Many photographers have turned their lens towards their own families. They didn’t just record birthdays and celebrations, nor take photos only of their immediate relatives at their most triumphant moments. They used the familiar to investigate life as a deep and complex experience, and left viewers with a document, sometimes a hymn, that explores and unveils something true about the lives of everybody. Sometimes these photographs are a consolation, at other times they remind us of the impossibility of escaping from our own passions, mistakes and mortality. Sometimes these images are warm and comforting, other times they are uncanny or unforgiving.
As soon as I finished the photography program in New York, I felt the urge to return to my family in Liguria, Italy, with a camera. The documentary program in the school (The International Center of Photography) had left me with many good questions: Which were the stories I wanted to tell as a photographer? What was the purpose of my work? How did I want to pursue my career? My ideas weren’t clear. I felt lost, until I had the intuition that it could be more real (and perhaps easier) to find myself and some sort of rough truth about life in my own “backyard”, rather than in some unknown, exotic country. I wanted to start looking at the world all over again, to go back to my childhood, to who I was, and to photograph what I knew and what I cared about. I had childhood memories of this paradise called Liguria: a narrow strip of land that is bordered by the Mediterranean sea and the Alps. Its stunning mountains tumble rapidly into the sea, leaving only a little slice of land to humans, who through centuries of courageous labor have built numerous fishing villages and even cultivated stretches of farmland. So I went back, after thirteen years of absence. To the smell of sage and rosemary, to the thin shadows of pine and olive trees. I went back to walk barefoot on the slate rocks with the salt drying on my skin.
It is dangerous to expect that we could return to a place and find it still as we have it fixed in our memories: it often hides the desire to relive a certain period from our past. The way my mother prepares a tasty dinner with just a handful of herbs, nuts, basil and olive oil is still the same, a centuries-old recipe passed on from one generation to the next, but we are not. The tradition has survived in a world that keeps changing, whilst we keep getting older. I was struck by the unsettling realization that I can never get my mother as she was then back, nor can I recover the idealism and dreams of my friends, or my own childhood innocence. When I came back to Liguria, before my grown-up eyes I could see the economic crisis in Italy, where little hope for the future was linked to a lack of trust in the current political system and in the concept of justice. My region was hit by a severe flood. Due to bad urban planning and neglect of the inland there were about ninety-five landslides that destroyed two historic towns and damaged several others. At the same time, I found my grandfather’s village almost deserted because the young were (and still are) increasingly moving away from the countryside to seek job opportunities in the main cities. Simply by watching deeper and photographing our ordinary life, I was witnessing people bonding and battling with themselves and with nature. Looking for purpose in our lives was like trying to find meaning in cloud shapes, patiently observing them and interpreting their metamorphoses. Weren’t all the stories and all the struggle of human experience contained in my family and my simple hometown? Wasn’t this the best story I could document, because it was my own?
And still, it was incredibly hard for me to take photographs. I felt like an intruder in my own house, crossing some kind of boundary that I was not supposed to. The camera suddenly became a sharp razor: a heartless machine recording and exposing the private, the intimate, the uncomfortable, the imperfections of our bodies and of our lives. And I felt guilty.
I remember one night. It’s 3am. I hear a noise in the house. I walk in the darkness until I reach the open bathroom door, and I see her sitting on the floor in front of the toilet. She has been heartbroken lately, and that night she must have drunk a little too much at the bar. Sometimes it’s so easy to feel bad; we’re all so vulnerable. I’m standing in front of her without talking and I see photographically. First, in terms of complementary colors: the tiles of the bathroom are mint-green marble and she’s wearing cute candy pink pajamas over smooth reddish, slightly sunburned, skin. Then I examine the details: her hair is a golden wheat-colored wave, and her smeared make-up has become an elaborate smoky shadow around her eyes. She’s looking at me and with an elegant movement she changes position, still sitting on the floor between the mirror and the toilet. She doesn’t give up her theatrical elegance, not even now. She suddenly says to me: “You can take this picture if you like.” I answer her, “Oh my god! Don’t worry, I wasn’t even thinking about it. I just came to see if you needed anything.”
I did think to take that photograph. I felt that “splinter of ice” inside my heart. I don’t mean that I found myself cold, distant or judgmental. I mean that the emotions and proximity didn’t conceal from me the universality of that moment. While she was leaning back on the bathroom floor, she suddenly became me, she was all the women I have met in my life, the delusions we all go through, and to take that photograph was for me to scream out loud the dignity of human sorrow. She was unique and at the same time a stand-in for everybody else. The only question in my mind was: is it a good picture? Is it an iconic picture? Can this picture take the weight of such responsibility? The responsibility of allowing everybody to step in and be her in that moment.
The first time I showed my relatives the photographs I took, they said I made them look miserable. We had many constructive conversations about it, but at first they said I was insensitive of their aging. I argue that it’s rather the opposite. I take photos of what I most deeply love and what I most deeply fear. I’ve been trained to click the shutter when the heart “clicks”. I’ve decided to show the truth and save the beautiful and the important from oblivion. But sometimes beauty can be puzzling or troublesome.
The photographs I haven’t taken are still burning inside me. They want to be taken. They want to be revealed.