T.I.A. © Stefano De Luigi
Pornoland - Set of "Ass Alien", Los Angeles, June 2000. © Stefano De Luigi
Blindness © Stefano De Luigi
Vanity Ceremonies © Stefano De Luigi
Blanco © Stefano De Luigi
iDissey © Stefano De Luigi
T.I.A. - Tortoise Community, Monrovia, Liberia - October 2008. © Stefano De Luigi
T.I.A. © Stefano De Luigi
iDissey © Stefano De Luigi
Cinema Mundi - China. © Stefano De Luigi
T.I.A. - Kenya. © Stefano De Luigi
T.I.A. © Stefano De Luigi
Vanity Ceremonies - Backstage at Vivienne Westwood fashion show, Paris, October 2010. © Stefano De Luigi
Blanco - Bukavu, Congo, July 2005. Virunga Hospital. © Stefano De Luigi
T.I.A. © Stefano De Luigi
A professional photographer since 1988, Stefano De Luigi is member of Agency VII and resides in Paris. His photos are published on big international magazines, such as Stern, Paris Match, le Monde, Time, New Yorker, EyeMazing, Geo, D di Repubblica, and Internazionale. He has also received prestigious awards, amongst which are several Word Press Photo’s, POY, and Leica Oscar Barnack.
Between 2004 and 2006, in collaboration with CBM Italia, he produced Blindness, a work on the condition of the blind in the world - a highly intense project with peculiar visual research. In his latest project, iDyssey, which has been released through two iPhones, he sets on a quest to find the roots of the epic world in the Mediterranean, catching its signs of contemporaneity.
In our interview, De Luigi tells about his story, and deepens the incessant research that permeates his photographic production.
Let’s start with Blanco, your work on blindness. We think it presents a particular take to the viewers: it looks like a challenge to our visual perception, that is subjected to a constant “focusing” and its re-adjustment. Is it so? What can you tell us about it?
Blanco is a work intended to make people reflect on the human condition. The physicality of blindness is told in the book through side elements. How the blind “invest” their life space, how they occupy it, how they sometimes don’t feel at east or how they feel comfortable, too. However, the work is also intended as an opportunity to reflect on the metaphor of not being able to see - “those who do have sight, but are not able to see”. That’s why I dared to show it to José Saramago, whose book “Blindness” was a big inspiration for me. He kindly consented that I used extracts from it - like pills of his book - in order to delve more into this work, and direct it towards a more universal reflection on the blind’s condition. During this work I’ve often felt bare, visible and identified by the blind much more than it happens with the non-blind. That’s where the beauty of the the work I do lays. It’s always been inquired by photographers. I think it represents - superficially only - our mirror identity, what is opposite to our experience of watching by seeing. There you go, I’m not the first to work on this theme.
Where does Blanco originate from? From which urge?
I don’t think there was ever a urge in the basic process of the work - but conscience, rather. A merry alchemy of right moments. A certain maturity, arrogance, solitude that blended together well and lead to a result that is rich. It’s surely the most important work I’ve made so far - and, probably, that I’ll ever make.
You’ve set up an exhibition out of this work, in addition to a multimedia project and a book. They’re three different media and represent three different ways to tell, or let us in, in a particular world. Is it a pondered choice or did it develop with time? What does this choice represent? Why articulate the same theme through several media?
This choice is connected to a revolution in the photographic language, the richness of the job, and its (I’d dare say) exhaustive dimension - which allowed me to decline it under neighboring forms and languages, with time. This wouldn’t have been possible if the theme itself hadn’t been as predominant.
If the very contrast wasn’t as attractive, then you’d have to find other people who’d be up to prompt themselves to such a complex challenge. I’ve been so fortunate as to meet some brave people, or simply youngsters who grabbed the opportunity that such project could give them in terms of deepening the analysis.
What kind of relationship did you constitute with the blind people in your photographs, in the different phases of the work, also considering that the book cover is in Braille?
There isn’t much difference in the way I relate with the subject I work with. There’s always a (I’d say ‘critical’) balance between empathy and kindness, which are the primary feelings for me. Similarly to all photographers, I always find myself battling in a limbo that I’m not to cross, and that allows me to build the necessary distance to reflect whilst I’m living and experiencing that (given) situation. However, I always remain alert in terms of the critical moment you have to deliver through your photographs. It’s about the syntax of the story, that leaves no room for gaps or distractions. It’s a highly difficult exercise that you may achieve only through a lot of patience, allowing yourself as much time as you can in order to deepen [the analysis]. The choice of making it a paramount project followed the logic I described above, and it developed over time.
What was the reaction of the audience and the experts to this work?
I’ve had extremely positive reactions. The book was appreciated at once, and regarded as a special project for its form and contents. Similarly, the multimedia has gained various acknowledgments and, because of its easy usability, it gained much more exposure than the book or the exhibition. This reassures me as to the choices I’ve made - to decline the work in different way, with different usability opportunities. The relationship you have with a universal project is ambiguous. Once it’s finished, you’re happy to be over the obsession. At the same time, my professional mind-set (fortunately) forces me to tend to more and more ways of spreading my work.
On the whole, your works are characterized by a multitude of media and forms: digital, smartphone, panoramic pictures, and the use of different ways of distributing the project. What does this variety of tools represent for your personal research?
It matches a personal curiosity, that is the fuel to my living. The opportunities to enrich the photographic language (be them determined by the technological process or by an in-depth artisan knowledge) push me to reflect on the research about experimentation. Still, one discriminant remains: that’s the intellectual honesty to utilizing these means when there’s a valid motif behind. In other words, I don’t belong to the Orthodox line of photographers who refuse innovation for a question of principle. Neither do I belong to the group of photographers whose style has been determined by it, and who stick to aesthetic assignments as their authorial ID. I try to leave the door open to innovations that may sediment in my work. But first, I’ll always try to answer the question: “Why am I doing this?”.
In particular, your latest work, iDyssey, was entirely made with a smartphone. Could you tell us about this choice?
Smartphones have modified part of the language I use to express myself. Here-hence the birth of what I’d call an ‘undying’ curiosity to check on what’s going on. However, smartphones - although they amplify the distribution of images, the use of photography and it’s fruition - carry a dangerous concept with them, that is superficiality. Leaving enormous power to a device has lead to thinking that random mode, in addition to a good app, can produce good pictures - catchy pictures, but superficial. The ultimate meaning of iDyssey is to stress the fact that a good photograph conveys a thought, it talks to us constantly, it doesn’t self-explain itself and it’s not unveiled immediately. The concept doesn’t change, regardless of whether the picture is taken with a shoe-box or an iPhone. The reason why I used two iPhones to shoot this work is that I wanted to tell of the Odyssey (which is, together with the Iliad, the most ancient cultural heritage of the Western civilization) through the most advanced medium. I’m always a storyteller, but a contemporary one…
Does your sight change when you’re shooting with a smartphone? If it does, how?
It’s not my sight that’s changing, but rather an inner feeling - that I’d say is lighter and more adventurous. For two months I travelled on any means of transport and in great happiness, because I’d managed to get rid of the professional frills, and I challenged myself again like at the beginning of my career. [I was happy also because] I had managed to finally venture on this trip I had longed for for a long time, but failing to find a real reason to do it. It was freeing. In this regard, my sight was different - more free to wander beyond the perimeter that usually defines us whilst telling stories. Here History, men and women, places, the past and the present were playing before my eyes.
Looking at iDyssey it feels like observing the return to a certain materiality of the picture, that is different from a certain digital perfection. Is that so?
Yes, it is. For example, the idea was to going back to shooting analogically, because framing and shooting with a smartphone is a slower operation for me, which requires as much concentration as a single shot with a Leica. And the technical result, in its “impure materiality”, is very similar to analog prints.
What distribution did iDyssey get?
First came the editorial distribution. One magazine in particular (Geo France) had the courage to support the project since the beginning. With time, came other magazines such as the New Yorker, which wanted to create a multimedia project commencing with the short films I had produced and the recordings of sounds taken from the street.
Now the project is having a second life through exhibitions in Paris for the Mois de la Photo and other upcoming exhibits. In addition, it’s been presented to the Fondazione “Le Stelline” in Milan, with the support of the Piccolo Teatro.
In this case, too, I’ve got a lot of magmatic material to work with, and the current meetings I’m involved in make me feel optimistic about the life of this project.
Would you have produced a work such as T.I.A. with a smartphone?
No. As I said before, I always pose myself the same question: “Why am I doing this?”. And, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have found any answer for T.I.A.
Let’s move on to T.I.A.: what’s the origin of the idea to showcase it as a diptych on your website, too?
In presenting this project, you compare it with a ballad. Could you tell us in what way?
T.I.A. is a reflection on the long life of photos regardless of our intention, how they are capable to produce debate after years, how they trace a line that tells of a coherence of sights in principles - and on the way of living. I said that T.I.A. should have been a ballad, a kind of poem dedicated to a continent I love and makes me curious - a continent that scares, overpowers, puzzles and saddens me, and regenerates me, too.
Accepting the impotence to speak a definite word over 20 years of work in Africa, I wanted to at least create some chapters, a sort of personal recap of my experiences, both personal and professional… [In other words,] diptychs trying to identify some of the most characterizing aspects of African societies, and geo-political and economical movements I recounted with many reports in that continent.
I don’t deem it finished, but I know it’ll be a difficult project - and “difficult” is just an euphemism.
In part of your photography there seems to be a relationship with the movie industry, expressed in many of your pictures’ light. Plus, you’ve dedicated a work, Cinema Mundi, to the film industry. Could you tell us about it?
My relationship with the film industry is that of a person in love. It’s been like this forever, especially thanks to the years in Paris. Now that I’m back to living in this city this relationship [feels even more] important than ever. It’s a bond as a user, a simple traveller who pays the price of the ticket to give themselves a gift - a marvelous mental trip of another ticket paid to be projected in a place where fantasies are limitless, like Alice. Hence a big influence on my work. The perception that’s been sedimenting stronger and stronger over time is that movies are often a sequence of styles and photographies. Through movies I’ve also studied lighting - not programmatically, but by instinct. Also, I believe that it happens to everyone over the years… My tastes have become sharper, but I stay an (often) omnivore consumer when it comes to genres.
By looking at your works it often emerges how you’re able to express yourself in different stylistic codes - our mind goes to such works as Hidden China or Chinese Holidays. It seems to us like a sort of eclecticism that participates of your approach to photography. Is that so?
Yes, it is. Honestly, it’s a limit of mine, because often times the interlocutors in this field are in search of certainties - my mind goes to galleries and institutions in particular. They expect beautiful drawers where they can place genres and styles methodically.
I find it hard to classify myself. I use the term ‘Documentary Photographer’ generically, because I feel it best fits the sense of my quest. But I don’t deny that it’s hard to take myself seriously sometimes. If I want to work on a project that is important for me and makes me curious, it’s hard to give it in because of certain limitations that other colleagues of mine are much better at putting than I am. With regard to the works you cited, we’re on about two different codes, that are supposed to pinpoint to a complex country and deliver highly different emotions to us.
Is there a moment in your photographic process when you think of your audience?
No - also because I don’t have an audience. I think about the truthfulness of the stories I’m telling, not to let others manipulate me. I think about the fact that when I’m posting a picture on Instagram or Facebook I first have a responsibility toward those who will read or see what I’ve shot, but along the creative process I’ve always been - and I’ll always be - in blissful solitude.
What’s your relationship with narration?
It’s difficult, because I felt to abstract myself from reality as much as I’d like to. Narration entails lyrical moments in order to be able to capture the reader/user and often times I can’t find these moments of poetry within myself - at least not as many as I’d wish.
What does photographing mean to you?
It’s alternatively joy and sorrow. It’s never been something that’s left me indifferent. I think it’s easier to say that it’s my way of being in the world.
Who are you passing the baton to and why?
To Lorenzo Castore, whom I have appreciated for a long time. His work, like good wine, gets better as the years go by.
The articles here have been translated for free by a native Italian speaker who loves photography and languages. If you come across an unusual expression, or a small error, we ask you to read the passion behind our words and forgive our occasional mistakes. We prefer to risk less than perfect English than limit our blog to Italian readers only.