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Poet, photographer, traveller, dentist


In Marios Taramides, THEO PANAYIDES meets a Renaissance man who rails against mediocrity

In the dentist’s waiting room you’ll find shelves of Bronze Age antiquities, books on Abba and The Beatles, and collections of poetry by the dentist himself; on the table is Clicks of Travel, a handsome book of his travel photography. In the dentist’s office there’s art on the walls, a piece from Peru, a couple of paintings by an Iranian artist called Yervant who worked in the 1970s. Also on the wall (as you might expect) are diplomas, affirming his proficiency in things like advanced periodontics – but also, for instance, a certificate from the international photography organisation FIAP (Fédération Internationale de l’Art Photographique) naming him as an ‘Artist FIAP’, and another from the Chaine des Rotisseurs, an international gastronomic society. “I’m now a ‘Grand Officier’,” explains Marios Taramides, the dentist in question.

He has many sides, and wears many hats; a polymath, a Renaissance man. “He is also a published poet and writer, an art collector, a passionate photographer, and an enthusiastic traveller,” says the bio from his TEDx talk a couple of weeks ago. (Did we mention that he also did a TEDx talk?) He’s travelled to 120 countries, mostly – though not only – to take photos; the Photography section on his website ( offers a map of the world and invites you to ‘Click on a continent to select a gallery’. Just when you think you’ve covered all sides, a new one turns up; he was vice-president of the Sophia Foundation – a charity helping vulnerable children mainly in Kenya – for eight years and uprooted his entire clinic to Africa for two weeks, offering free consultations to around 700 Kenyan kids. We sit in his office surrounded by art and diplomas, having the kind of conversation where I ask a question and his answer might begin with: “When I went to a workshop with the Dalai Lama in 2017…”

Is he perhaps too accomplished? Might he start to seem a bit conceited, and full of himself? Marios is indeed no shrinking violet; he’s the kind of person you can imagine holding court, regaling friends with his theories. He talks fluently, in excellent Greek – one of his pet peeves is that “if a [mainland] Greek has an everyday vocabulary of 2-3,000 words, a Cypriot has about 500” – and seems to have strong opinions on many subjects. Nor does he have the kind of tumultuous back-story that might make him appear more vulnerable; whether through hard work or just good luck, life has gone generally smoothly for him. He’s had personal crises, of course, like everyone – but “no failures,” he admits, after giving it some thought. “I feel like I haven’t had any failures in my life.”

Yet in fact the life is unusual, almost bifurcated. On the one hand he’s expansive, restless, a published poet at 30 (he’s now 57), a traveller and citizen of the world, a man who does what he wants and has views on everything. (He even has a view on my name, shortened from the original ‘Theodoros’: “You have such a fine name,” he chides half-jokingly, “and you turned it into Theo!”) On the other hand, the contours of his life have been straightforward. He studied Dentistry in Germany, specialised in Sweden, taught in America for a short while, then came back to Cyprus in 1995; he’s never done anything else as a profession. This clinic belonged to his late father. His sister Nouli also works in the business; his mum lives nearby. There’s a kind of humility there – the same humility that appeared in his work with the Sophia Foundation and also underlies his current project, the ‘Known Unknown’.

This was the subject of his TEDx talk – and a big part of his life, a project he’s been working on since 2014. (It’s coming out in book form and was almost completed two years ago, but delayed due to Covid.) The ‘known unknowns’ are comprised of 40 people in 35 countries, all of whom agreed to be photographed by Marios – all of them being “known in general for what they’ve done in their field” but not universally known, not celebrities. “They’re people who’ve worked quietly. They didn’t go shouting in the media, they did their work humbly.

profile2“They’re a great inspiration to us, these people. Because it makes you realise how, in this world we live in – where everything is ruled by mediocrity – we haven’t learned to notice the true diamonds around us. Or else we’ve forgotten how to see them.” In the 21st century, he adds heatedly – it actually began in the 20th century, but has exploded with the advent of smartphones – “we’re seeing a trend where mediocrity rules. Mediocrity is what always gets praised, and envied”, he gripes, thinking of YouTubers and influencers. His people, on the other hand (and indeed the project is ongoing, since there are many more ‘diamonds’ he’d like to include), are people like Ara Güler, a Turkish photojournalist who immortalised everyone from Churchill to Callas, or Christian Cabrol, a French heart surgeon who carried out the first heart transplant in Europe, or Elena Poniatowska, a Mexican writer and journalist shining a light on social issues.

These aren’t ‘everyday heroes’, admittedly. They’re famous people – but if you asked 100 passersby if they’d heard of Christian Cabrol, says Marios, only three might say yes (whereas almost all would’ve heard of the Kardashians). “Have you heard of Martin Strel?” he asks me, and nods knowingly – as if to say ‘There, you see?’ – when I confess my ignorance. Strel is a swimmer who “swam along the longest and most-polluted rivers on the planet, with the motto ‘Swimming for Cleaner Waters’. This man swam the Amazon in 66 days, he swam 5,268 kilometres. When I went to Ljubljana to meet him, and he took off his top to show me his back – which was full of scars, from where he’d been half-eaten by piranhas – I got chills. You feel respect towards this man. Not just because he was half-eaten by piranhas, but because he had a purpose!”

Marios made a point of photographing Strel wet, “in his element”, and including Cabrol’s massive hands – a surgeon’s hands – in his photo. (Güler was so pleased with his own photo that he asked Marios for a copy, which of course was the highest compliment.) But the project was a challenge, perhaps the greatest creative challenge of his life – because he had to locate these people, then find a way to communicate with them, then convince them to take him seriously (being an FIAP-accredited photographer presumably helped), then forge a connection in the few hours he had available. Above all, though, ‘Known Unknown’ seems to operate in the bifurcated way that defines his life in general – an act of humility and homage, an accomplished man acting as a vessel (a photographer is always a vessel, when you think about it) for even more accomplished subjects, but also an expansive cri de coeur, declaring allegiance with people who, like him, have always spurned mediocrity.

He himself has always hated mediocrity, says Marios – an affliction that’s especially prevalent in Cyprus, for some reason; Iceland, for instance, another small island, is still able to produce world-class work. (So what’s our problem here? “Our need to all become millionaires in the easiest way possible, I think,” he replies acidly.) Even as a lad he was wildly ambitious, “I wanted to learn, if possible, everything”. He always went for it, always plunged headlong into things. He tried deep-sea diving at 16, earned a professional pilot’s licence at 18. “I did things in my life because I wanted to test myself. I wanted to learn. And yes, I go for it – and when I go for it, I go all the way… I’m like that in everything I try, otherwise I won’t touch it”.

He’s a man of passions, incidentally expressed in frequent rants. Just in our brief conversation, he rants about everything from political corruption to Nicosia bus routes – he’s a proud Nicosian, the kind who goes on long walks and believes it’s the only true Cypriot city we have left: “It retains a character that reminds you of the time when we used to live side-by-side with the Turks” – to the uselessness of our education system, to the way people drive, to the apathy of Cypriots, to kids (he has none of his own) being turned into little zombies by iPads and phones. He’s angry, though not obnoxiously so (he’s not bitter; he’s productively angry). What would he say are his own values? “I hate lies,” he replies simply.

That, I suspect, may be the best encapsulation of Marios Taramides – hence his frank opinions, hence the way he dives into things, hence his staunch pursuit of excellence, hence the absence of false modesty. He hates lies, as he hates mediocrity. He can sound self-regarding; the poem called ‘Patriotism’ in his latest collection “is a poem that’s touched a lot of people,” he tells me – and it sounds like he’s bragging but the truth is the truth, and besides the poem itself (written during a trip to Istanbul) is about honesty. “Patriotism isn’t refusing to go to Ayia Sophia because it’s in the hands of others,” says the poem; “It’s going inside, and crossing yourself, just as if it had never been lost”. That was how he felt when he went in the church (now a mosque), he explains, “I didn’t care who has the title deeds – this space, at that moment, was mine, it was sacred”. And later, when it came time to write the poem, he told himself: “Don’t lie. Just say how you feel”.

It wasn’t just patriotism, of course, however one chooses to define it; what he felt was a spiritual moment. He believes in God, says Marios; he’s not an atheist, or even fashionably agnostic (that said, he’s not much of a churchgoer) – and the way to connect with the divine is to hold on to “your truth”, to be totally pure and honest in whatever you do. It’s not just writing poems and taking photos; “When I’m doing surgery here in my office, I feel a connection with God – because I feel like, at that moment, I’m united with my truth. And truth is the universe, it’s God.” I’m surprised, I say a little rudely (if he’s being unflinchingly honest, why shouldn’t I?), I didn’t think there was much emotional investment in cosmetic dentistry. “Who says so?” he replies indignantly. “I might even say a prayer sometimes, before going to work on a patient. So I can connect. So I can be myself, and feel my truth”.

Marios Taramides is indeed extraordinary, in the literal sense of being more than ordinary; he seems to feel a little more, dare a little more, believe a little more than most people. Is he a difficult person? “I’m not an easy person, let’s put it that way.” He likes things to be just so (“I’m a bit OCD”), at least in what he calls his microcosm of work and home. That said, “I’m not a loner”; he has good friends, and gives every indication of being an extrovert. Does he feel like he doesn’t fit in, sometimes? Does the general mediocrity of Cyprus – plus the other issues mentioned in his rants – get too much? “When I start to feel out of it, I get on a plane and leave,” he replies with a grin. “I go walking in Zurich, or in Freiburg – where I did my studies – or Grenoble, or Bordeaux, or Toledo. And the feeling passes.”

He just turned 57, at the end of November. What’s changed with growing older?

“Nothing. I’m the same child I was when I was younger. We’re all children, and thank God for that. That child within us – we must never kill it! We must never allow it to fall asleep, that child must always be awake inside us. It’s what keeps us alive, what guides us. Because it’s our essence.” Kids, too, always say what they feel. Kids, too, are inquisitive, and would travel to 120 countries if they could. Kids often grumble, and get angry. Kids, too, care about excellence, at least in the things they care about; it’s only adulthood that spawns the comforting thought of coasting through life on mediocrity.

Keeping one’s inner child vibrant, as a middle-aged man, is surely on a par with fixing teeth and taking photos, if we’re talking accomplishments – but in fact it doesn’t matter, in the end, what you do, or what kind of CV you include in your TEDx bio; what matters is being true to yourself. That’s the ultimate lesson of the ‘Known Unknown’, that people can be humble, and relatively obscure, yet still extraordinary – though of course it’s always nice to be remembered. “Someday, after I’m dead, nobody will know I was ever a dentist,” muses Marios at one point, thinking of his own place in the world, and his own legacy. Maybe not. But there’s so much else to choose from.


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