Villaggio Coppola, Castel Volturno, Campania. Claudia is sleeping on the sofa next to her daughters Federica and Alessandra.
Villaggio Coppola, Castel Volturno, Campania. Federica leaning over the window.
Villaggio Coppola, Castel Volturno, Campania. Federica and Alessandra listening to Neapolitan music on the bed.
Villaggio Coppola, Castel Volturno, Campania. Alessandra standing in the middle of buildings at Saraceno Park, where she lives.
Villaggio Coppola, Castel Volturno, Campania. Claudia scolds her youngest daughter Federica.
Villaggio Coppola, Castel Volturno, Campania. Claudia with her partner Emiliano.
The outlet of Regi Lagni in the surroundings of villaggio Coppola. Area of illegal dump of toxic waste.
Cairo, Egypt. A fainted boy is being assisted after inhaling tear gas during the riots in Tahrir Square.
Cairo, Egypt. Wounded boy receiving assistance after the riots in Tahrir Square.
Cairo, Egypt. A voluntary nurse during the riots in Tahrir Square.
Rome. Federica shaves off her head before all of her hairs falls. Federica is fighting against colon cancer.
Rome. Federica washes herself after shaving her head off, before all of her hair falls.
Rome. Federica preparing the night I.V.
El Dessamy, Egypt, 2012. Ines collects fruits from the fig tree behind her home.
El Dessamy, Egypt, 2012. A man goas back up the bank of river Nile.
El Dessamy, Egypt, 2012. A mother and her daughter strolling around town.
El Dessamy, Egypt, 2012. The river Nile.
Francesca Leonardi lives in Rome and is represented by Contrasto. After her Psychology studies she approaches photography in the US, where she studies (South Florida Art Center in Miami and International Center of Photography in New York ) and works assisting photographers and in the film industry. A good deal of her body of work is dedicated to Egypt, focusing on the revolutions that changed the country's image radically. Her projects have gained international exposure, and in 2009 she was invited by the L.A.F. foundation in Prague to work on assignement to celebrate the Country's 20th anniversary of democracy. We interviewed her, asking about her work and vision.
Looking at the bulk of your works on Egypt it feels as though they represent, as a whole, a portrait of the country in a specific lapse of time (2010/2012, if we’re not mistaken). Could you tell us how this interest originated?
My interest in Egypt originated in 2011. It was January, during the days of the revolution, when I spoke to a dear friend and colleague of mine from the agency about planning to visit Cairo together. From that moment on I started feeling the pressing urge to see the square that really seemed to be the belly of the world, and to experience the process of the birth of a new democracy firsthand. In April I decided to leave for Cairo, where I travelled back several times for the following year and a half.
What did you want to observe, and have us observe, about this country?
For me photography is a means of research and comprehension, and the photographic works are the legs of this process. I began my journey in Egypt by getting close to the people who were experiencing this phase of change and, for the first time in their lives, of political involvement. I asked them to show me their city - the city they had lost attachment to - and this is how I managed to add more and more tiles to my comprehension of such a complex State. I tried to portray the contrast between vitality, the strenuous sense of change of the inhabitants and the condition of decay in which the government had left one of the most beautiful cities in the world for years.
How do you build up your works, from a planning and operative perspective?
In terms of planning, before setting off for a journey I organise all the contacts that might turn out to be useful in the city I’m travelling to, I focus on the points I deem necessary to tell my story, I read plenty of articles (especially from the foreign press!) and books that may give me practical information or captivating viewpoints for my subject-matters. Usually I leave enough room for improvisation on the spot and avoid too much pre-conceptualisation.
In “Egypt” it looks as though you are at the margins of the places that usually match certain stereotypes. Is that so? And what was your reaction to these works in Egyptian lands?
It’s always exceedingly interesting to look at your own work through the external eye of another person… I think of margins as imaginary lines around a given scene: extremity, contour, boundary. Yes, margins are places I enjoy being indeed, because they allow me to observe from a distance, and where you feel like your presence doesn’t have that much of an impact on reality. Furthermore, they often reflect my state of knowledge of the place and people I shoot - which in turn means that I wasn’t allowed to get any closer.
In “Revolutionary People. Far from Tahrir” the background landscape doesn’t seem to differ from “Egypt”. Same background, different stories. Is there a specific intention behind this similarity?
“Egypt” was conceived around the same time as “Revolutionary people”, so perhaps that’s why they are so similar. The places are the same: two rural villages a hundred kilometres from Cairo, surrounded by hundreds of cement industries. I was there to develop a project that later turned into a book, in collaboration with Cospe and Zona - the former being an Italian NGO, the second being an association I’m part of with other photographers, which promotes special projects. However different, all subjects are interconnected by the relationship they share with the flow of time outside the huge metropolis of Cairo, and by the rigid rules that are enforced in small communities strictly informed to Islam. That’s the reason why we couldn’t show the book to its protagonists. It was especially the women granting us access to their homes who warned us that they wouldn’t have been able to spread their testimony in their own villages, despite their strong willingness and urge to recount their breaking with traditions and customs. Otherwise it would have brought social discrimination upon them.
Your works feature a particular characteristic. For instance, in “Bed dreams” it’s quite evident and it’s related to adding a “light distance” that allows you to describe the scene. We often, though not always, noticed it and we’d like to know whether it is indeed a characteristic of yours - something that you search for as part of an aesthetics.
When looking for answers to the questions I pose to myself I often need to include a number of elements in a given scene, in order to convey its articulation and complexity. This is the reason why I need to take a few steps backwards at times. For me it means staying within the scene at all times, but with the necessary room to fully appreciate and comprehend it.
In such works as “Claudia” and “Bobak Family” the range changes. You lead us right inside the story and close to the protagonists. The framing, too, changes - which proves a different style variability to the previously-mentioned works. Could you tell us if that is a trait of your approach to photography?
Yes. Indeed the journey through the personal universe of another individual is one of the possibilities of photography that fascinates me the most. The relationship you develop over months or years of work (for instance, I’ve known and I’ve been photographing Claudia for 4 years now) shows through the images. It constitutes the recount of the choices that contribute to differentiate them. I once read an interview to American photographer Annie Liebovitz where she stated: “The camera is a great pretext for being there”. That’s how I often feel myself, too.
Which are your influences in terms of style and image construction?
I first started with photography when I was 23 as a portrait and fashion assistant in New York, where I got to know and worked with such majestic photographers as Irving Penn - whom, I believe, is still accountable amongst one of the greatest portrait photographers in the history of photography. I don’t have fixed, static aesthetic terms of reference and, most importantly, they are not merely photographic ones: I'm particularly fond of Diane Arbus’ research, the introspection of Frida Khalo, the landscapes of Stephen Shore, the analysis on human complexity by Dostoevskij, the love and death of Sally Mann.
In “Clashes in Tahrir Square”, similarly to “Cairo demonstration” and “Cairo protest”, we can find one of the most characteristic traits of your photography - which is at the margins of events, not at their centre (as in the representation given by media as proper riots). And it is so despite the fact it’s quite clear you were there right during the clashes: the preparation of edges, the first aid to the wounded ones, prayer and much more. One photo in particular demonstrates this. It’s the image of a boy leaning on the bulwark of a balcony, looking down - presumably to the people demonstrating.
During a series of conflicts aroused in November 2011, a few days prior to what would be the first free parliamentary elections of the country, I was attacked and my camera got stolen by the Egyptian police. It was me and a photographer friend of mine, Lavinia Parlamenti, just off Tahrir Square. That experience left a particular mark on me and had me reflect on my interest and role within the conflict. Why had I pushed myself to the front line? (Somehow I had resolved to taking the risk and tell the story of a lesser-known side of the square, the one behind the barricades - not in front of them). Why did I feel this urge to be in the middle of the riots, considering I didn’t even have the experience to really know how to face them? Now that I’d lost my pretext (i.e. my camera) I got a chance to screen my motivations deeper. The fright, the uncertainty, the adrenaline… Those reactions failed to stimulate me - on the contrary, they would block me. After all, I wasn’t revealing any exclusive images to the world. The square was packed with much more experienced photographers than me, and they would have most certainly created a much better work. Hence I searched for a dimension where I could build the necessary room to feel and listen. I repositioned myself where I love to observe: to the margins!
In “Egypt” there’s a photo depicting a group of people, from a few metres of distance, listening to the interview of a political activist, and you can see the full ensemble of this situation - which we often see from within, on tv. Here the “distant” approach is imbued with elements of a “comment on representation” that media usually give to this sort of micro-events. What do you think about it?
During my first visit to Cairo in April 2011 I would walk down to Tahrir Square every day, and every day I would walk the 300m circumference from one side of the square to the other. I would get a glimpse of a new, fun scene that caught my curiosity daily: a small TV troupe interviewing all the people surrounding them one by one, a lawyer standing on a fruit box and delivering a little speech filled with legal advice, a rapper with an acoustic speaker under his feet and a microphone in his hand telling of the joy of those revolutionary days. Every week a new TV station would be born, and bizzarre, odd characters would crowd it. In that particular historical moment I felt the impression that the country had the obsessive urge to represent itself by declaring its on-going change. I believe it was guided by the need of individual affirmation which had been denied till that moment. It was a demonstration that had reached a form of liberty, of democracy. I found it extremely stimulating to document this process. Unfortunately, 3 years into those days, it appears as though the current government wants to wipe those moments out of the collective memory altogether.
And what’s the reaction of the media to this type of photographs, in your experience?
Media are well aware of their own contradictions and the instrumental representation they give of events, together with their constitutional need to exist to provide for the definition of a historical process.
Let’s move on to your work on the Muslim Brotherhood. In the photo there’s a strong proximity with the subjects. How were you accepted as a woman? We know the question might sound misplaced (fueled by the stereotypes on the Muslim Brotherhood that feed us), but we’ll ask you anyway.
One of my first interests related to Egypt was in the Muslim Brotherhood. I was quite aware of the limitations I would have encountered in approaching them, being a Western woman. Yet I also knew that was a very favourable moment for them, for they needed the maximum exposition possible in order to gain as much consensus as they could for the upcoming elections. Hence they checked on my work carefully, allowing me to participate only to public events where they would have been able to have full monitoring powers over the situation. I couldn’t but play the game.
You have a distinct sensibility towards the world of muslim women and you’ve delivered an articulated and multifaceted representation of them throughout your work. From the Muslim Sisters to the girls demonstrating in squares, to the young muslim girls living and growing up in Italy - see “Islamic youth in Italy”. Could you tell us what you’re interested in conveying?
The world of muslim women and the pressing question of the veil have been catching my attention for years now. In 2010 with “Islamic Youth in Italy” I commenced investigating the double cultural identity question - how a muslim girl who was born or brought to Italy at a young age would get to the “call” of the veil during her adolescence, after the (sometimes coercive) influence of her own family… in what way this rule would guide her through choices and social behaviours. Moving to Egypt I then felt an even more impelling need to explore the role of women within an Islamic patriarchal society - how the urge to build a strong union would define the choice of belonging to a group (the Muslim Sisters) featuring almost familiar, blood relations.
As a photojournalist, which aspects do you deem necessary in order to determine the relationships with us readers of magazines where you’re published?
I’d wish for the genesis of a relationship of trust between reader and narrator, because without trust one wouldn’t succeed in making a proper journey together.
What are the professional, ethical and deontological assumptions you base your job as photojournalist on?
Honesty, respect for human dignity, the right/duty of information, respect for other people’s choices (which often translates to a “no!” when asked to take a picture of them).
We haven’t seen significant traces of multimedia in your work. Could you tell us something about this aspect?
A few years ago I ran a multimedia project with "Bed Dreams", which now is not visible on my website though. It will be online soon. I’d like to continue on that path and I’ve recently started shooting videos of my visits to Claudia in the Villaggio Coppola. I’m quite interested in the transitions that a number of photographers are making towards different narrative forms in these past few years.
In reference to the future of photojournalism and according to your own experience, which elements are allowing for the sector to evolve?
In light of the crisis of the publishing industry, an ever-increasing number of crowd-funding and self-publishing platforms have been developing, together with excellent photographic competitions which allow photographers to work more freely to themes that are not necessarily connected to the editorial needs. Currently I’m following - with much enthusiasm - the work of a few talented photojournalists, who are shifting towards taking documentary photography out of galleries and sectoral circuits, and spreading it amongst people.
Who do you pass the baton to and why?
Darcy Padilla. A tiresome photographer with exceptional vitality and determination, who has taught me a great deal.
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