The miracle of love is turning despair into delicate sweetness.
For many of us the idea of home is of a stable place, a place perhaps associated with several generations, a personal harbour to which we return from the voyages of life. But for nomadic peoples, home is not geographically fixed. It is constituted by relationships and by portable possessions, while its location is ever-changing. Today, as globalisation and economic necessity demand, workers must move around to find employment. Some take their families with them, their home becoming itinerant. Others leave home in order that the rest of the family may continue to live in a stable domestic space. Locations themselves also change. A neighbourhood may flourish in one century to descend into urban neglect in the next.
The Italian photographer Ciro Battiloro has made a number of photographic studies of those who, through economic necessity or ancient tradition, find their homes in the poorest parts of the city or roaming the land simply to remain viable. But his images look beneath the surface of domestic discomfort and social neglect to the resilient spirit of the people themselves. Bound together in their hardship, he finds in these relationships an unexpected beauty. While the communities in his photographs are from different cultures, living in various countries and with diverse heritages, he finds in each a tenacious humanity.
Alasdair: When did you begin to make photographs?
Ciro: It was after a trip to Morocco. I was fascinated by the beauty of Morocco and used my analogue camera to record it. In time, I came to realise that photography can be an instrument not just of image-making, but of understanding and expression. It could open the door into other worlds and, at the same time, it could be a remedy for the solitude of my soul.
Tell me about the making of ‘Sanità’. First, where is it set and who are the people in the images?
The Rione Sanità is an ancient neighbourhood of Naples. It was built in the sixteenth century, in a quarry that, during the earlier Greco-Roman period, had been used as a burial place. Initially, Rione Sanità was inhabited by noble and aristocratic families. However, following the construction of the Sanità Bridge (later renamed the Maddalena Cerasuolo Bridge) the neighbourhood began to descend into poverty. The people in my images are the inhabitants of Sanità. They have many unspoken stories, sometimes harsh. They belong to the Neapolitan underclass: forgotten humanity.
What made it interesting for you – as a person and as a photographer – to photograph in the Sanità neighbourhood?
I had spent a long time photographing outside Italy, focusing on other cultures. Now, I felt the need to work on my home town, to better understand its essence. I chose to focus on Rione Sanità because I consider its socio-economic situation is a perfect metaphor of Naples, full of beauty and contradiction. I am interested in investigating the life of urban spaces that have become segregated. In particular, I concentrate on neighbourhoods that, while they are in the centre of the city, become neglected and somehow invisible.
My purpose is not simply to describe the context but to give a presence and dignity to my subjects. Through my images I want to find the good within the dark place; to make that visible and give it back to those from whom it comes. It is a work about love and loneliness; about the complexities of being human. In the Rione Sanità you can discover a very intense way of life and, despite the poverty, a wealth of human determination and diversity.
You have said of this work: “The miracle of love is turning despair into delicate sweetness”. Can you talk about the domestic and familial realities that bring to these dark places the light of “an unexpected love”?
The subjects that I portrayed in my work have lives beset with economic and social problems: unemployment, lack of schools, truanting, and so on. Here there is no support from the state and people survive by clinging to their interpersonal – human – relationships. Their love for their children becomes a reason to struggle on; for their children’s sake they must not give up.
Take for example Marco: he is a father of two girls, Giusy and Elena. Every night he goes out to collect and re-sell old iron. In the photograph of Marco embracing his daughter Giusy, there is all the gentleness of Rione Sanità captured in that kiss.
The Rione Sanità is loneliness and love, laughter and tragedy, virtue and sin. The contrasts generate a surreal existence. Streets and homes blend into each other: the private becomes public and the public hides the secrets of the private. Life and death cohabit. Silence is a rare gift in these alleys but, in its revelation, you can rediscover the naked and immense soul of a forgotten humanity.
The series called ‘The Inhabitants of the Earth’ features Romany families. Who are the Romany people and where were these images made?
Romany people were a nomadic ethnic group. They have a very unusual history. They originated in India one and half millennia ago. Over the centuries they have migrated west and north to reach many countries: Turkey, Egypt, the Balkans, Spain, France and many others. Over time, as they spread out through various countries, subgroups formed with distinct cultural and linguistic differences. This history of migration is one in which the Roma were often persecuted. The worst period of these persecutions occurred during the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis during the Second World War.
The Romany people in my photographs currently live in a camp not far from my home in Naples, but they originally came from villages in the region of Bukovina in Romania.
Is it their nomadic lifestyle that has brought them from Romania to Italy?
Actually, they are no longer nomads. Nowadays, when they do move around it is to find work, so they can put aside enough money to build a decent house back home in their village. A house they can passed down to their children. They want to settle into a community in Romania and put down roots. But in order to do so, they must travel to find work.
The two families I photographed in Naples are of different bloodlines and differ greatly.
In what ways?
It is not just about how they look, each family group has a very different temperament. The families from Gura Humorului village [in north-eastern Romania] speak a version of the original Romany language. This not only maintains strong bonds between them but is a way to safeguard their secrets. They are also more exuberant in character, with an ironic sense of humour. They are strong-willed, tending to dominate the other families and taking a controlling role over the activities of the camp. In contrast, the families from Voitinel village are assimilating and define themselves as both Romanian and Romany; their focus is on finding work. Their character is quieter and more serious, and their community is not as tight-knit as that of the Gura Humorului families.
You have described their focus on living “in the experience of the present”. What did you mean by that?
This is the trait of their character that fascinated me the most. They manage to overcome every private or historical tragedy, neither worrying about the past nor becoming anxious about the future. They hide the pain with a boisterous ironic humour. Memories and dreams make way for the experience of the instant in all its delirious intensity.
Could you tell me a little about the history and current situation of the ‘Yörüks’?
The Turkish word ‘Yörük’ translates as “those who walk”. The Yörük are nomadic shepherds originating from the steppes of Central Asia, members of a group of Turkic peoples inhabiting the region east of the Caspian Sea and south of the Aral Sea. During the course of successive migrations, they passed first to Anatolia and then to the Balkans, especially Macedonia.
Today, very few Yörüks lead a totally nomadic life; most have adopted a form of seasonal nomadism. Those living in Turkey move up into the Taurus Mountains each summer to escape the excessive heat. There they camp from April to September, tending their livestock and concentrating on milk production and the preparation of dairy products that will be consumed and sold during the cooler months. But it is already clear that this way of life is changing and will be completely abandoned by future generations.
In Macedonia things are different: the Yörüks have settled in the villages of Alikoč, Kodjalija, Kaluzlija, Supurge and Prnalija, which lie in the hills around the town of Radoviš at the foot of Mount Plackovica. Here, the Yörüks constitute an ethnic minority and suffer the disadvantages of cultural and geographic isolation. Aside from their livestock, a fundamental occupation for the villagers is the cultivation of tobacco.
How did you learn about the ‘Yörüks’ and what attracted you to photograph their way of life?
I first found out about the Yörüks through a short documentary film shot in their villages in Macedonia. I was attracted by the fact that, despite being in another country, they have kept their own traditions, their language, their rituals…
Do you think there are things we can learn from these more traditional cultures?
Yes. I think that these cultures preserved ancient wisdom. They can teach us how to harmonise with seasons and the rhythms of nature; to respect the earth and its children. There is something metaphysical about it.
Coming into a close-knit traditional community from outside can be hard. How did you approach this as a photographer?
My approach is a mix of research and direct experience. I try to learn as much as I can about these communities before I come into contact with them. If you want to see beneath the surface you must spend a lot of time getting to know people and building a respectful relationship with them.
What drew you to Iran and how did you decide what and how to photograph when you were there?
Iran is a country with an important history and a great culture. It is a place where different worlds live together but at the same time it is a country of great contradictions. I found Iranian people, in particular the young people, to be extremely friendly and hospitable. They were my guides as I travelled in their country.
You have described life in Iran as caught “between fiction and authenticity”. Can you explain what you mean by this?
In Iran life, death and prayer are closely interconnected. They define the time and space of everyday life. The formality of public life is a response to the moral strictness currently imposed by the state, while the private sphere represents the more essential Persian character. In some ways, life is divided between fiction and authenticity: once you step in from the street, through the doorway and into the home, everything changes… gravity becomes warmth and irony, tears become smiles, and a sip of vodka (from Turkmenistan), drunk in great secrecy, smells of freedom.
What did you learn about family life and the realm of the domestic when you were in Iran?
Within the home, among trusted friends, I was impressed by the serenity, the desire for freedom, the interest in art. Between the domestic walls you can also see the real face of a deep and sincere religious faith. A faith lived especially by the older members of the family but respected by the young. It is a respect that reinforces the relationship of young and old.
You can sense the way faith is embedded in domestic life in the image of the old man quietly reading the Quran while his wife rests.
In making documentary images, do you focus on your subjective interpretation (the story told by a specific narrator) or do you aim for a more objective representation of the people and places as you find them?
I focus on my subjective interpretation. When one takes a picture, one makes choices. The choices I make are part of my way of being and perceiving reality. It is impossible to tell an absolutely objective truth. But even in a subjective interpretation it is essential to have ethical principles. For me, the most important of these is respect for the people I am photographing. I do not want to steal images like a thief. I want to share in the lives of my subjects, understand them and, only then, begin to take pictures.
How do people themselves respond to your images?
I have been heartened – and a little surprised – by the way in which my images encourage empathy in the viewer: an emotional sharing. I do not want my work to shock but to excite, to encourage the viewer to take time to reflect. I want to bring people closer together. I think people see something of themselves in the intimate moments portrayed in my photographs, and that brings a sense of human unity. At a time when the social and economic system forces people apart from each other, I believe that it is important that my work helps to build connections.
What have you learned about yourself in the process of photographing people from other social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds?
It has been an important process of maturation. For me, coming to know people from very different backgrounds to my own has helped me to understand something of the essence of being human. And that is a valuable thing to learn as one faces life.
Ciro Battiloro was born in Naples in 1984 and continues to make his home in that city. He studied philosophy at the University of Naples Federico 2, the world’s oldest non-religious public university. He left university to take up photography, working as a documentary photographer while drawing on a subtle philosophical understanding of the complexities of human life and interaction. He has travelled widely outside of Italy to such places as Iran, Macedonia, Morocco, Romania, Senegal and Turkey. Increasingly he has focused on the ways in which the lived context of domestic discomfort, urban neglect and social constraint can nonetheless reveal the depth of human relationships and mutuality. He has won a number of prestigious prizes including the Fondation Europ’Atlas Award in 2015, the Premio Voglino in 2018, and the Helsinki Photo Festival Award in 2018 and 2020.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the November 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.