The Comodamente Festival — See You At Coney Island

September 6, 2012 12:18 pm

The most interesting assignments sometimes take place in my own backyard. This past July as part of Comodamente—a cultural festival in Northern Italy that focuses on philosophy, music, art, science, history, and literature—I was asked to take photos that conveyed the theme of wonder. This immediately made me think of Coney Island, which is still a source of wonder not only for kids, but adults as well. Below are some of the resulting photos as well as an interview I did with a man named Carlo Sala.

Special thanks to Daniele Capra and Renzo di Renzo for their help and collaboration on this project.

The pictures were also published in Today’s l’Espresso. To view that article click here.

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Through your shots you have looked into various areas of New York, from Harlem to Brooklyn, up to your recent work in Coney Island. Why have you chosen this place for expressing the wonder? When I was thinking about the topic of wonder I knew I had to do something in New York City. It’s a place with an incredible mix of people from all different backgrounds. But to take that even a step further Coney Island was the first place that came to mind about the idea of a melting pot. It’s a place where people seem to forget their differences with grace and humility and just enjoy the fact that we live in a world where so many people aren’t anything like us. To me that’s wonder.

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In the latest years you have been documenting current events such as the protests of the Occupy Wall Street movement or the consequences of the oil leak caused by the MP. It seems to me that you always want to put at the center the persons with their own private and personal stories, as if they were pebbles of a wider mosaic composing the main story. You said it much more eloquently than I’ve ever been able to. I’ve always used the more elementary idea of a puzzle. Every place is like a puzzle and the people who live there are all the different pieces that make that puzzle complete. People all play such a huge role in their communities whether it’s a small town or a big city. It’s not the place that defines the person but instead the contrary – the people define the place.

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In this moment great part of portrait and documentary photography operates by immortalizing its subjects in an objective way; you, instead, are among those authors who never disregard composition and an aesthetic inherent the shot. Most of my work focuses on the common person and I’ve always found it necessary to make the shots aesthetically pleasing because of that. My website is full of stories of these people’s lives, each image has a caption that defines a person and I want viewers to be interested enough to actually read their stories. Another reason I would distance myself from the objective documentary photographer is that I direct the scene. I put the person where I want and I shoot lots of pictures, and in the end I’m the one who get’s to decide how I want to represent that person (happy, sad, confident, nervous, proud, etc.) I don’t think portraiture is objective in any way.

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Some of your works are socially committed, telling emblematic stories such as that of the Haitian workers’ distress in the sugar plantations, or the living conditions in the Brownsville area in New York. In doing this you never use sensationalistic or striking images, instead you narrate with accuracy and attention, enhancing the daily lives of people. Your judgment is never sharp, instead you allow the viewer to discover little by little every story, and to form an opinion of her/his own. That’s the best compliment I could receive, thank you. I hate when I see a film or read a book where the conclusion is spelled-out. It doesn’t allow me to think for myself and form my own opinion of what happened. I love to feel like I have discovered something that nobody else has. I don’t mean that my conclusions are always original, but at least I wasn’t told what to think.

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In your projects from Italy to Haiti, from Alaska to the United States, the true main characters are common people. Even when these meetings happen in difficult contexts, the ones you portray always seem to feel at ease. How do you live the relation with these subjects and how do you overcome the initial distrusts? I would say that 70 percent of the people I approach don’t trust me at first. But after speaking with them for a while and showing a genuine interest by asking lots of questions, they begin to trust me. I’ve realized that the majority of people want to tell their story; people want to be heard no matter how important or simple their perspective is. When asking lots of questions doesn’t work I start to talk about myself and I reveal very personal details about my life and experiences. If I expect them to do that with me I should be able to do it with them. When you make yourself vulnerable it makes people feel a lot more comfortable doing the same.

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Although you represent specific places and clear identitary conditions, in your photography it seems like everyone of us could empathize and find her/himself in the subjects… That’s another thing I’ve probably unconsciously taken from books and films. My favorite stories are the ones where I can see myself in the main character.

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Though finding yourself in places involved with violence and poverty, you always give a delighted image of the subjects, marking in them a great sense of humanity. You seem to believe in your neighbor, regardless of the context where she/he lives, from her/his story and past mistakes. I’ve never understood people who’s trust you need to earn. I’ve always been the one to give someone the benefit of the doubt and hope they don’t prove me wrong.

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