Sometimes I feel like many photographers, including me, have perhaps stopped looking for what, for better or for worse, is extraordinary and unrepeatable in our world.
In contemporary photography, after some successful experiments by the great masters, the gaze has increasingly turned to the inanimate and everyday panorama, struggling for a “modern” photographic language and claiming the extraordinary nature of the mediocre to hide a rampant rashness, superficiality and laziness. All this created a fertile ground for an arid formalism made up of headlights, fruit, hands and pipes.
Still lifes for docile eyes.
My psychotherapist recently died.
When I realized that I wouldn’t be able to talk to him ever again, I was attending a self-portrait workshop run by the photographer Cristina Nuñez.
Pushed by curiosity about her method more than by a real will to work on myself, I decided to participate. I wanted to compare her teaching practice with mine, being a photography teacher myself to eventually learn something new for my students’ sake. It turned out that I really enjoyed being a student again.
After two years working as a self-portrait teacher I had forgotten how it felt to be on the other side and to be asked to talk about myself, even though it’s exactly what I ask my students all the time, so it was kind of shocking at the beginning.
My first reaction was: of course, I do it every day, do I need to prove anything?
Yes, I had.
Nuñez considers herself a social activist and she believes in a practice which is basically the opposite of how we are provoked to act by using social media. Instead of being preoccupied with how other see us, she says: never try to pretend to be “cool”, and then further: never even try to pretend to be “normal”. Clearly, I agree with it: “normal people don’t exist” quoting Spanish director Isabel Coixet.
I have to admit that it was especially difficult for me to clearly show my face in my pictures. I have always practiced self-portrait in a different way, using my body just as a tool to express something, the same way I use words to explain a concept. I was never interested in showing my “real” self in a photo.
Nothing new to be honest: in the history of female self-portrait practice, women often had the tendency to show their bodies freely but to hide their faces as something to be ashamed of. Almost like that the act of (finally) uncovering the body led to a feeling of liberation, while showing the face would permanently unmask the one who was doing it.
Also, my self-portraits were mostly created for personal and private bodies of works, and suddenly I was completely exposed to an “audience”.
It is known that it could be particularly easy to open oneself in front of a perfect stranger, but when one starts to think that his/her weird neighbour or the bully girl from high school might be among viewers, everything starts to be awkward.
Nuñez’s perspective about art was really challenging for my work during the workshop: according to her, art should not be uncomfortable only for the artist but for the viewer as well. The starting point of my practice used to be exactly the opposite: I wanted my students to feel absolutely comfortable, I wanted to be perceived as a pleasant and trustworthy person as I wanted to create safe environment. Not only related to my work, making other feel uncomfortable would be against the way I was educated and socialised. Suddenly I was asked to tell something uncomfortable and to say it loud while showing my face.
As a consequence of this request I decided to surf on the border between the comfortable and the uncomfortable, between my obsession for aesthetic and the need of a rawer truth.
I finally decided to focus my project on my psycho-therapist´s death, compiling a resume of what I have learnt from him about life and about myself.
I accepted to make public some uncomfortable stuff and some “raw” self-portraits, but I didn’t completely get rid off my need for control.
It was a great, difficult experience that left me open questions.
Do I completely agree with Cristina? Should art always be uncomfortable?
Was I trying to please the viewer too much or to please the teacher instead?
I will try to find an answer while working on the video that I started during the workshop, which title is “My psychotherapist is dead” which I’m hoping to be able to publish soon.
In February 2020, as every year, I drove to Schignano, a village located in the mountains on the border between Italy and Switzerland, to continue my long-term project dedicated to the ancient alpine carnival that takes place there. I started this work in 2010 and I had no idea that my 10-year anniversary edition would be so special. An assignment as production manager for a documentary for the Franco-German TV Artè allowed me to stay in the village for twenty-six continuous days. As we conducted the interviews and followed the preparation of the carnival, the global situation regarding the Covid-19 pandemic was getting worse and worse every minute. On the Monday before Shrove Tuesday, the Italian authorities officially blocked the carnival celebrations throughout the country, as social distancing was becoming the norm. The Schignano carnival is famous for its anarchist component, for the rebellious and savage spirit of the inhabitants, so having the carnival taking place anyway had become a challenge to the authorities. We all underestimated the alarm and, despite the ordinances, the constant presence of the police in the village and the threats of heavy sanctions, the carnival was held in any case, although in a limited way.
The unique situation allowed me to be the only “foreigner” in the village and after ten years of working in Schignano I had a completely new experience, a true carnival of the origins. A week later the Italian government put the whole country in lockdown. In a few days from now it will be carnival time again and, sadly, it is the first time in history that the Schignano carnival won’t take place.
Back in March I kept reading about domestic violence being on the rise, internationally, as a consequence of the forced quarantine. After several attempts to contact women who were suffering from domestic abuse I talked to Natalia.
Trauma expert Judith Lewis Herman in an interview with The New York Times compared the oppression of abusers to the one of kidnappers who control hostages, citing “isolation from friends, family and employment; constant surveillance; strict, detailed rules for behavior; and restrictions on access to such basic necessities as food, clothing and sanitary facilities.”
Organizations for women’s protection need to work with projections, because it’s harder for victims stuck at home with an abuser to even make a call. I decided to talk to Sarah Crawford Banda from NMIC, a community-based organization that provides legal, organizing, advocacy, career services and education in New York, working primarily with immigrant families.
She described how “Batterers have always been creative in terms of their chosen tactics of power and control. Any extra leverage that can be weaponized against survivors is often fair game. We have one client whose abusive partner stated he would not follow social distancing and intentionally contract Covid-19 if she refused to have sex with him. Another spat and coughed on his partner to frighten her. With separated families we have seen a dynamic where children are making emotional appeals to survivor moms asking that fathers be allowed to return home out of fear of his health or risk of infection.”
Mrs. Crawford Banda also stressed the importance of economical independence when victims are making the decision to separate from their abusers. Since the crisis hit many women lost their jobs and need to rely on their partners more, or were in the process of saving and are now depleting their resources.
When I asked her what could be done to help while keeping everyone safe, she told me that she would like to see grants assigned to undocumented survivors who are not eligible for other Covid-19 relief and in desperate financial need, and hotel rooms become available to the ones in need of emergency housing when domestic violence shelters are at capacity.
Through Mrs Crawford Banda I had the opportunity to speak to Natalia, a Dominican woman currently living with her batterer in Washington Heights, northern Manhattan. This is a recording of our phone call.
This story was sponsored by Cortona On The Move, Covid19 Visual Project
It happens sometimes that you take a photograph because something has caught your attention and then, when you see the picture you’ve taken, you discover details that were invisible or maybe just too small to be seen while time was flowing and the world was moving. A new reality emerges, things that were invisible, now are tangible. It’s photography and has the special power to make detectable what is hidden. Now more than ever, it’s a tool to break the hasty blindness that affects our species revealing what’s concealed behind the curtain of routine.
I took this picture in Tbilisi. I was walking around and at a crossroad I saw an old soviet car passing by. I took a picture because of its squared nostalgic shape. Later, when I arrived at the hotel, I saw it on my laptop and just in that moment I noticed that there was in the windshield what looks like a bullet hole.
Woman on Street, St. Petersburg, 2008.
While constructing a book’s narrative, the reasons to include or reject certain pictures are more
often intuitive than logical. This particular picture did not make the final cut.
Later, as I was designing a literary book, “Accompaniments” by Mary Di Lucia, this image
intuitively found its way onto the cover.
Past Perfect Continuous by Igor Posner and Accompaniments by Mary Di Lucia were published
simultaneously by Red Hook Editions in 2017.
“Ten, nine, eight”, the electrified crowd chants in chorus. “Seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, go!”. Within seconds, a myriad of colorful cars roars into action and start racing and crashing into one another. Demolition derby is a fight to the end with a simple idea behind, elimination through destruction.
Beginning in the later half of 2008, a global-scale recession adversely affected the economy of the United States. A combination of several years of declining automobile sales and scarce availability of credit led to a more widespread crisis in the United States auto industry that has its heart in Michigan where more than 800,000 people lost their jobs between 2000 and 2009 as the subprime housing bubble burst, sending hundreds of thousands of homes into foreclosure as the automotive industry collapsed among the rubble, leading to the bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler.
Demolition derbies take place all over the United States and especially in its most rural and poorest areas but in Michigan, where the automotive industry was born, cars and motors have always been a sort of cult for the whole population, a cult that finds his most powerful expression in the the desire by men, women and kids to build fast cars from wreckages and race in temporary dusty arenas where crowds of adults and children cheer for their steel gladiators, keeping communities together after the worst recession in generations that hit them so hard and that now, after many years of uncertainty, maybe is coming to an end, maybe.
During my first trip in this state, on august 2019, I spent one month traveling thousands of miles in order to photograph a series of demolition derby events that took place all over the state. The result is a series: “He’s Come a Long Way That’s My Boy”. To continue this project I’d have gone back for another month in the summer of 2020. Everything was set, I’d have gone back in the southern and central part of the state, focusing on the social and economic background that made Michigan the epicenter of the motor industry and more recently the epicenter of the socio-economic crisis that has affected the whole United States and that has laid the groundwork for the rise of the populism that beard the ascent of Donald Trump.
I was trembling like a pilot on the starting line, waiting for the sound of the siren, but then something happened and going back in those areas of rural United States has become suddenly a mirage. Maybe I’ll be back in fall. “Have you seen the news about USA?” Ok, maybe I’ll be back in spring. “Are you sure? Things gonna be long over there”. I’m sure things gonna be better. “Have you heard they wanted to kidnap the governor who imposed the lockdown?”. Ok.
I really don’t know when I’ll be able to go back there and continue to photograph. Maybe what is happening has cracked the topic I was investigating. Maybe the uncertainty that has characterized those places for decades have been trespassed by new and more universal hazards that makes my quest dated.
I’m still trembling, I want to see the tracks that have been left on that ground from what happened. Later I’ll decide the course to take.
I think that the main difficulty when trying to picture mental illness is that in essence, it is invisible. Some might argue that you can recognise a pathology visually but that would be similar to saying you can recognise cancer through hair loss. Yes there are visual cues which are indicative but they are only the start of the process. It doesn’t explain what the person is thinking of, his motifs, obsessions, fears. Essentially the easy work of picturing mental illness is simply to inform the viewer that there is something unusual about an individual. The almost impossible task is to describe an inner world, not what you are seeing but what the person in front of you is seeing, hearing, feeling or thinking about.
Almost ten years ago when I first started documenting mental illness, my pictures were almost all portraits. Since I started using a camera, I’ve never been interested in anything else than people. After the first chapter of Butterflies, I understood that I needed more balance in the series and so I forced myself to shoot a few pictures of context, objects and especially walls as an extension of my portraits. Walls from psychiatric asylums across the world are permeated with a very large number of patients’ traces. Patients draw, spread their dirt on these walls, some literally spend the greatest part of their lives curled up against them. These walls hold the same smell everywhere in the world.
The pictures you chose are mostly from my time in Kosovo which was a while back. At the time, it was more important to me to describe the decrepit state of things and how patients are abused. You discover a violent world and you react to it for a while. Later on, I became accustomed to it and I now concentrate on behaviour, cycles or patterns which goes back to the original reason why I started this project. I prefer to observe people and have relationships with them. In essence, the space you make with patients happens in a time warp. Other elements such as the institution, the doctors, the therapists, the families can of course not be ignored but they act more as a disturbance to the process.
Regarding what you wrote about originality and clichés. I think that in this particular case, I prefer to call them archetypes. I’d like to have enough knowledge and experience to understand the motifs better and find a way to render them in photographs. A conscious decision to shoot in a different technique or choosing different elements can of course make the pictures more original but it wouldn’t necessarily uncover much. A trap is that people assume you are dealing with “original” human beings and that the images need to mirror that. In fact, it might be the exact opposite. You are dealing with the raw matter that constitutes what we are all made of. You see human beings at their chores, without the thousands of layers that make normality possible.
Mental illness is one of the most classical subject there is because it goes back to the first man and is impermeable to change. There is a passage in the New Testament where Jesus cures a psychotic man in Gadara. The illness and conditions described, the pretension and myths to cure them, have practically not changed.
“It is not possible to be original except on a basis of tradition.”
World Mental Health Day is observed on the 10th of October every year. Today.
I came across the website of Scott, to see again his project “Butterflies”, which is divided into chapters, and is a long term project about mental health in different regions of the world. A project carried out with great commitment and dedication. It always moves me. Butterflies By Scott Typaldos
I recently went back to re-photograph a large psychiatric hospital in Naples; the “Leonardo Bianchi Psychiatric Hospital”, which has been abandoned to itself about twenty years ago.
In 1998 I spent some weeks living in a small room inside the hospital, photographing the last “guests” present in the structure before the final closure. Last year, interested and obsessed by the place and by the people I met years ago, I asked and obtained permission to re-photograph the structure and work on the rich, but also abandoned, archive of medical records (around 70,000 medical records, some with photographs of the patient attached), which covers almost a century of psychiatric history of one of the largest and most capacious psychiatric hospitals in southern Italy. A project currently in progress.
In reviewing Scott’s work, I discovered similarities between some of our images.
We probably have a couple of obsessions in common or may be we are not original enough and we sink into the cliché of the wall, the shoes, the corners; more likely it is the experience itself that brings our attention to similar details. May be a common effort to “put in the shoes” of a person considered mentally ill, has led to common visions. Perhaps these places -that unfortunately still exist- are all alike in some corners.
What for sure matters, are the people who inhabit, or have inhabited them, and still have insufficient or no rights at all.