After studying Chinese at the University of Venice, Nicolò Degiorgis moved to Hong Kong and then to Beijing to continue his studies - and here he started taking photos. Upon completing an internship at Magnum Photos in Paris, he won a scholarship to study at Fabrica, Treviso. In 2014 he co-founded the publishing company Rorhof with Eleonora Matteazzi. He published Hidden Islam through Rorhof.
[Note to the reader] We conducted this interview via Skype between Bolzano and New York City - hence the long and articulated answers. That’s why we decided to change our format. You won’t find the image gallery that usually accompanies our questions. We thought that a work such as Hidden Islam would be better appraised by showing the publication itself - which, as Degiorgis tells us below, makes a whole with the concept of the project.
Let’s start with Hidden Islam, which has received a number of awards all over the world. Could you tell us how this project originated, how long it took to release it - from the first picture to the first printed copy - and what did it feel like to work on this project?
The project was conceived in 2009. I worked on it for a good five years continuously. The first two years were quite intense, whereas through the following years it was mainly during the Ramadan months - until 2013, when I went back to it and finished it, and that proved to be another intense phase, too. It’s been a beautiful and powerful experience, definitely strong and long-lasting - so much so that it’s hard to produce a quick recap. It’s been very edifying for so many reasons, especially in terms of photography.
When I commenced the project, I had already worked on another book on the Chinese highway, which featured a much different photographic approach - more spontaneous and in the form of a reportage / narration. I set to tell the story of this highway, but I was unable to consider it as a classic editing of 12, 18 or 24 photos because the story didn’t fit that format. Hence I wanted to release a book, but it took me five non-consecutive years (with intensive periods every other couple of months) to understand how to structure the story and develop this chromatic shade from daytime to nighttime. As I returned from China, I told myself I wanted to start a long-term project in Italy. Although I had studied Chinese, I was unavoidably a foreign when in China.
I began with a premise: I wanted to build a different relationship with the subjects I shot, and I started focusing on immigration - namely the Islamic immigration in the North-East. I was living in Treviso at the time, I was in a particular context: Fabrica. That’s a 'factory' with people from all over the world, which provided an ongoing confrontation with them, but in turn I realized that the Treviso context was confronting them, too. I was suggested to continue on working on Islam in Italy, and that’s how I approached the first community until the whole project developed organically.
Could you tell us about the approach and relationship with the people you photographed?
I was quite frank, tranquil and straightforward. I would approach the leader of the community, told him I was making a book about Islam in Italy and that I wanted to tell of the Islamic community, Islam and all the facts about Islam that were unknown to people. They’d accept me with no fuss most of the times. It was quite a long process. In the beginning, it took me several days or weeks to get to know each community, and a lot had to do with the (specific) period of time. During the Ramadan months they gather daily, but otherwise they reunite on Fridays only. Moreover, each place was quite distant from each other, so it took time in terms of logistics, too. Once the project had been explained and introduced to the community, I would spend lots of time at the Islamic centers, and not only during prayers. I’d spend whole days there, I connected with the community and I gradually managed to document it. So the approach was quite natural, and they did welcome me. Certain communities had rather I didn’t take pictures - but the mere fact I wouldn’t take pictures didn’t imply I wasn’t being welcomed in other ways. In general, I’d say that both reactions and relations were positive. Obviously, as any photographer knows, in any given context there are people who don’t wish to be photographed - especially during such an intimate situation as praying.
If I were to think of the same situation in some other non-Islamic community, it would probably be more difficult to be let it. In the past I tried to make reportages on the Korean and Chinese Protestant community, and they turned out to be much more secretive. Instead, the Islamic communities I’ve approached were eager to reveal themselves, talk to me and teach me a number of aspects of their multi-faceted culture. Therefore it’s difficult to assimilate everybody under the same category, for nationalities and communities are heterogenous and originate from a myriad of different countries. This is another side of the project, actually: each community was unique in itself, regardless of the main nationality.
What portrait of North-Eastern Italy do you think can be drawn from the book?
I focused on the North-East because that’s where I’m from and where I used to live. The initial idea was to tell the story of the Veneto region, and confront with certain aspects of the Treviso area and the rest of the region I didn’t identify with or disagreed with. Besides that, the North-East comprises different realities and you can’t draw one single picture of it - I’ve documented an aspect of Muslim immigration that is simultaneously unique within North-Eastern Italy and the rest of the country, and quite similar to other European countries and the rest of the world. What are the peculiarities of the North-East? I was especially interested in producing a urbanist photograph, that is the mapping of the places that tell the story of the land despite being used for other purposes - and what happens on the inside.
So on one hand, [the book] tells of the relationship between the Islamic community and the land; on the other, it’s a picture of the North-East that starts with warehouses and a certain type of architecture. North-Eastern Italy and the Veneto region depend on immigration deeply, and this is another aspect that led us towards the project. Indeed it is has a double soul: suburbs and factories are used both to create wealth and produce goods, and to offer jobs to immigrants. It’s the very territory that needs workforce, and immigrants can satisfy this demand. In the same area or type of structure where wealth is generated, they can also practice their religion - sometimes more openly than in other places.
As for the fact of being hidden… It’s not quite clear whether it’s the community itself that hides away or the society that (partially) forces them to. There are also “practical” aspects, you could say: on one hand, the Islamic community - or any community that’s not been in Italy long - doesn’t have the financial resources to purchase venues downtown (they do need large spaces, so warehouses have inferior costs and allow for a greater number of believers to pray); on the other, municipalities need ask themselves where they want these venues to grow. Confining them on the outskirts seems quite paradoxical to me, because it’s counter-productive both in terms of integration of the community and not security-wise.
So I’d say the situation is rather critical in the North-East, also considering that this matter isn’t dealt with in a structured way in Italy. For instance, the Islamic community has a connection with the Treviso municipality, but when the mayor changes so does the relationship: it’s unimaginable that the second largest religious community in Italy keeps being subjected to ever-changing rules, and has to switch venues because of mere neighborhood reasons. Mayors ought to have guidelines both for citizens and the very communities, because the lack of them generates tension - not integration.
Hidden Islam has been awarded Best Book of 2014 very recently. They’ve said: “After seeing it, you won’t be able to stop thinking of what might be hidden in your hometown”. How did you discover what was hidden in the area where you developed your project and what reaction did it trigger in you?
In general, some places are more well-known than others (e.g. shops in central areas), whereas others are less renowned, like warehouses in industrial areas. It’s unlikely that they are really “hidden”, because neighbors usually find them out. I myself knew in which area there was an islamic center; then I’d go ask and the neighbors knew, because the cars arriving on Fridays gave away the location. It’s not something that happens secretly in the evening or at night.
As I moved from one community to the next at the beginning of the project, I’d follow the local newspapers of the North-East. We have plenty of papers and each of them featured articles about mosques - indeed there’s been a great debate around prejudice and “Islamophobia” ever since 9/11, not only in the aftermath of Paris. This is the premise to the whole project. In my area (Treviso) there was huge tension between the Islamic community and the locals, and the papers went on about the possibility to open an Islamic center. I would go and look around to discover Islamic centers. Little by little, [my research become easier] through word of mouth. Moreover, thanks to technologies such as Google Maps and Google Street View, the community has started to put their praying venues on the Internet so as to be easily identifible by the believers. The community itself still needs to be structured - that’s why there are so many websites - and so by putting together all these pieces I’ve managed to complete a mapping of the locations. Although it’s still unfinished, the mapping has turned out much more consistent than we initially expected. While looking for these locations I came across a number of other places I was unaware of, and so I’ve also discovered the existence of illegal warehouses of the Chinese community, as well as other religious communities (see the African Protestant orders). You could say the scene is quite varied, and the Islamic community is more visible than others because it’s got the largest number of believers who gather on Fridays.
These are difficult times for the “traditional” publishing industry. How and when does your idea for publishing company Rorhof generate? [Nicolò is co-founder together with Eleonora Matteazzi].
Before founding the company and publishing books, I confronted with some editors. I had friends who had self-produced editorial projects and I’d received feedback about the self-publishing I was about to commence - but there was the constant problem of a part of my work that I cannot do alone, as I take care of manifold tasks. So everything started when my colleague and co-founder Eleonora Matteazzi decided to embark on this project with me. As of now it takes a lot more dynamism in the business, and many traditional establishments like publishing companies do not allow this.
We are a very small business (there’s just three of us), and everything is developing. Once you take on too many projects, you jump right into the circuit of the publishing industry. Despite a moderate success, we are experiencing some difficulties at the moment, and we don’t want to succumb to over-ambitious projects. The idea is to go back to self-production and a particular vision of the publishing company and the photographic projects, intended as editorial projects with a fil rouge and a book series. Yes, that’s the idea: to make a book series.
How do you distribute your books?
It all happened very quickly. We distributed a lot at fairs, where bookshops saw our book and contacted us - and so we managed to build up a small network of bookshops. Currently I’m trying to figure out to what extend we shall proceed with a [single] distributor. For practical reasons and considering I’m now without Eleonora (she’s moved to Paris and she had to detach from the publishing company a little), I’ll probably rely on a distributor for extra-European countries, while I’ll keep managing the bookshop and the fairs myself.
Layout and editorial object create meaning per se. Unfolding the pages of Hidden Islam the reader “discovers” the secret places you identified almost “physically”. The other books of your publishing company have distinct peculiarities, too. Where does this great attention for the book generate?
These projects are born as books in themselves, therefore I need for the photo-book to bear a highly strong conceptual force. The way you hold it in your hands and read it, the way pages are browsed… It’s about aspects that make the book a necessary object to be printed - and which is not replaceable by iPads or similar reading devices yet.
With regards to Hidden Islam, the aesthetic and graphic part of the book and the 'mapping' had been clear in my mind since year one. As for the photographic part, I created a series of dummies over the years, and each of them ended up following a certain direction. When I reached the final idea of the pages unfolding, the whole project of the exteriors sprang up.
There was an aesthetic vision of what the book should have looked like - that is not a photo-book with the traditional portfolio style. I’ll say it was born organically - you photograph and draw, and gradually you understand what needs to be re-shot and re-drawn again.
The photos of the exteriors do not match those of the interiors at all times. The interior pictures were conceived as the idea for telling the inside of the community, whereas the photos of the exteriors represent a very rigorous mapping, and bear an equally rigorous vision of the whole subject matter. The lack of correspondence is also due to the fact that I didn’t gain access to all the venues - in some cases I didn’t even try to. I followed the community intensively for a number of years and eventually I reshot all the exteriors following the mapping I’d managed to create.
The very idea of the book (which I regard as one of its strong points) is to juxtapose two different photographic languages. I think of books in a very logical way, and they are to follow a strict logic: one of the aims was to hand the book to a given person without having them understand that there’s a book within the book. Therefore the layout and the use of different languages has helped to stimulate the interest to open the pages by creating a strong impact. There are two different conceptual paths, too: on one hand, there’s the report on the exteriors and the external part of the community with a rigorous methodology; on the other, on the inside of the community, there are more complexity, color and a different spiritual approach. The idea was to create a dialogue or a contraposition between these two realities, because that’s what the project is all about.
Rorhof’s latest publication is Hidden Islam - 479 Comments, an edit of the book comprising the debate that first came out in article from The Guardian. It’s the case of a photographic work that manages to influence social debate by providing sociological, anthropological and journalistic starting points. Did you imagine a reaction of this sort? Do you believe that photography can bring along social changes? What role can it play within the public debate?
I honestly never believed it would work so well in the photographic world. Over the years it’s not like the project had not been understood or awarded recognition, but I felt as though it wasn’t being understood in the way the book succeeded to instead. I think this was due to the fact that it was born as a book itself, and as a book it had its own reason to be - whereas as a report it failed to match the same strength and depth of research. Photography is a language and it all depends on what you do with this language: it’s hard to say whether photography is capable of stimulating social changes… If one says something, it depends on what they say and how they use it. Photography is developing in manifold different fields and with varied characteristics, so it’s a bit like saying: “Can music change society?”. I don’t know… It can and it cannot. It has its own public realm that may influence everything or nothing. I’ve used it for documentary purposes and to create a book which, in turn, boasts an autonomous path within society. I think [photography] is an extremely powerful language that succeeds to communicate things other languages fail to - take a purely scientific research: it might not manage to do the same. I’ve based Hidden Islam on researches conducted by other sociologists, but these studies don’t have the same validation as Hidden Islam. Nowadays photography has a communicative power that’s a great deal bigger than it used to be. Many more people take photos and pictures, and they are more educated in terms of photography - and they know how to read it.
Have there been reactions locally?
I think so. Seven months is a relatively short time for a photo-book, so it’s hard to say. I’ve received a number of interviews (and they do keep coming) - lately, even from papers and TV channels I didn’t expect. Although we’re currently re-printing it and so it’s not usable as a product, it’s interesting to see how the Internet has given it such a distribution that goes beyond the physical book - even in branches of society I didn’t really expect to be reached.
In the local papers reactions were generally positive, and [the book] is currently spreading in the area. The aim is for it to become a tool of discussing the subject matter, and somehow that’s what it’s becoming. I hope it leads the discussion on a different, more “calm” and sociological level - more humane, even. We’re talking about immigration after all, and it’s a general question that isn’t limited to the Islamic world.
We should open a wider talk on immigration in Italy and Europe, on how we behave towards the Constitution we believe in, and we must ask ourselves a few questions. The times are changing: we either keep up with them or else we ought to re-consider the idea of democracy as we’ve intended it until now.
Martin Parr wrote the introduction to you book: how did you meet?
We had done an internship together at Magnum for six months and I got to know him during a shooting in 2007. At the time I’d shown him my portfolio with the first projects from China, and immediately we developed a sort of mentor / student relationship - which lead him to follow my project over the years. Hadn’t it been for him, this project wouldn’t exist. Not many people believed in it except for him. As much as the project might seem catchy, he’s had a lot of patience - whereas many others just stopped following it at some point. Instead, he insisted that he wanted to see the book [completed], and that I continued. And I did continue and finish the project: partially because it was him and partially because I knew he cared for it. It went very well, so it felt natural to ask him to write the introduction.
La laguna di Venezia constitutes a particular work, too. The zig-zagged borders of the photos remind of the postcards of some provincial place. Was this the intention? What’s the message you want to convey beyond what one can read on your website?
Yes, that was the intention. We wanted to give back some “magic” and a certain aesthetics to the now glossy postcards of a city by using a purely documentary photography. We wanted to give back a contemporary image of Venice, and the shape of the borders reminds the old-fashioned borders of postcards and stamps. We create printing sheets from which we cut out the postcards one by one, therefore most of the publishing it handmade by us at home.
It was an idea to simplify postcards, and to simultaneously provide a particular look that they’d lack otherwise.
How do you see the self-publishing sector today? How do you think it can evolve?
Self-publishing is going really well. What I’ve noticed attending fairs in the past year is that traditional publishing companies find it difficult to keep up with projects. They do sell, too, but much of the self-publishing world is changing the way an editorial product comes to life and the way a book is created. This in turn has consequences on the way it is photographed, and on photography itself. There’s a different relationship with photography. It’s not like it used to be. It’s much more “playful”, and there’s a more spirited relation towards the technical aspects of photography and publishing. First and foremost, I think self-publishing is benefiting the visual storytelling (particularly the photographic storytelling), the very narrative structure of the book, and what you can create through photography with a physical object.
A language of its own is being created, and it’s a highly stimulating time.
What’s your next publication going to be? Could you give us a sneak peek?
We released a new project in December - a book on documentary photography, a catalogue-book, and it’s the first chapter. As an object, it’s got a very strong setting that follows our editorial line, and it’s like an extract of the book. It comes in a transparent box, and it lacks both the introduction and the following chapters. Being the first installment, it’s called Chapter 1 - The Hierarchy of Images. It’s a catalogue with 3 texts presenting 3 different authors who work in the art world and use photography through different approaches: Mishka Henner, introduced by Marco Bohr, Joachim Schmid, introduced by Garry Badger, and Tobias Zilony, introduced by Seraphine Meya.
At the moment I’m working on another book that’s going to be presented in mid-April, if all goes well. It’s by another author and keeps an artistic vision of the product. In both cases they are books or catalogues that born in collaboration with Bolzano’s Foto-forum gallery (where I’m one of the executives). Their concepts are conceived by me both in terms of curating them and idea-wise. Well, you just have to wait for the next book! Anyway, it’s always me who chooses the authors and how to make the book.
We know you attended the Photography course of Fabrica, but how does your story with photography begin before that?
It originated before Fabrica. I used to be fond of photography ever since high school, but I was uncertain on what to study afterwards. All the things I was undecided about gravitated between the art world and political sciences. Then I studied languages and when I worked in China my passion for photography grew even more, so I started working as a photojournalist. I moved to Fabrica after Magnum. I loved and I still love Magnum. It’s a place where I learnt more than photographers do when they start. From there, my path went on in a zig-zag, but always organically.
Which photographers do you turn to for inspiration?
There’s a lot of them. Technically speaking, I interiorize a number of styles. It depends on the project. I work a lot on a conceptual level. If I believe that a certain style fits a given body of work or if I have an idea of how it should be, I develop it and try to make it mine. In the first years I learnt a lot from Magnum photographers. Then, as I became part of Magnum, it turned out to be most important experience in terms of technique. I’d see lots of photos and photographers at work, so I learnt all the ins and outs, the organization, the logistics and so forth - which are essential to developing long-term projects. Of course Martin Parr [inspires me] a great deal. There are also artists who work with photography. As a person, I have a quite varied taste that’s not limited to the photography world.
After these important acknowledgments, how do you manage your time between your work as a photographer and the publishing company?
Actually I’m not shooting much at the moment. I teach photography, which is my main occupation right now and so it will be for a while, as I’ve just only started a new course. So far, I’ve taught in a prison - I’ve done a workshop for the past two and a half years. Soon I’ll start a new course at the University of Bolzano in the Art & Design Department - and this occupies a lot of time. The same goes with the publishing company, including the organizational part and the layout of the books. I wish I had more time for photography, but at the moment I don’t. All in all, it’s okay as it is. It’s good to detach a little. I’m working on the photographic material of other authors and I love this, too. My projects are long-term ones anyway, so there are phases of full immersion that alternate to “detox” stages where you elaborate and study editing. The process itself is very fluctuating, and that’s the way it should be.
I’m working on several personal projects. I’m making a book about the place I come from and the concept of “heimat” (a German concept that can’t be translated into any language) - it literally means “the place where one comes from”… that is your homeland, not your physical household. It can be extended both to your hometown and your family. This project is very much based on the image I have of my homeland and the way I perceived it as a child. I’ve also shot another project, but the book isn’t finished yet because I’m collecting material on the Italian army - and it’s focused on the concept of conflict and crisis. They’re all about documentary photography and they still deal with the mapping of the North-East - in relation to which Hidden Islam stands as the chapter for a more general debate, in the fact that it patrols the place where I live and that I know better. All these works start from a map and they end up telling various aspects of it, be them personal or documentary. Still, the idea is that of a long-term, wider project.
You are very much focused on the photo-book as an object of peculiar features. Have you ever thought about backing this up with multimedia projects - both as supporting and as stand-alone works?
Yes, I’ve got a few ideas for digital books, as well as for printed books. So I am still to understand which way to go, and [at the end of the day] you do whatever comes - I can’t really think of a plan to follow. I try and intercept how things go, and if particular inputs come up I’ll decide whether to develop one over the others. I’ve an idea for a book, but the digital form must be sustained by a strong reason. The book I want to make for digital devices has its own conceptual ratio. The idea behind Rorhof is to produce publications that are highly specific, and generate a reflection on the publishing industry itself - that’s why I have no interest in making books that are mutually similar.
Who do you pass the baton to?
To Max Pinckers, a very young yet extremely interesting Belgian documentary photographer.
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.