In an age of fast consumption of filtered and shareable experiences, many cities of our world become collateral damage. Hundreds of millions of images are produced every year, to capture as much as possible of the “top tourist destinations.” The crude bullet-point breakdown of a city into the “what to do” and “what to see” end up visualising pseudo experiences, which hinder a more organic urban unfolding.
Photographers Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni respond to this by creating alternative photographic records of major cities. Their most recent project materialised in Rhome, the recipient of FUAM Dummy Book Award, sponsored by MASA at the Istanbul Photobook Festival, organised in 2018 by MSGSÜ FUAM.
The book looks at Rome beyond its “postcard-friendly” stereotypical visualisations, searching instead an intimacy with the city and exploring its intensity with a “subjective, inclusive approach.” Caimi and Piccinni spent time in and with the city, without their cameras at first – a necessary experience so as not to “contaminate the scene.” The book stands partly for all these moments of non-photography, the prelude to exposure, a choice to release the city, to then capture its spirit.
Elena Stanciu: How did Rhome come to happen?
Jean-Marc Caimi & Valentina Piccinni: For a long time, we’ve been exploring and recounting photographically a series of cities. We are interested in places on the brink of a change, where deep political and social mutations create a multiply parted microcosm. The exploration of these monadic realities, made of human beings and places, is for us extremely exciting and rewarding. Cities combine the seduction of the "lieu," expressed in open landscapes, secluded or domestic views, and the power of humanity. The first project was Naples, essentially intense work around the ancient and mafia-ridden neighborhood of Forcella, where we lived for a while. The work became a book, titles eponymously. That was the initial spark. Rome, the place where we are now based, is our second project, followed by Istanbul, still in the editing stages.
ES: How would you describe working on this project?
J-M C & VP: Rome has been a very complicated city to photograph for us as "locals." We understood that over time we had activated a sort of protection over the city, something happening beyond our will. It was important to subvert this fact, which we felt as a limit, a deprivation of the first glance, when everything you experience is new, powerful, magic and has not been quieted by rationality yet. We started experiencing the city in a different way, slipping into every place we understood could shift our balance. This generated a domino effect that brought us to be in contact with people who gave us access to their lives, their private worlds, to unexpected, and powerful situations.
ES: Who is your book for?
J-M C & VP: We think there's healthy curiosity and a demand for works with a strong personal approach, an authorial vision. This applies particularly to subjects which have been exploited and reduced to a mere stereotype. That's the case of Rome: often perceived only as a postcard-friendly destination deprived of its humanity, polished and sterilized. Instead, we believe that being strictly subjective is an inclusive approach from a communication point of view, and this aims at a vital and interesting audience.
ES: How long did you work on the book?
J-M C & VP: We started projecting this work right after the Naples experience, which was in 2015. It was a long maturation process, where we gradually become aware of the difficulties of recounting the city where we live, but also the exciting opportunities of an in-depth exploration this condition was offering. It took a while to get to the point where we started photographing, because being photographers is a condition that can alter, limit, and contaminate the "scene." Before taking the camera with us, it was crucial to first focus on the personal relationship with the people we met; on the entire process of a human experience – on all the intimacy, brightness, and darkness it brings. Sometimes this process can take a long time.
ES: I like the idea of a "vulnerability of a city" that you use in your concept. What is Rome´s vulnerability? Can it/ should it be overcome? How do you see a project like yours playing a role in this?
J-M C & VP: Vulnerability is a very important concept for us. It applies to the human condition and it reflects as a broader idea to the fruits of human endeavour, consequentially to a city. It brings us to the origins of our existence, something we constantly must deal with; it clings to our subconscious, to our emotions, fears and desires. Vulnerability is shaping our lives. Being vulnerable unavoidably exposes and reveals. We learned to sense that peculiar condition; to understand that we needed it in order to instantly find a connection with people and places. For a series of political and socio-economic reasons, Rome is now in an extreme vulnerable phase and it was decisive for us to start and complete this project. We don't pretend this book is a cure for the city’s vulnerability, but we think it brought us closer to raise questions on many of its true and multiple natures.
ES: You mention the "unveiling of the actual spirit of the city;" how would you describe the true spirit of Rome, as you´ve discovered it through your photo project?
J-M C & VP: This work represents a disclosure. Rome is a multi-layered place distant from the comfortable routine-shaped image we have of it. We understood that "true spirit" cannot be represented by a fixed point of arrival to give you solace. It lies, instead, in a mutating, pulsating reality put together by a subtle equilibrium of contrasts and colliding scenarios. The only way to experience its intensity and complexity is through humanity. People are the key, the gravity centre of all the microcosms we came to know. A galaxy of lives lighting up the night sky, where you can draw imaginary lines to make connections and name constellations. Pictures can be revealing in that process. We started to edit the project, sequencing and coupling pictures taken in very different environments and situation, to discover that they were giving access to hidden scenarios, connecting each other in surprising ways, telling stories otherwise unimaginable.
Rhome is launched at the Polycopies fair, at the Café Lehmitz bookstore stand on November 10th 2018.
Words: Elena Stanciu