PDN Photo of the Day

Humans in the Shadow of a Volcano

Over the span of two years Gaia Squarci photographed the island of Stromboli, located between Italy’s mainland and Sicily. The population of Stromboli drops to about 400 people – artists, fishermen, renegades – during the winter, and the volcano that dominates the small island smokes and erupts constantly. Squarci says, “I grew to love the contradictions. I could feel the the reason why the locals call the volcano ‘Iddu,’ Sicilian for ‘He,’ like a god who can’t be named and a friend you live with every day.”

Tonight, Squarci will talk to Anna Van Lenten about “Stromboli, Iddu” at the Half King Photography Series in New York at 7pm.

PDN: How did your education in art history and documentary photography shape your approach to this project?
Gaia Squarci: For me, aesthetic choices need to be linked to the content of a story in order to make sense, so they often change according to the story’s development. To explain those choices I need to clarify what the story is about. “Stromboli, Iddu” is part of a larger series shot in different locations around the world that weaves through different cultures and circumstances, but with a common denominator: the way people relate to volcanoes.

I’m not approaching volcanoes from a naturalistic perspective, but rather a humanistic point of view. I’m interested in how we see, perceive, and live with these forces of nature. I’m fascinated by how the proximity of a volcanoe influences our way of thinking, our relationship to the territory, the way we grapple with questions related to humanity – its history and the limits of its power.

PDN: Is this project in line with or a departure from your other work?
GS: In my previous work I tended to let things happen in front of my eyes, but when I got to Stromboli I immediately felt the need to get up close to people and focus on their faces, so I started taking portraits. Faces are extremely telling on Stromboli. They carry the signs of the sun and the wind, and they sometimes speak about a life at sea. It was impossible for me to separate them from the surrounding environment, which led me to create diptychs that pair the portraits with images of nature. Sometimes it was the texture of rocks that looked similar to skin consumed by the elements, sometimes the pattern of water, or the light generated by an eruption. The personality of Stromboli’s residents is shaped by its vigorous, undisciplined nature. I wanted the photos to transmit this feeling.

Sometimes the two photos of a single diptych were shot in the same situation, others in wildly different moments, but I chose to combine them because they responded to the same atmosphere. The diptychs create scenes where the images, once paired, take on a different sense, find different reasons to be.

Another element that influenced my way of shooting was the camera I used. Leica sponsored my first trip and sent me an SL, which was the perfect camera for the kind of photos I just described. The files were extremely detailed, and textures had almost a tactile feeling to them. It was also a heavy camera, so I was more driven to take time and photograph quiet moments rather than running for action shots.

PDN: How long did you spend working on the project?
GS: It’s an ongoing project. I need an excuse to return. I photographed in 2016 and 2017, in both cases for 2-3 weeks at a time. I plan to go back in a few months. I’d love to be there in the winter, when the island becomes even wilder, harder and emptied of all but a few hundred residents. 

PDN: What happened in Stromboli that was surprising?
GS: There’s no light on the streets. A power plant was built in the 70s and  residents decided to limit electricity to the houses. There are no real cars, only ape cars (three-wheeled cars), golf carts and some scooters. When you look up at night you see a sky that’s heavy with stars, and walking around you notice only tourists use torchlights and phones to light the ground. The residents come toward you like black silhouettes and you learn to recognize them because of their way of walking. They’ve figured out that the humans can actually adapt to darkness. The island’s residents say that in the winter, especially, when the sky is dark, their senses must collaborate to feel their way down the street, and “you need to go slow, you have to accept it.”   

Sometimes there’s a way to talk about places, when visitors say they’re magical, that they have a certain energy to them, that “you either love them or hate them,” which irritates me. It feels that they prefer to listen to themselves talk rather than actually mean what they’re saying. Stromboli is an island where a wave of artists and intellectuals bought houses in the 60s to reconnect with a lifestyle that got lost in most of Italy’s mainland. 

I only went once as a kid. I didn’t know it well. A couple years ago when I started thinking about working there I was hesitant. I didn’t want to fall into this radical-chic trap. Once I was on Stromboli though, I had to give in to my reluctant hippy side. I understood that there was sincerity in this narrative, and that it was shared and felt by the people who are born on the island, or come from nearby. The island’s reckless energy can’t be pinpointed, but it affects all interpersonal relationships, personalities, and the way people decide to use their time. 

PDN: What are you hoping viewers will learn from this series?
GS: I photographed young people, older ones, kids, tourists, social gatherings, hikes, beach moments, but when I edit I’m often drawn to the same kind of photos.

They’re the ones portraying the older generations, people who’ve lived on the island when it was crude and unpolished, which was just a few decades ago. Before the light came to the houses, before the port and the street existed. Before most jobs converted to tourism. 

Old fishermen, who rarely climb on the volcano – but feel like they know it intimately – represent the backbone of Stromboli. They might fleetingly enjoy the company of the endearing, mundane summer crowd, but at 6am every morning they’ve already pushed their boats out at sea. From them I learned that there’s a discipline that nature infuses into the people who take the time to know it.

Stromboli is now stuck in a dreamlike state. It’s stranded between the worship of the raw beauty that its preserved and nostalgia for what has disappeared. I’m interested in suggesting, rather than describing this state, and whenever I’m there I feel that I’m part of the binary. At times I’m observing with a lucid eye, and other times willfully getting lost in this island that is a crumbling yet lively utopia whose engine is an active volcano. 

Interview by Sarah Stacke

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