© Roberta Levi
Born in Rome in 1964, she now lives in Milan. She’s a journalist and director of photography of Io Donna, the weekly magazine of Corriere della Sera, and Amica, the monthly magazine of Rcs Mediagroup. She directed the photographic production of the photo agency Contrasto for fifteen years. She works on editorial and exhibition projects of both individual authors and collectives. She has always been dedicated to teaching. A member of various judging panels of Italian and international prizes, she has been keeping a blog on photographic stories on Il Post for five years.
How would you define photo-editors today?
I think photo-editors are people who are strongly committed to making photography a language of spreading information and raising awareness.
Photojournalism, similarly to journalism itself, is widely thought to be undergoing a crisis connected to various reasons: what’s your opinion?
I think that’s primarily based on a cultural crisis of information. First television, then the web have changed our perception of speed over the past two decades. As a result, we now have more sources of information, but the difficulties in verifying them have increased, too. We are overwhelmed by news (not merely visual ones) that really put to the test our ability to select them. We see a lot, but we don’t analyze as much any longer. As far as images are concerned, there is a paradox: our illiteracy level worsens as constant stimulation grows.
So far, journalism and photojournalism have shared the same fate. The traditional publishing industry is declining. There’s a lack of new plans for both newspapers and magazines. It’s difficult to understand and produce information on the web. All these factors have weakened editorial and photo journalism equally, and the big publishing companies are suffering from the consequences of having spent and wasted a great deal in the past. Now we’re facing a decrease in advertorial incomes and the much needed generational turnover is far from being a reality. The outcome is a paralysis of the information market.
Today there are countless freelance journalists and photographers. On the one hand, they have a wider audience (see online magazines, social networks, web TVs and - of course - printed press); on the other, they fail to find an audience to communicate, build projects and grow with. The publishing industry used to be the main source of financing, promotion and visibility for photo stories, but this crisis has deeply changed the way researches are carried out. We are witnessing a new form of independent reportages: photographers produce contents that are offered once they’re fully completed.
Sticking to our field: regardless of how you want to consider photographers (as freelancers or occasional workers), they have no connection with the newspaper/magazine which will publish their work. This is a kind of forced independence. Together with the lack of assignments, these circumstances have required photographers to become extremely good at their job. They take countless risks and invest financially. They offer the publishing industry original and exhaustive stories. Some manage to pursue their projects, others just quit.
Another effect of the independence of projects is that photographers have started to explore new spaces for visibility. The self-publishing phenomenon and the increase in editorial productions are a clear signal of the huge vitality of photography.
What do you see in the future of our field regarding photojournalism (by pixel and paper)?
I think it’s necessary to redesign the roles.
The scenario has changed, and those who produce and choose images must be more and better prepared than in the past. You must come to terms with the web and its speed - avoid photos that have already been seen, break stereotypes, follow the project line of the authors, participate in the editing process. Today photo-editors must bridge the heterogenous world of the publishing industry and that of photographic research. It’s not an acknowledged role yet, but it will have to be to keep this necessary profession alive.
We must be ready, reinvent ourselves, study. The commitment we’re called to when working with photography is a good thing for us. This commitment is necessary for us as well as for photographers, because it reconnects those who produce and those who use photographs in these confused, difficult and - I hope - temporary years.
The challenge is already taking place: [it’s about] redesigning the subjectivity of those who make information, giving back their identity and dignity to those who create, write, draw, take photos. It’s no longer the time to just fill in the gaps in-between texts. It’s about producing culture, observing the world and filtering it. It’s about translating the world into images that can come from photographers, from the web, from witnesses. We have open minds and all is possible. Only those who have prepared themselves to this will survive.
In your opinion, what experiences are tracing interesting directions to follow on how to make journalism on an international level?
There are certainly some magazines that have mastered the relationship between print and web - I’m thinking of The Guardian, The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Atlantic, only to name a few. Then there are other digital-born magazines that have exploited the path of good journalism and have gone online with fresh energy and solid experience: Mediapart, Politico, Quartz, Slate, etc. As for Italy, there are interesting publications like Internazionale, whose success and consolidated relationship with the audience have thrown it into the challenge of the web and created a new product - without the flaw of reproducing newspapers on pixel, as though the web were a mere device. The experience of Il Post is one I find interesting and is growing vividly - and I keep a blog on it. I follow Rivista Studio and Doppiozero for in-depth analysis - they seem quite interesting. As for online newspapers, some of them are experimenting well and acting as forerunners in terms of new contents and use of images. They are trying to deepen every now and then certain subject-areas with web-reportages.
From the privileged standpoint of your profession, what do you see emerging in terms of reportages and photojournalism? Perhaps right from the core of global conflicts - we’re thinking of the example set by Iraqi agency Metrography.
Metrography teaches us two things: first, there is [a type of] local photography that has a lot to say; second, the era of photographic imperialism is over. To be able to tell a story, you have to be there, know it, study it and live it.
The “witness” is a protagonist. It looks like the natural evolution of photojournalism to me - and this doesn’t apply to countries torn by wars or poverty only. I’m thinking of contemporary Chinese photographers, what they told us about their country… Aspects that no other foreigner could have caught - unless, perhaps, if they had stayed a long time on location.
Also the new Russian generation is really interesting: during the latest edition of Visa Pour l’Image  in Perpignan I saw more Russian photographers than all the European ones combined. Photography is a universal and accessible language that allows for an independent traning. A number of great authors is self-taught: this means, so powerful and so simple, and gives everyone the chance to tell [a story]. That’s why I feel local experiences will turn into collective collaborations, anthropological portraits, reports. And I think they don’t only enrich the single authors, but us all - because they come from a direct and partecipative “source” that we can trust more.
Quality is often cited as a necessary virtue in your profession. What is quality to you?
The quality of photojournalism depends essentially onthe sincerity of the intentions and intellectual honesty. [The honesty] of those who take photographs, who spread those images, as well as of those who use them. That’s the only way to rebuild a mutual trust with the viewers.
What’s your position as a photo-editor towards visual narration? Is it connected to the ability of a single shot of telling a story or is it development that you seek the most within a bulk of photos? Could you give us some examples?
What I’m interested in is telling a story through images. I need to have a broad vision of a place or a subject: what happened before? What is going to happen? I need many suggestions to get into the story.
The press needs single shots, too, but they have a different task. I’m thinking of the first page of a newspaper or a homepage: we have to introduce (or launch) some news, wrap it up, sum it up, and stimulate the curiosity and emotions of the readers.
Usually I don’t trust single images, because they are often the result of an exceptional moment. Single images don’t allow to read a story, to really know their author’s language and his point of view. But if we talk about single images as an artistic research from a photographic standpoint… In this case I think the conceptual goal of the authors lies in that single work, which has no narrative intention. It is created to include in itself everything the artist wants to say and evoke in us. But this is really another story.
In what way is the relationship between photo-editor and photographer characterized? Which processes are established?
Talking about my [own] relationship with photographers, I don’t think a given rule exists.
In my experience, the relationship happens at the table. I try to have lunch or dinner with the photographers as often as I can. When you sit at a dining table there are no computers or prints. You get the chance to mentally build the story that you’re going to see later. I like how they showcase their work. It’s a way to establish a connection, to imagine something in my mind and then let myself be surprised - which happens quite often. There are marvelous descriptions, and not so good images - and lunches where few words are spoken. But you still come home with an interesting photo and ideas to think about.
The photographers I meet up with aren’t usually looking for confirmations about their works. On the contrary, they expect constructive criticism, and they want to be challenged. Most of them need help with editing the narrative sequence or some advice on how and where to present their work. I often come across works in progress that need to take a certain final direction - works for which the photographers need advice on what is still missing or has been investigated too superficially. Hardly no-one comes to me suggesting works for the magazines I work for. Paradoxically, it feels like getting published is not a priority any longer. It must be because the pay is so little or perhaps because of the smaller and smaller consideration they grant the publishing industry.
Anyway, one fact stands true today: getting published in newspapers or magazines constitutes no means of measuring the success of their work.
You’ve recently curated the publication of 4, released by Terra Project with WuMing2. What’s the difference between a magazine’s work and an editorial work such as this one? Could you tell us something about this experience?
The work behind an editorial project for a book and what you do daily for magazines - be them weekly or monthly - is entirely different. In the first case, you plan extensively and times are quite prolonged. With photographers we normally work on long-term projects. We choose the images and build a draft for the sequence. Once this draft is built, the designer starts working on the container. As this process goes on (and it does undergo a number of changes due to the need of adaptations), you work on texts: introduction, afterword, testimonies, subtexts, biographies, etc. Putting all this together calls for a demanding and thrilling teamwork. You see something being born (which didn’t exist before) - and, whatever the outcome, it will forever be in its substantial form and traceability.
It’s like leaving a little mark, telling a small story in the massive story of the world.
When it comes to these projects, I build an empathic relation with photography - it’s obsessive, physical and highly creative.
Working with magazines is different: each issue you prepare ends as it is sent out to the typography. Publications blow over as you send out new pages and start a new issue. What remains is the memory of the things you have produced or published - the good ones and those that turned out badly and that you regret. As fascinating as it may be (and it really is), it’s something that never belongs to you completely. It’s built up with the editorial staff, which is a vast and not always an homogenous group: a magazine is the result of a number of mediations and different skills over which the editor-in-chief has the final and decisive say.
You constantly live by charged-up rhythms, even in the case of finishing a monthly publication: you have to respect deadlines, follow guidelines and make last minute alterations.
The experience of “4” was extremely difficult. Gathering together such different people who had never even met before, with no assignments (hence with no deadlines to respect) was like swimming in the high seas without knowing which direction to take. It didn’t originate as a collective project, and perhaps that’s why it was hard to make it as such.
We created a fantastic story starting from photos of real life from different photographers and works. Basically it was about working on an archive, diving into four years of releases and finding a common denominator, so that the final result would be homogenous.
It was a really big challenge. A triple pike jump. Years of work, countless interruptions, lots of words and huge labor.
What outcomes do you see for multimedia? Do you deem it as a likely “evolution” of photojournalism or rather as a tool that adds up to a well-grounded means? We’re thinking of multimedia works from the New York Times, or Hollow, and the like - however different one from the other.
I’m extremely glad that multimedia has entered photojournalism. On some levels, it represents an evolution. Generally speaking, I’m very optimistic towards online information and the role of photos, both still and moving images. I believe that quality journalism - the kind of in-depth journalism - could and should restart from the new media, because it’s [more] convenient. Photography, videography, graphics, infographics, illustration and words need to be the languages that information has to be able to speak again, if it wants to be interesting (and live online). I cannot but have faith in a rebirth. And I confess I’d like to have the opportunity to contribute to this rebirth and experience the privilege of experimenting. Today it’s unthinkable to create new magazines without a dialogue with the web, that is without a dual project. Yet it does happen, and the result is always the same: magazines that survive a season and are shut down after burning away financial resources and professional contributions.
I believe the real investment in projects should be in the vast webspace. It’s crucial to go back to inventing and then reverting to print magazines, without mocking each other. The web doesn’t constitute an alternative to print, and viceversa. They have different possibilities and goals.
If they’re done properly, they both work. So we get back to the quality issue. You always end up and restart from that point. That’s what is needed, otherwise we’ll never overcome [this agony] and will keep looking at it, counting the victims.
Sometimes we perceive a certain difficulty in asserting a clear identity in reportages today, which seem to be in a constant and continuous tension towards different directions - art, authorship, even self-abnegation at times, and, more generally, towards an often interesting contamination. Which phase are we in?
We are more open-minded and unorthodox, and less rigid. For instance, we can look at conflicts from various points of view.
I’m thinking of the images from contemporary wars: press agencies offer a continuous flow that updates us on the[ir] factual evolution, while the protagonists of the horrors document their lives and produce evidence through smartphones or simple cameras. The commitment of big contemporary maestros who follow a long-term conflict are individual viewpoints, epic visions.
So [there is] a non-stopping flow of [breaking] news, individual evidences, big stories - these are the many languages of photography. None can replace the other.
If we add up the many opportunities the history of photography has given us to deepen the tragedy of war in different places or historical moments, then we’ll get the chance to enjoy a greater number of works at different levels.
Just to give a few examples… while I answer the questions of this long interview, there are a few exhibitions going on that can back up my claim: I’m thinking of Tate’s Conflict, Time, Photography and La guerra che verrà non è la prima
1914 – 2014 at Mart in Rovereto.
As for authorship in contemporary photography, some photographers use other languages when dealing with themes that are dear to photojournalism. And so they give us the chance of another approach to war: Broomberg & Chanarin or Raphaël Dallaporta, only to name a couple. Others, like Gabriele Basilico with Beirut or Simon Norfolk with The battle space, have chosen documentary photography to lead us towards suggestion and reflection; the large scenarios of Luc Delahaye and the chromatic gimmicks of Richard Mosse, have offered original points of view - just like Josef Koudelka with “Chaos”, who offers a new, powerful interpretation of a wounded land.
I realize that the example of war is quite obvious. Yet, if we really think it through, it’s so iconic in photojournalism that it works perfectly to point out the danger of forgetting other possible stimuli we face.
Contamination means richness, and different languages are our best chances to grow: eyes, stomach, heart, mind, skin.
How do you relate to these trends as a photo-editor?
As I said before, today’s magazines are not the right means of expression for contemporary photography. They don’t exploit the rich and variegated offer that is out there.
They are limited to the “illustrative” image, not the documentary one. They’re not interested in authorship, unless filtered by an artistic concept - and even then, it’s only if the image allows some kind of visual entertainment.
As a photo-editor, I confront myself with these issues every day. I try and find a break in order to suggest different things, but I do realize that this is not the time for experimentation, curiosity towards what’s new and (sadly) for what’s old either. Think about it, the use of period photography has disappeared, causing great dismay amongst many followers.
There is an identity crisis that forces you to take as little risk as possible, and to follow well-established stereotypes.
I hope I’ll soon have the chance to face the question of experimentation and contamination of languages - because, as a photography enthusiast, I wonder constantly, I try and follow what happens and I change my mind often. This healthy confusion forces me to ask myself new questions, without letting me have the time to find answers.
How do you work with photographers who have a well-established and well-recognizable style when you’re working on an assigned editorial?
When I assign a job to a photographer it’s because he has a recognizable style, and I’d like for him to convey his “identifiability” in the work I am to produce. Current budgets don’t allow for big collaborations with established photographers - who rightly deserve an appropriate fee. To their advantage, they have institutional assignments to sustain them. A small example: if I assign a job to Luca Campigotto, it’s because I want to publish a city photographed with those particular lights and his specific point of view.
I already know what he will do, and that it will align with the magazine I’m working with at the moment.
Then again, every job offers surprises, an unexpected photo.
It’s the beauty of the job.
We are submerged by images of which we’re both producers and consumers. How important is it to seek a visual identity today, especially in the editorial world?
It depends on whether the question is for photographers or magazines.
It’s an interesting double game.
If you are a photographer, you don’t have to seek a visual identity - it belongs to you already. That’s why you place yourself as an interpreter of reality. You want to document it through your own language, and a distinctive touch of your personal narration.
Identity is not stimulated by the editorial market - and perhaps not by the art market either. It’s a work you do within yourself, more or less consciously. You find the key to interpreting the world [yourself]. Photography is the means.
The result cannot be measured with economic successes or the exhibition of the work.
There are extraordinary authors who have been only acknowledged posthumously. I’m thinking of Vivian Maier, since I’m working on her these days.
The search for a visual identity is essential to a magazine that aims at being original and recognizable, conquer a new audience and loyalize them. That’s why it’s crucial to reason in terms of projects and to change often, question your own direction, monitor the results (not only the marketing or financial ones) and the relationship with the public.
Sometimes we get the impression that photography in Italian magazines and newspapers is still linked to an illustrative role. How do you weigh the editorial industry with regards to the use it makes of images?
It’s not the right time to judge this publishing industry. The industry itself is aware of being at its last stop and of the need to be regenerated. This will happen. Then, we’ll have new opportunities to implement the skills we’ve acquired in these difficult years. When you can’t do what you would like to do and the way you’d like to, you can only dig in and better it - it’s the mole’s job: sooner or later it comes back to the surface.
I’m fervidly convinced that there’s a lot of excellent talent out there: journalists, writers, designers, photographers, illustrators. We are all studying to do our job better.
Thanks to self-publishing (and other means, too), it feels like we’re witnessing a rebirth of the photo-book. There’s an increase in the number of books published, both in conceptual terms and in print. Don’t you think that this originates also from the need to detach from the fruition of slideshows and video-portfolios, and to rediscover a tangible dimension of photography?
I think that this trend towards self-publishing may be a little dangerous and tedious. Crowdfunding is a possibility for anyone to collect what is needed to design and print their visual deliriums. I’m not convinced everything is necessary. There are many books we can live without - books that are completely centered on their authors. And I may add: dear author, if your book sells three copies, you should ask yourself some questions.
The fact that there are no editors as reference persons is insidious: everyone wants to see their work published, without ever asking themselves if it makes sense and whether it’s worth it. And so you can avoid to be judged by third parties. Self-publishing originates from the difficulty of having editors willing to invest and evaluate [your work].
An editor’s role is not to pay for a book, but to understand its value and spread it. This concept has been lost. In the end, you may make a book just to escape the frustrations of the magazine market, the lack of incomes from the web or editors who expect both budget and content.
On the other hand, I think many self-produced books are useful to photographers to reflect on their path, and to compare their work with that of other authors. In this case, it’s not a negative thing - so long as you don’t presume (and expect) that bulks of little images printed on yellowish papers can become interesting products for a wider audience.
Very few works deserve the “tangible dimension of photography” you mention.
I’m all for having fewer books and less dust.
What can you tell us about your future as photo-editor?
The future cannot be told.
It hasn’t happened yet, and I wouldn’t want to spoil it with forecasts.