’s perception of small business owners?

VM: I hope that they see them as an essential part of the community. I hope that they understand that most businesses run on very small profit margins and within months they can go under without proper support. I don’t think anybody in D.C. wants to see a city of billionaires and corporations having every business on the block. That would totally change the city. So I really hope that when people see this they’ll understand how essential these people are to the vibrancy of the community [and] the diversity of the community.

WCP: What was the artistic process behind these portraits?

VM: I wanted to capture them at their business. Whether it’s them outside of the business or in the business in an empty space. With Louie [Hankins, owner of Rito Loco/El Techo], that was outside of his restaurant. And the light was just that perfect, magical golden hour light. It hit him at that moment, and it was just a magical moment. So he’s on that street where his business is; he’s looking out at an empty street. I just tried to capture them and tell the stories of them in that environment that they’re so used to most of the time—getting joy from it and then all of a sudden they’re not.

WCP: How did the project impact your art?

VM: This project and creating this series has definitely reignited my passion for portraiture and knowing also it’s really my purpose to do this. I just feel really strongly that I am a storyteller. And it’s reignited my passion for my work and the importance of my work. 

All of these people inspire me to keep going. I don’t want to see them giving up and I don’t want to see myself or feel myself giving up. I just feel strongly that that’s not what I’m supposed to be doing in this life.

As far as DJing, it’s more important now than ever to lift people’s spirits. And whether I get my residency back or not, I’m going to start my radio show that I’d been doing at The Line Hotel; I’m going to start it in my apartment probably next week. And just to keep bringing joy to the world and lift people up throughthe music

WCP: You photographed people in many different industries. What were some common themes?

VM: I think everybody has pivoted in a way where there’s growth in how they’re going to run their business. The common thread is more perspective. Everyone really gave a perspective of where they’re at now and how they see the future. I think everybody really just examined their own life and examined what’s happening and how they’ve been affected by it.

WCP: What did you learn throughout this process?

VM: I just think this whole [pandemic] that’s happened shows you that we’re all human and we’re really connected. We’re all experiencing worries about our health, our financial future, the future of our business, the future of our families, the state of the world. What I learned and what I think that everybody is understanding right now is how we really need each other; we need human social interaction. There’s never gonna be a Zoom meeting that’s going to replace breaking bread with somebody. I just read this and I thought it was great: If we replace “I” with “we” then “illness” becomes “wellness.”