I do not want the viewer to feel pity but to engender empathy: to create an exchange of emotions, dreams, and possibilities.
How do we respond to the suffering of another person: to the circumstance of the refugee, the sick and those who live in extreme poverty? Do we simply pity them and be thankful our own lives are not as bad as theirs? Do we express our sorrow for their misfortune in words of sympathy? Or do we recognise their suffering, their need, and act to alleviate it. Do we respond compassionately?
How can a photographic artist address such suffering? How can the making of images serve to alleviate that suffering? What effect does the photojournalist have who photographs suffering and shows it to those who live luckier lives. Is the result a feeling of pity mingled with relief that one’s own life is so much better? Do those images stimulate change or simply become a kind of spectacle against which we measure our own good fortune?
For the Italian photographer Elena Givone, it is not pity she wishes to evoke, but hope. Hope for those who suffer and for those who could help, if they were motivated to do so. Hope that is found in using that highest of human abilities – imagination – to see beyond the current circumstance to the possibility of something better. To dream the dreams of potential; to believe that things can change. Here, dreams are not the illusions of sleep but the realisations of possibility and the focusing of intention. For the sufferer, they open up the possibility of change for the better. And for the viewer, they turn a hopeless situation into something to be remedied; something worthy of active support. The dream becomes the means by which the dreamer and the viewer come together, suggesting a mutuality that promotes compassionate action.
Alasdair: What motivates you to make your work?
Elena: I have a deep desire to understand the people I photograph; to give ‘voice’ to those whose voice has be ignored or stifled. To make visible that part of humanity that is often invisible to our eyes. To reject stereotypes.
My grandmother taught me to have compassion for the poor and those who are most in need. For me, empathising with others, listening and creating a connection has always been completely natural.
Do you see your work as compassionate?
Compassion begins with a recognition of pain, our own or that of others, which leads to the desire to cure that pain, to give comfort to those who suffer. I do not want to emphasise that discomfort but raise the possibility of hope. I do not want the viewer to feel pity but to engender empathy: to create an exchange of emotions, dreams, and possibilities.
In 2006, you made a series in Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina, about children growing up in the aftermath of war. How did that project begin?
It was a little girl I met one rainy day in Sarajevo that inspired me. Her name is Adna. She took me to her school, to her friends’ houses. Born between 1992 and 1994, these children had not directly experienced the war, but lived every day with the consequences. They lived in concrete buildings riddled with bullets. They are unable to go out and play in the nearby parks and woodlands because those natural green spaces are littered with unexploded anti-personnel mines.
Can you give an example of your photographic approach?
I really love the image of Sedina, a girl who at first sight looks like a boy. She sat there, with her proud but frightened expression, with one foot on the border between the safety of the asphalt and the dangers of the meadow with its unexploded mines. That fine line that divides all the portraits.
I worked with a large-format film camera, a process that is very meditative. The children introduced me to their daily life and chose where to sit to be photographed. I made one shot only. Above all, I follow my instinct, my intuitions.
Your next two series were made in Brazil: one in the favela of Florianopolis, the other in two juvenile detention centres in Salvador de Bahia. How did these projects come about?
‘Flying Away’ was born from the idea that dreams make us free. In 2008, I travelled to Florianópolis, a favela in the south of Brazil. I told each child a story about a wizard who had a magic carpet that, if you closed your eyes and wished very hard, would take you to the place of your dreams.
I was struck by the sheer intensity in the face of the little boy called Gilson.
I met Gilson soon after I arrived in the favela. We played together, slowly building our relationship. I listened to his parents as they told me that Gilson would never be able to escape their condition of extreme poverty. The situation dictated that their priorities were simply to survive. I wanted to do something to break that sense of inevitability.
Gilson was the first child to whom I told my story of the wizard and the magic carpet. He closed his eyes tight shut and, at the instant the camera shutter clicked, a dog passed by, giving the carpet a little push and Gilson imagined flying back to his former home in São Paolo. His intensity inspired me.
Tell me about the series made in Salvador Bahia.
In 2009, the yellow carpet landed in two juvenile detention centres. Here were teenagers who had forgotten what it meant to dream … growing up in poverty amid weapons and drugs they had, perhaps, never really known it.
I wanted to set their minds free; to help them forget their anger, sadness, resentment… to dream of what it might be like to be truly free. I asked the adolescents how they imagined and hoped they might be in ten years’ time, outside prison, with the future in their hands. Each then wrote down the dreams they imagined while on the magic carpet and put them in a ‘flight diary’.
How much are the young people involved in the decisions when making the images and how did they respond when they saw them afterwards?
The children are involved from the very beginning. Always… From the moment I first meet them and tell them the story of the magic carpet, to the choice of location, when the photograph is taken, and what they choose to write in their ‘flight diary’ … through to when they receive their ‘magic photo’ to keep.
You travel very widely. Your next series was made in the African Republic of Mali. It is called ‘Secrets from the Magic Box’. What is the magic box and why is it magical?
When the camera was first invented it was called the ‘magic box’ because it could bring distant things near and reveal new worlds…
Alì 2000 Onlus [an Italian non-governmental organisation working to develop access to water in sub-Saharan West Africa] was looking for an artist who could teach children photography in a way that was playful while also being educational. The aim was to support a large fundraising initiative to sponsor the creation of new wells in Mali and Burkina Faso.
In Mali, I found that children could not comprehend the meaning of the word ‘dream’. Indeed, they have difficulty in distinguishing between what they like and don’t like, as they have no real terms of comparison since they have no choices. If they see a white person – which is very uncommon – they do not ask for money or candy or toys. White people are associated with bottled water. It is the container for this precious liquid that they most desire.
I began a project with the children. I told them the story of the magic box and gave them small Instax cameras. They made images and drawings and put them into a journal.
You also made portraits of these young people. What was the concept?
During my work with these children, I realised that, although the Mali desert is one of the driest in the world, there is water there, but it is difficult to reach. I made portraits of children with their precious container for water alongside majestic trees, a metaphor for the beauty and strength of life and proof that water lay deep within the earth.
Alì 2000 exhibited the entire production – the notebooks, my works and a selection of images made by the children – in a large gallery in the centre of Milan, Italy. Later, the works were sold at auction to raise money to build new wells in Mali. For me, this was a truly magical moment: photography that becomes a meeting, a participation and a real and concrete tool to support initiatives dedicated to the wellbeing of those who are less fortunate.
The final series I would like to discuss is set in a Syrian refugee camp. It returns to the idea of childhood dreams and ambitions. How did it begin?
By 2016, the migrant emergency in Europe had become intense. I felt that I should do something for these children held in refugee camps in Greece. And that is how I came to ‘Rafi the Refugee Rabbit’: the story of a small refugee rabbit looking for a new home.
I wanted to share a message of empathy, solidarity and optimism: a dream of a better future for these little Syrian refugees; and for us [Western Europeans] and for our children in preparing to welcome them. So, I created an art workshop called ‘Hopes and Dreams’. The children listening to Rafi’s story, and shared their wishes with me through their drawings and their ideas. Then they took Rafi bunny to their tent, and I photographed them together. In my way of working, photography is always the final stage of a journey made up of dreams, games, and unique moments spent with these children.
What have you learned in the process of making this work?
Every day I learn something new from the thousands of photographs in my archive and from the words these children share with me. I have learned that each of us, however harsh our circumstances, has a mission. Each of us has a dream to pursue. It is an extraordinary moment when that dream takes shape in the imagination. It is in the combination of dream and photography, tangible and intangible, compassion and reality, that true magic lies.
Elena Givone was born in Turin, Italy, in 1979. She has a degree in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs from the University of Turin and an honours degree in Photography from the European Institute of Design, later continuing her studies at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Her work has since taken her to many countries including Bosnia, Brazil, Burundi, France, Greece, Mali, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In 2006, she won the FNAC New Photographic Talent Award and, in 2008, she received the ‘Movin’ Up’ scholarship for young Italian artists. She has exhibited widely.
Photo: © Andrea Alessandri
This article was first published in Chinese, in the May 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Compassion.