From "Forgotten memories". A monk praying inside the church of Visoki Dečani monastery. Built in the mid-XIV century and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is now featured in the List of World Heritage in Danger. It has undergone complete restoration for years. 35 monks live here, many of whom entered it in the past 12 years. It is protected by the Italian army. Dečani, Kosovo.
From "Forgotten memories". The "badnjak" - the Serbian Orthodox Christmas log ritual. It consists in burning an oak log or branch in front of the church door, a few hours before midnight on Christmas Eve. In the days prior to Christmas celebrations, the monks walk up to the mountains (strictly escorted by the army) and choose the log to cut off. Dečani, Kosovo.
From "Forgotten memories". A carver monk at the Visoki Dečani monastery. Lacking any contact with the world outside the monastery, the monks have to be totally self-sufficient with regard to daily-life activities. Each of them plays a specific role within the community. Dečani, Kosovo.
From "Forgotten memories". Believers in the refectory of the Visoki Dečani monastery. Today in Kosovo 90% of the population consists of Muslim Albanians. Only a small percentage is represented by Serbian Orthodoxes. Given the high risk of attacks by the Albanian majority, this minority attends religious services in the monasteries only on such special celebrations as Christmas’ Eve and Easter Sunday. Dečani is a small village where ethnic and religious hatred is still deeply rooted. Dečani, Kosovo.
From "Forgotten memories". Visoki Dečani monastery. Built in the mid-XIV century and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has undergone complete restoration for years. 35 monks live here.
From "Vanishing". Saintes Maries de la mer. 2007. Gipsy pilgrimage taking place in the second half of May.
From "Vanishing". Saintes Maries de la mer. 2007. Celebration and pilgrimage for St. Maries Salomè and St. Maries Jacobè.
Giovanni Cocco is a freelance photographer published in a number of Italian and international magazines. A self-taught photographer, he lands to professional photography after attending several workshops. Having always been interested in anthropological, social and environmental topics, he has developed an extremely personal approach that is mainly characterised by a “lateral” eye. He has been awarded manifold international prizes (amongst which there are the Anthropographia Award, the FotoVisura Grant, the American Photography Award and the Prix Roger Pic). We have interviewed him and tried to catch the most characterising traits of his work as a photographer.
In our opinion, your photography appears to be “minimalistic” in its style, yet sharp and profound in the gestures it captures, in the theme choices and in the image processing. What are you in search of with photography?
I am attracted to what originates in the shadows, to bodies catching the light, to harmony and beauty. It is in instinctive process through which I glimpse stories, intertwine relationships, push myself toward constantly new places - it is a way to enter other people’s lives.
You focused on themes that are less covered by the media, and yet they are crucial indicators of socio-economic and cultural balances, such as “Toiling Tunisia” (on the decisive role of female farm work in Tunisia), “Forgotten Memories” (on the perishing of the Christian-Orthodox heritage during the Kosovo war), “Moving Walls” (on the barriers that have been built on the borders of Europe to obstruct immigration) or “Vanishing” (on the meaning of collective rituals). It feels as though you were working - if you allow us - a “thematically lateral gaze” that is oriented toward some deep connections - which, in turn, are less evident, yet still of paramount relevance for the situations you face. What can you tell us about this?
I look for themes that will contrast a predatory attitude in an era where producing images has become a mass activity. I am drawn toward subjects that allow me to work slowly. My instinct drives me to stories that create intimate connections through experience and humane contact. For instance, I lived several months in an Orthodox monastery in Kosovo to create “Forgotten Memories”. It was a formative experience that determined my approach to photography, as well. I learnt to look for a kind of subtracting photography where removing is more important than adding. In this sense, a lateral gaze can be the best way to reach depth.
In your photographic work we do not find a specific visual emphasis. Beyond the technology talk, we would like to ask you which focal length you use and how the choice of the technological device is intrinsic to your style.
The technological choice depends on the kind of relation I want to establish with the world: it is a sort of mental attitude, quoting Alec Soth. I try and go back to using film and the medium format, in order to rediscover a more solid photographic mindset at the basis of each shot - and have more time to observe things.
Different relationships between subjects (both human and non-human) are built in a number of your photographs: is it part of your way of reasoning and observing?
Yes. I enjoy looking for invisible threads that keep people in the same visual space, together with their thoughts and the surroundings. Following in these imaginary paths, I find my vision, my way of putting things in mutual relation and discover a connection between figures, landscapes and memory. It is another way to be present, to be there within that space.
We think that contrast - especially in black & white - is the tool you use to create tension in your photos - see “Vanishing”. Is it so?
Black & white is a language that allows me to let myself go. It is a minimalistic way of shooting, which is simultaneously dreamlike, abstract, and consisting of lights and shadows only. This freedom helps me access a more introspective level of reading through reality - which is also more emotional, like in “Vanishing”.
In a number of your images, particularly in “Monia”, we find an intent to build visual landscapes where to let the portrayed subject inhabit (or at least some space where to place them), as though you were reconstructing their own world around them. What can you tell us about this?
For me, shooting “Monia” is a continuous act of learning. Through photography and gathering together I try to understand what her way of looking at reality and inhabit it is. I try to capture what she captures. The worlds I see around Monia would not exist without her. They recount her personality. That is why I try to depict the visual space that surrounds her.
How do you construct the relationship with the people you portray?
Usually I have a clear mind on how to shoot a person, from the very first glance. However, before doing so I need to establish a relationship based on trust and exchange: I explain my project and listen to their story. I try to found a harmony before starting shooting - a relationship that consists of little intimate secrets.
How do you prepare your projects usually?
There is a definition by John Berger I like quite a lot. When he starts writing down a story he says” he is “entering the listening phase” - a listening that consists of sounds, voices and words. I try to access the same status myself, too: starting from the moment when I find an idea, I try to read a lot about that given topic. I watch movies. I look for oral stories. And I listen to a great deal of music that is somehow connected to my story. It helps me to get into this mental zone, as Berger describes it. It is during this phase that I write down the guidelines of my work - locations, people, objects. Simultaneously - and in a completely instinctive way - my imagination begins producing terms of reference - that is the figures I look for in the real world, through my eyes.
Could you tell us about your approach to different works? For instance, what is your mindset toward assigned, freelance and commercial projects?
When it comes to assigned and commercial projects, I am highly disciplined on a mental level. Printed works follow strict rules and I am aware of the fact that I need to produce a certain type of photographs. As for long-term projects, i.e. those I usually work on autonomously, there is more room for letting myself go to a research and experimentation type of photography. Either ways, I will put in the exact same amount of energy.
Your website features a Commercial section where photographs are quite reminiscent of the works from the Projects section. Is this how clients choose you?
Clients often seek a different photographic approach. In turn, they opt for documentary photographers who not only have an alternative eye to advertising photographers, but they also convey a feeling of experience that can enrich ad campaigns in an original style.
What is the destination of the works from your Projects section? (A book, an exhibition?)
Photography should always resolve to [producing] a book or an exhibition, in order to complete the work and bring images into being. My projects are always conceived with this intent, but - unfortunately - not all of them end up realising it.
When you think of your job as a photographer do you characterise it with a social role, too?
The soul of photography is the ability to leave a mark, some memory of reality. Therefore, if by social role you mean “the recount of an experience” then yes, I think my photography does have this role. Instead, if you think of photography as a way to change things, or as a tool to represent an objective reality, I believe it is an enormous illusion. All photographs are ambiguous by nature.
When you are working on a project for an exhibition or a publication, do you have us (the viewers of your photos) in mind? What would you wish that could emerge from coming across your work?
I would like to take the viewer inside a world - a new, unique dimension to be explored. I would like to learn to complement photos with other languages, in order to provide the viewer with different tools of reading through it - because, unfortunately, photos in themselves do not maintain the meaning of an event. Rather, they deliver only a lateral and subjective part of my personal interpretation of a moment.
Considering your style of photography (which is highly dedicated toward people and the things of life), what kind of approach do you establish with the narrative?
I do not look for a chronological or descriptive narration. I follow the thread of memory and subconsciousness. In order to recount a story, I try to understand what it means to me and to my experience, and I try to depict my vision of it. I set out guidelines for myself and then I will let events lead me.
When a photographic work turns into an editorial piece, an exhibition or a book, what kind of relationship do you establish between the single image and the chosen sequence?
Each photo has its own story. And I believe you can look at an exhibition without following a fixed course - much like the fact that you might flip through the pages of a photo-book starting from the middle or the end, even. An approach that is different and free promotes a personal vision of the work. Everybody will experience it their own way, thus generating a new interpretation.
From what we have seen, it seems like editing plays a very important role within your projects. Is it correct? If so, do you do it yourself or do you have some external editor assist you?
Alex Majoli says that during the editing phase “you decide who you are”. I fully agree on this, and that is why I always try and do the editing myself. Then I will look for confrontation with people I trust - who do not necessarily belong to the photography industry.
It seems to us that you have never released any multimedia work. Is it a choice? Have you already tried this mode out or will you, in the future?
To be honest I am just only starting a new project with writer Caterina Serra. By tackling the same topic through two different languages, we try to understand how writing and photography may stick together whilst remaining independent. I would also like to shoot a movie, but that’s another story.
Considering the changes that are occurring in journalism and photojournalism, how do you see your future (involving both technology and your professional role)?
I prefer to simply define myself as a photographer. I’m not mad about guerrilla photojournalism - being everywhere to capture every instant. I need time to understand where I am and how to be there. My role, hence my future, will always be to recount my own experience - despite the paradoxes and difficulties photography happens to face.
What is your photographic and non-photographic formation?
I started off as a self-taught. It was only when photography had become my job that I attended a few workshops. For a long time I would shoot by drawing inspiration from the photographers I deem as my mentors, until I found my own, personal path. Obviously my research keeps going on.
Who would you like to pass the baton to and why?
First I would like to thank Fausto Podavini for passing it on to me.
Then I would like to pass the baton to Stefano De Luigi who, beyond his marvellous career, has never ceased to be curious, to feel, to get emotional and explore the world he lives in.
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