VIOLATED ANGELS IN THE SOCIAL PHOTOGRAPHY
As Ryszard Kapuscinski said, a journey for a real reporter begins neither the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our door step once again but it starts much earlier and is really never over. The same can be said of Roberto Strano, an Italian photo reporter working for Zoom, Photo, Summa, Avvenire, Nuovo Fotonotiziario, Gente di Fotografia, Arte, Elegance, Fotoit, Foto Reflex and winner of numerous photo awards. His photos are exhibited in Modena Permament Museum Franco Fontana among the most accredited international authors such as Bragalia, Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, Sander, Ghirri, Toscani, Scianna, Franco Fontana, Fontcuberta, Hamilton, Doisneau, Berengo Gardin, Giacomelli and Avedon.
Strano was born in the sunny island, in Sicily, in a little city Caltagirone and this fact, attachment to light and his land, influenced his life and photographic career. About Roberto Strano, man, father and photographer, one can say anything but not that he is strange [strano], as his second name in Italian would suggest. His photos were compared to the ones by Mario Giacomelli and his coragious and moving photoreports appreciated over all the world. The most famous photo video – reportage, Violated Angels [Angeli Violati], was realized in Brasil in the favelas of Fortaleza and Sao Paulo, where the most widespread sexual abuse of children between 4 and 10 years ever recorded before: was perpetrated during the World Cup 2014.
That is only one of Roberto’s many alarming works. His photography gives voice to the outcast and victims. Definitely his social photography of “violated angels” talks about real life and very often communicates inconvenient truths. For this reason Roberto, in private a very deep and sensitive man, and at the same time, a man who likes risk and speed, chose this job. In January 2017, the photographer said to JL Interviews Magazine: “My social photography is not photography of misery, it is a story. I’m interested mostly in humans. Other genres do not excite me”. In Easter a new photographic publication of this fascinating artist will come out, an album about famous Sicilian photographers and friends such as Enzo Sellerio, Fausto Giaccone, Ferdinando Scianna and others.
You were born and raised in Caltagirone, a small Sicilian town, where you still live and work. Why did you decide to stay? Have you have ever wanted to change your residence?
Look, to be Sicilian marks you. Sicily is the land that gives a lot and at the same time takes away a lot, changes your way of thinking and photographing. We were born with violent light. When you go to the sea you must get protection. We are used to the light and when you go out of our island you immediately notice this. Sicilians are recognized abroad; this I noted in Sao Paulo, New York, Spain, everywhere. Here, you are born with the knowledge that when you grow almost certainly you leave. Sicily with great pride launched a myriad of great photographers such as Scafidi, Enzo Sellerio, Ferdinando Scianna, Giuseppe Leone, Letizia Battaglia, Santi Caleca, Giovanni Chiaramonte, Marco Glaviano, Melo Minella, Tano D’amico, Tony Gentile, Salvatore Giglio, Thomas Roma, Fausto Giaccone, just to name a few. When I was younger I thought of leaving and when I applied to university in I.T. I said to myself: “I want to work, however, as the photographer and then I’ll leave Sicily! In 1994 I went to Rome to work for a short time as a fashion photographer. What I did gave me no emotion. In 1996 I went to work for the famous Neapolitan photographer Ciro Gaita, but I wanted to do my own photography and in 1997 I opened my studio in Sicily, in my Caltagirone. In 2002 I won the Canon Young Photographers Award and from that date began the first interviews. I projected myself in great Milan photography. I there met Denis Curti and my photos were compared to the photos of the great Mario Giacomelli. I did the first major exhibition at San Fedele in Milan and I got some important job proposals. I was tempted to stay in Milan but my dear friend, Ferdinando Scianna, advised me to go back to Sicily, convinced that from there I would do great things. Sometimes I think about moving somewhere else, but in the end I do not. I have to say that Sicily for me is the navel of the world. Being born here gave me an edge and also photographically influenced me a lot. Certainly, I believe that if I was born elsewhere I would do a different photography. I also learned an important thing: to make good photos you do not necessarily have to be who knows where, just know how to listen in silence and learn to see. Great photographers have never left their own countries, I mean our great Mario Giacomelli has never moved from Senigallia and Doisneau, or Boubat have remained in France.
You are the master of reportage and social photography. Why did you choose this genre? What’s special about it?
I’m a photographer. Pictures deal with moments of life, records them and tells them. You decide to press the button according to your training, religion, knowledge, sensitivity, books you’ve read, the exhibitions that you saw. I get emotional in front of a story, whatever is the story: a story of love, or the story of a sick person. A report can also be done with very few photographs and before adding a photo we should always ask ourselves whether it’s just a beautiful picture, or a photograph that says more. Once there were inviolable rules of 5W: What, Who, When, Where and Why. Photo reporters have responsabilities, the photograph does not always tell the truth and often can have a completely opposite message. Today, I think, we look for easy photography. I seek a simply true photography, but it is my truth and I always treat the subject I photograph with ethics. A poor can be portrayed proudly, respectfully and with dignity. The photographer is a story teller, helps not to forget, gives voice to those who too often have no voice. A good photographer describes himself through the photographs. I through the photos tell of the places I visit, my moods and I always put at the center the person, who in the end is what I’m more interested in. For me, photography is the story even if many people think that the report is only photography of misery. I’m interested in showing the sultan, priest of my city, the poor person, my children or my neighbor. I chose this genre because it tells life.
The father of literal report, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski said: “A journey, after all, neither begins the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our door step once again. It starts much earlier and is really never over, because the film of memory continues running inside of us long after we have come to a physical standstill”. Where do all your trips end and start?
Kapuscinski was a great correspondent of the Polish press agency and did it from many countries giving voice to many problematic questions. As Kapunscinski said my travels begin long before leaving. I plan a lot and I also inform myself about what can be useful and be photographed, about the culture of the country, its his people and religion. I study neighboring countries. I ask myself as many questions as possible especially about the equipment. For example if I have to photograph prostitutes I will ask myself: what do I photograph? The prostitute or places, the customer, money, condom, documents, her past? It all takes time. Henry Cartier Bresson wanted to treat time with respect. Today we don’t treat time with respect. We take a 10 day journey and we say that we made a report. We make thousands of photos that we keep in the computer and after a second we publish them on facebook. We don’t print photos anymore. It ‘true that the tape of memories flows inside us and never ends. You carry smiles, tears, the stories of the people, smells and the photographs you’ve done with your eyes or those you didn’t have enough courage to take with you forever. I often wake up in the middle of the night with an image flashing. I think about what my eyes saw and my heart felt and I feel powerless. Basically my travels never end, they are always open and even when I come back home, often my heart and my mind are still there.
You have collaborated with famous magazines and your photographs are exhibited in the Permanent Museum of Modena Franco Fontana among the most accredited international authors such as Bragalia, Man Ray, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, Sander, Ghirri, Toscani, Scianna, Franco Fontana, Fontcuberta, Hamilton, Doisneau Berengo Gardin, Giacomelli, Avedon. You have struggled to get where you are now, or was your success a matter of time?
I believe that to become a great photographer, sculptor, painter, pastry chef, athlete, anything, just talent or fortune is not enough. One has to make immense sacrifices every single day. Personally, there is no day that I wouldn’t start early in the morning and finish until late at night without doing something inherent in photography: study, read, look at exhibitions, moved in front of photos by the others and not only those photographs, but observe in silence paintings by Hopper, Caravaggio, as well as Alberto Giacometti’s drawings and sculptures, or Pablo Picasso’s paintings, sculptures and lithographs. Epictetus, a Greek philosopher used to say that We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak. I spend whole days in the darkroom and nothing ever goes fast and immediately. In the end of the day you must respect time. It’s like being an athlete. You must improve by a second that will make the difference and that difference comes with the immense sacrifice.
On the occasion of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 you prepared a heart-wrenching report against sex tourism in the Favelas. How it was received? Has anything changed? How did Brazil change you?
Brazil is really the land of contradictions. You see people here who go to work by helicopter and thousands of poor people living on the streets. During the 2014 World Cup there was higher sexual abuse of all time: 80% of sex tourism is European of which 70% -Italian. The rich Europeans go to Brazil to abuse of most defenseless weak children, often invisible because they are not registered and poor families forced to prostitute their children or even to sell organs. The crime is consumed not in favelas, but in wealthy areas where children come down from the favelas or even in hotels with complacent hoteliers. It all started in 2012. I came to Fortaleza in northern Brazil – an association had asked me to document this phenomenon in these dangerous areas for humanitarian purposes and, of course, I embraced the cause right away. I was catapulted from the airport Fortaleza directly into miles and miles of forest in the favelas. I worked as an infiltrator for three long, hard weeks in very extreme conditions, with a heart full of pain. I was receiving and not giving something. In 2013 I returned to the favelas of Sao Bernardo of Campo, near Sao Paulo. I was entering inaccessible places, where life counts as nothing, where many children have suffered violence, where gangs kill each other, where there are also good and decent and dignified poor families forced to live in a shack because there is no work. No one can hear them. I still remember the most important hug of my life, given by a septuagenarian prostitute aged 70, still forced to prostitute herself to survive. She, crying, leaned her head on my chest and said: “you are good man, help me”. All night I thought of her, but also of the many children of the many families forced to live in those places without a speck of dignity. I saw their smiles, their tears, their terrible stories that you can not even begin to imagine. One day I entered a group of favelas with terrible fear. I had a disposable hidden in the pockets to photograph and told myself: “Lord, let me die in my own land”. The first thought entering there was it’s a Nazi lager, but I immediately thought that this was even more terrible today when everyone knows what happens and nobody does anything. I went back in 2014 documenting other stories by recording the voices of these people. I did an exhibition at the Institute of Italian Culture. In the end I feel like a simple photographer, perhaps under the illusion of being able to change something. One year in Paris I met a great reporter Patrick Hamon, who had traveled all over the world telling stories everywhere. Once he told me demoralized that for an entire life he had deluded himself he could change the world! I photograph for myself. The day when I will not believe in all this I think I’ll stop taking pictures. For the football world my Brazilian service was published in a British newspaper. I felt a great pain when I watched on television the World Cup opening ceremony. Of course they didn’t show the problems. Brazil is a wonderful country, but very corrupt and touched by poverty and by its huge sexual phenomenon that everyone knows but does nothing. They easily marginalize it and pretend there is nothing. For them this way is okay.
In Italy you are also famous for your workshops. You won several awards, you have exposed your photographs several times abroad, you have photographed many stars of the silver screen. What else can a photographer dream of?
I’m lucky to do a lot of workshops in various places around the world such as U.S., Brazil, Spain, Italy. It gratifies me a lot because I love teaching and I have a good relationship with pupils. In these situations we are all on the same level; from each workshop I also receive something. I only dream of continuing my job and doing some good new book soon.
Who’s thought or art has formed your personal and artistic vision? Thanks to whom are you who you are?
Very often I am surround by photographers, writers or sculptors. This is my world. I get a lot from it and I compare myself, and listen. Some photographers are often the subjects of my photography, of my life. When I can I run away to Milan, where I have many photographer friends including Ferdinando Scianna, my dear friend with whom I always exchange pleasant conversations and often, before doing something new, I ask him for advice.
Which of your works do you consider, so far, the most important and why?
The most important job I think is accidents. I have worked occasionally on this for about 10/15 years. I think is the most complete work done by a few such as Scianna, Letizia Battaglia, Nino Migliori, Andrea Pacella, Franco Fontana, Denis Curti. They have always encouraged me, expressing great praise, perhaps hypercritical, but I like this puzzle. I see it in my head. I already know where to go to but I’m still trying to get there. I believe that after having published my new book I will focus only on this project.
Photography is your life and your full-time job. Do you think that one day you might stop and do something else?
You know, living from photography becomes increasingly harder. I’m lucky not having left my studio and because I manage many workshops, which allow me to breathe to do what I want. To live only from newspapers is difficult. I don’t think I can change my profession. Photography is my life and don’t see myself doing other things, but if I had to, however, I would be willing to do anything.
Which of all the portraits of famous people you took has inspired you the most? What do you see when you look at people with a photographer’s eye?
You know, everyone always leaves you something. You look at them and in a second I try to hear them, see them inside. By gestures, by the tone voice I try to look them from 360 degrees. The first portrait that comes to mind is Antoine D’Agata, the great Magnum photographer. It was the end of June. I had finished doing a wedding in Sicily, I end at night and left by plane for Florence where I held a workshop. Then I left the same evening in the car with a friend Samuele Mancini for Marseille. We travel throughout the night. I arrived exhausted. There I worked and immediately left for Arles where I had booked a hotel and the next day I had to take pictures of Antoine. I arrived at the hotel at Arles around 9.30 pm, I texted Antoine telling him of my arrival and that the next day we took the pictures but he said that for him it would be better to shoot that night. I remember very well that meeting with Antoine. I was really upset. I hadn’t slept for nights. My friend Samuel came with me. It was pitch dark. We met at a square, we could barely see our faces, we hugged and we set off towards his house. As we were about to go, Antoine asked me if I had a flash and lights with me and I said: I do not! My house is dark, he said and I said, perhaps too sure of myself, that we would invent something. Entering I saw a candle that I took with me. In a few moments I took all the portraits. Antoine, a nice person, was surprised I finished my work in such a short time. I had a vision of him in my head and I didn’t want to do other things. It is true that the first shots are the best. These pictures surely weren’t the picture of my life, though I like to remember them for their character and the story behind it.
I know you’re working on a new book, not your first publication. This time what will it be? What would you tell the world, that you’ve traveled so far and wide?
It will be a book about great photographers, friends of mine and with whom I often compare myself. It will be a kind of family album where you could see the photographer, not only at work but in daily life for example with his daughter, while cooking, on a bicycle, having a coffee etc. Lots of shots are taken from archives of the last 10 years, others are totally new. I simply tell my world, the world of photography and stories of friendships.
Roberto Strano, you’re a Sicilian artist and cosmopolitan at the same time. You are a photographer of emotions, good observer of life and society, you’re a teacher, you are a lover of speed and defender of human rights. Did I miss something? Who else are you?
Well, it will seem strange but I really do not feel like an artist. I do not like this definition. An artist is Picasso that from nothing created the imaginable or Michelangelo. I am only a photographer who tries to tell ethically and with love in the hope, stories to shake the human conscience.
Interview by Joanna Longawa
PHOTO GALLERY: Photo Cover by Laredo Montoneri @ Photo inside: Brasil 2014