The uncertainties, worries and hopes of 6 freelance photographers around the world.
In a time like this, with most working from home, there are some jobs that don’t adapt well to smart working. Photographer is one of those jobs.
We interviewed 6 LUZ photographers from around the world: Isabella De Maddalena, Tommaso Fiscaletti, Jorge Pérez Higuera, Tomas Quiroga, Aldo Soligno, and Gabriele Stabile. To talk about how their lives, jobs and perspectives are changing in light of the current health crisis.
ISABELLA DE MADDALENA
You’re based in Milan, one of the epicenters of the virus. How are you facing this difficult moment?
This certainly is not an easy time for anybody.
These days I am experiencing a tremendous feeling of mourning, for human lives, but also grieving for the loss of normalcy.
It’s as if time is on hold causing uncertainty towards not only the present, but also the future. Nothing will ever be the same again, but I am certain that there will be positive effects as well. Afterwards, we may live with a greater awareness, and reevaluate the priorities in our lives.
How is this influencing your work as a photographer?
The lockdown started here in Milan before the rest of Italy, so many of my jobs were canceled by the beginning of March. I am trying, as much as possible, to continue my work from home, and to do things I didn’t have time to do during the year like update my website and archive, re-edit images.
Perhaps this time is an invitation for us photographers to dig deep within ourselves and find a renewed awareness and approach to work. An invitation to reinvent ourselves, with more strength than before.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how my work will be when this is over. I would like to tell stories about cooperation and solidarity, remembering what we have lost and concentrating on the awareness that we have gained as a way to recover.
One of your first projects was a photo essay about immigrant women as they face maternity. Do you think that this current situation could change our point of view on immigration and different cultures?
I sincerely hope that this global crisis will force us to reevaluate the collective responsibilities of both the world and governments, and the fact that geographical borders do not correspond with human ones; we can not continue to compartmentalize our actions, as if every country is closed in an isolated box.
I would like this crisis to help us understand that there is a very fine line between being in fortunate conditions, and not.
There are populations born and raised in conditions of poverty and conflict that we can not even begin to imagine. It would be nice if this crisis diminished our hatred of the other, of the different and less fortunate. But I am scared that the recession that will follow this crisis will toughen many people and instead increase fear towards the other as a potential infector.
You traveled around the world for work, does it frighten you to think that with the current situation countries may close themselves off, letting nationalism prevail?
This thought certainly lingers in the background. We went from low-cost flights and the possibility to explore the world easily and affordably, to a situation where states and countries are on the defensive, armored, with no idea how long it will go on for.
If we all face this pandemic with commitment and respect the necessary measures to surpass this health crisis and the following economic one, then we won’t withdraw into ourselves and can avoid nationalism.
But as long as some governments insist on placing the economy before people, keeping businesses and factories open when workers can’t be sufficiently protected, then I doubt the virus can be contained as it should.
Women are often the main protagonists in your work, do you want to make an appeal to all the women who are fighting the virus on the front line?
I feel very close to all the women who have lost a parent, sibling, or family member.
Women who find themselves at home under the weight of their family, and those living in violent conditions.
And while it’s difficult for us to stay home, there are women – and men – who are facing the crisis on the front lines of hospitals, guided by a sense of duty that goes beyond all of us. I believe this sacrifice is very precious and must be remembered every day.
Cape town, South Africa
You’re Italian but at the moment you find yourself in another country, how are you handling this situation?
The difficulty of living very far from home reveals itself when there are problems, even more so in an apocalyptic climate like this one.
Obviously I am worried for my family and friends, especially the older ones.
How do you perceive the situation in Italy “from the outside?”
Very bad, seeing that today Italy reached very dramatic records.
Aside from the numbers, many of those who hold the collective memory of history and experience, are leaving us, often without the possibility of a normal ceremony with family; it’s very sad.
Thankfully, for the past few days, the news has been slightly more assuring.
How is this influencing your work as a photographer?
Fear, uncertainty, and change can destabilize us, but can also be very stimulating at a creative level.
It’s a strange sensation, as if humanity lowered the background noise to make way for what really counts.
I hope – of course – that we can overcome this tragedy as soon as possible, but I also hope that this rediscovery of ourselves and others, will remain. It is a situation that is both frightening and illuminating at the same time.
Your work focuses on themes such as the relationships between humans. How do you think humanity will change after all of this?
I don’t believe that generations like ours, that have never experienced a large-scale tragedy of these proportions, will be able to perceive reality in the same way as before.
It’s as if a crack has been created between the real and the imaginative, allowing the two to mix.
My colleague, Nic Grobler, and I, have spent the last four years working on a photography and video project based on the relationship between objectivity and vision, science and fantasy. And it’s almost as if one of the science fiction novels of the Afrikaans, the local culture that inspired part of our work, has crossed over into reality.
What is happening right now where you are, do you think the risk is higher?
South Africa is a country where the average age of the population is rather young and this keeps me hopeful. To date – March 26th – there are around seven hundred cases and no deaths, but our biggest worry is the high percentage of people who are HIV positive or suffering from tuberculosis, for whom the virus is two times more dangerous. Fortunately it seems that the current president (Cyril Ramaphosa) has taken the situation very seriously, forcing a total lockdown starting on Friday, March 27th, which will last for twenty-one days. Then we’ll see what happens.
Die Hemelblom (The heavenly Flower, 1971) by Jan Rabie is a science fiction novel that tells of a “Galactic Council” that starts sending flowers of the sky to a land that has been irretrievably polluted and exploited. The earth becomes completely covered by flowers and “liberated” from all other forms of life.
JORGE PEREZ HIGUERA
How are you personally dealing with this complex situation?
A few days ago I would have said well, but this is my 8th day with a fever. I am suffering from constant dizziness and nausea and I have lost my appetite and strength. I don’t know if I have Covid-19 because in Spain we don’t have enough tests. The available tests are saved for medical staff and those at high-risk of infection. I try to remain productive; I read, watch movies, play video games and try to work, but the dizziness makes it difficult. This situation puts you to the test psychologically; I’m thankful for those who are writing to me during this trying time, their support is priceless.
How is it impacting your work as a photographer?
At the beginning of this crisis, I felt like I had to document it photographically, but I had to think very carefully about it.
My father is among those at high-risk so I decided it was best to stay home and not put him in danger. Then, Spain was placed in a lockdown and my activity as a photographer was reduced basically to nothing, so I began to write about some projects that had been on my mind, to stay productive. However, right now I am concentrating on my health and the health of my family. Although I’m struggling with the fact that I am not working.
In your work you decontextualize daily life and routine by observing human behavior, things which have been turned upside down in this current situation. What are your thoughts on this?
This is an unpredictable situation and nobody could have ever imagined the consequences. I never would have thought that toilet paper would sell out in supermarkets; I still cannot understand it. I’ve seen people acting like policemen from their balconies, disrespecting the alert status, coughing at one another to get in first at the supermarket… but I’ve also seen the best of our society, I’ve seen respect, solidarity.
I’ve seen how the working class is maintaining the country and how important it is to have a universal, public healthcare system. I’ve seen people dedicate their time and knowledge to helping each other. There is a desire to help, without asking for anything in return.
In one of your projects you criticize hyper-connectivity in our society, do you think this situation is instead revealing the positive aspects of this connection?
Hyper-connectivity is like a coin; it has two faces. In this particular situation, it permits us to talk to family and friends in the easiest way possible. I can find out what is going on with my friends in the Netherlands or in the United Kingdom, instantly; technology has made the world smaller. On the other hand, social media is also used to spread fake news and hate speech.
That is why I decided to stay away from Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter for awhile. Also, nearly 100% of posts these days are related to Covid-19 and if you’re sick, like me, it can cause fear and negativity.
How are you facing this emergency in Spain?
Spain declared a state of emergency on March 14th, but before that, there were some restriction recommendations. When the restrictions became mandatory, people began to understand the seriousness of the situation.
Politicians who once cut budgets for healthcare are now defending public services and proposing basic income plans.
Our healthcare system is about to collapse. They’ve begun to build new hospitals and transform hotels into them as well. Private hospitals have also been forced to take people in, even though some of them prefer to send their employees away on holiday to save money. The military unit for emergencies discovered dead elders abandoned in private nursing homes.
Spain is still in shock and we hope to have good news soon.
This picture was taken in the Tabernas Desert, where more than eight hundred movies were shot during the sixties and seventies. Today it is a theme park that transports you into a spaghetti western, where fiction and reality coexist. At the beginning of this pandemic, I felt a similar sensation, I couldn’t believe that it was real; it felt like a bad movie or a nightmare. Once again, reality overcomes fiction.
How are you personally dealing with this situation?
What is happening affects me very closely. My wife is italian, and we have suffered losses; it’s been a tough week for us.
I’m currently in Santiago, where many people don’t want to quarantine themselves because they still haven’t understood the seriousness of the situation.
How is this influencing your work as a photographer?
I’m not working; everything has been canceled. We decided to self-isolate ourselves last Friday or Saturday – between March 21st-22nd – due to the situation in Italy. Here we have about a hundred cases, and we voluntarily decided to stay home. Since Monday, the government has begun to take this situation a bit more seriously and officially closed schools and offices. Any work that I had with clients during the week has been cancelled.
It’s a complex situation for photographers. Quarantine is a solution for those who can work from home, and in our case, that is very difficult.
What is happening right now in your home country, Chile, where the current political climate is very unstable?
After what happened here in October, the government doesn’t have much credibility. People are waiting for concrete and strict actions in regards to the quarantine.
Our government has not yet taken drastic decisions. Instead, Coronavirus has become a political debate between the left – who think a certain way – and the right, who think in another.
After the revolution, on the 18th of October, Chile became even more polarized.
I thought that since this is a national issue – actually, a global one – politics should be set aside, but for now it is not like that.
Some stores and supermarkets took it upon themselves to set up time slots for customers: mornings for the elderly, then pregnant women, and then families. We cannot all go at the same time.
Do you think that the current health crisis will escalate in your country, given the general distrust of government?
Our public healthcare system is inadequate, and it’s failing. It has not functioned properly in the past 30 years, and people are very concerned. One of the main reasons for the recent protests was healthcare. The truth will reveal itself during this trying time.
New York, USA
You’re Italian, but you currently live in New York. How are you facing the situation?
We keep ourselves busy. As long as we have our health, we’re ok. Here in New York we’re about ten days behind Italy and we’re catching up as the numbers begin to grow increasingly fast.
As we saw what was happening in our home country, we began to take measures to protect ourselves and self-isolate, but New Yorkers absolutely did not. Until just last week, they completely underestimated the issue.
Politically, too: Trump has greatly underestimated the situation, but the State of New York, under the authority of Cuomo and mayor De Blasio, reacted much faster. However, the problem is that New York is a very lively city and there is no social safety net. The choice to shut down businesses and schools was very complex and gradual.
Many children here, especially those from vulnerable social classes, have their only complete meal while at school. And closing schools means depriving these children of their only healthy meal of the day.
Then there are many workers who get paid by the hour and can’t work because of the shutdown; here there is no redundancy fund. They receive an unemployment check, but it’s not close to sufficient.
How has it been for you to experience what is happening in Italy from afar?
I was in Italy when the very first case was discovered, on the 20th of February. I saw what was about to happen and I decided, along with my wife and family, to return to New York for fear that they would close the borders. We were very careful from the beginning. We knew it was inevitable that the virus would arrive in America because we experienced it already in Italy, but we were powerless to stop it.
We spoke with our American friends and they acted as if they were immune to it.
It’s like what happens when we see epidemic outbreaks in Africa, or war in the Middle East; we are empathetic, but we think to ourselves that nothing similar could ever happen to us. That’s exactly what happened here. For example, we live in an apartment building with fifty-eight floors and, when we stepped in the elevator with gloves and masks on, we were looked at badly because we were “exaggerating.”
How is this influencing your work as a photographer?
Everything has stopped. It’s been three weeks now without any work; I started canceling appointments with clients as soon as the first cases were recorded here. Obviously now I couldn’t work even if I wanted to. My wife works in the food industry, where there was a hecatomb; thousands of people were fired in a matter of days and many are now unemployed. This has been the case for most services that require public attendance.
So many people have been left without any salary to depend on and, since Americans don’t typically save money like Italians do, living without pay is something very few people can afford.
For several years you worked as a photojournalist in war zones, do you see similarities between war and the current health situation?
There are similarities, although expressed in different ways. While on the field, I felt a strong sense of solidarity and humanity. I witnessed both the worst and the best of humanity concentrated into one situation. There was a unity that went beyond anything imaginable.
We’re not yet at those levels; but, right now we are experiencing a form of isolation that not even war causes, making this an unfamiliar and different situation.
What is happening at the moment in the United States? How is the emergency being dealt with and how is the population reacting?
In Italy people sing from their balconies and participate in flash mobs, but it’s not like that here. Trevor Noah, a famous comedian who runs The Daily Show, published a video on his YouTube joking about the grumpiness of New Yorkers. He is singing from the balcony of his home in Midtown, NY and just a few seconds later someone screams at him to, “shut the f*** up!”. Here we live in skyscrapers. We live on the thirty-fifth floor and there are no balconies. It’s impossible to interact with others. I was reading Bill Gates’ reflections on the pandemic, in which he says that this virus is democratic, because it affects everyone, and paradoxically the most developed countries were the hardest hit. New York is right at the center. Here the population is very concentrated, and there is a lot of movement and travel. What is not democratic is that there are those, like us, who can take the time to figure out our future and reinvent our work, but not everybody can afford to do that.
Those who have no way to pay next month’s rent, or other expenses, don’t have the luxury to spend time reinventing themselves.
In 2009, Jimah Mahmod El Kurdi was 27 years old. Behind him stands what was left of his home, completely destroyed by the bombing of the military Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. After the war, with his bare hands, he went through the rubble to recover anything with value in order to feed his family, such as iron contained in the reinforced concrete. When we met, I asked him where he’d found the strength to deal with all of this. His response: “In the most difficult moments, you discover energy and hope that you never imagined to have.” I keep repeating this to myself.
How are you facing this difficult time?
We were all a bit surprised by it all. Right now me and my family are in Rome, I have just returned from the United States and I was planning to return. Now we’re kind of stuck; we can’t reach the places where we usually work and where we keep our equipment. The things we love are far away, but at the same time my family is close and I’m able to spend this time with them.
I’m lucky; many of my friends are facing the quarantine alone, far away from their homes and their families. I think that loneliness is the hardest thing for them to deal with.
The worst thing is the paranoia that everyone around us is a little sick, and people are very afraid. One cough is enough to cause panic.
You have one foot in Rome and the other in New York. If you had the choice, where would you have preferred to spend this time?
I’m happy to be in Italy where there is a stronger sense of community. The United States is beautiful – New York is a big city – but there is an ‘everybody for themselves’ kind of mentality. It’s part of their entrepreneurial DNA and mindset. Moreover, many benefits that we enjoy, such as public healthcare, don’t exist in the United States. This is a huge advantage that we took for granted until now; we’re fortunate to have a grounded healthcare system, paid for by our taxes. Then there is the community; the network of neighbors, friends, families. Despite everything going on, relationships are still strong, making you feel less alone.
What is happening right now in the United States?
I’ve been in contact with many friends there, giving them suggestions and advice, since In Italy we are more or less a week ahead of them.
The roles have reversed for a change; usually things arrive first in the U.S., whether movies, or trends, and often I am the one asking them the questions.
Moreover, many of those subscribed to the newsletter of Raw Messina, my studio in Milan, are Americans. We have developed a beautiful community where people share suggestions and advice. My family has always been atypical, my wife and I are both artists who produce somewhat strange work, and now we are kind of at our peak. Our work is an inexhaustible source of entertainment; with our children we paint for an hour everyday, or create visual treasure hunts. We creatives have an advantage over, let’s say, a surveyor.
How is this influencing your work as a photographer?
Even if I had my equipment and camera with me, I wouldn’t go outside to take photographs right now. I also declined a job, because my responsibility as a human being and a citizen comes before my role as a photographer.
I’m sure I could take interesting photographs during this time, but would the impact of the image count more than staying home during this emergency? I don’t think it would and, by staying home, I am providing the right example to the community and to my children.
We can live without yet another image of an old-man in line at the supermarket.
I still find ways to work, just differently than before. I am organizing my slides and archives, re-editing old videos and preparing exhibitions for my studio in Milan. I have faith that, sooner or later, the world will start again. In the meantime, I write, read, watch tutorials and learn new things.
And I rediscovered the beauty of looking out the window.
Food is present in much of your work, do you think that this situation will affect our relationship with it?
Our relationship with food in general has already changed a lot in the past ten years. Take chefs, for example, until just a few years ago nobody cared about them, now they’re rockstars. I think that this dystopian situation is a result of our society, growing exponentially to the point of becoming ill.
We delude ourselves into thinking that we live in this super advanced civilization, but all it took to get us all sick was someone who ate cooked bat in a little-known region of China.
It’s incredible that all of this began from the food we consume, maybe it’s a sign that we need to reevaluate our eating habits. This is coming from someone who, while working for Lucky Peach, ate the beating heart of a sea bass, among other horrible things.
One of your most important projects is a series of photographs taken of several refugees. Do you think that the situation we are experiencing could change our views on immigration and culture?
First of all, I sincerely hope that the countries where these people are from can survive the pandemic. Because, if it arrives in countries like Africa, it will be a real tragedy. I would like for us all to start feeling closer to one another. We should take this forced pause to reflect and question ourselves; we must learn from the mistakes that led us to this emergency in the first place, so to not let it happen again.
In my 45 years, I have noticed that the lessons you learn in life always accompany great defeats: a kick in the ass, a door closed on your face, a story gone wrong. That’s how you grow.
I hope that we will learn this lesson on a large scale, not just each of us individually but also as a community.
di Efrem Raimondi
Giovanni Picchi è stato uno dei fondatori di LUZ e ha lottato contro un sarcoma per quasi vent’anni. È morto sabato 19 maggio 2018 a 45 anni. Due anni fa il fotografo Efrem Raimondi aveva raccontato insieme a lui la storia di una Instagram terapia