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Interview with the photojournalist «We should abandon the idea that migrations are a sort of plumbing phenomenon: a “flow” where individuals, their names, their identity and their eyes no longer exist»

Francesco Malavolta is a photojournalist. He has a surname that could be used in one of Giovanni Verga’s novels, like one of those antiphrases that indicates the exact opposite of what was registered at the register office. Malavolta (T.N. literally: mala=wrong volta=time) is, indeed, in the right place at the right time. He is not tired of photographing humanity’s most intimate effort to survive. He is at the front, meaning at the border, where, over the time and with experience, he realised he was always the first arriving “way earlier” than the media buzz, the cameras and the chaos, as if he could foresee what would happen.

[…] He has been following immigrants since the early 90’s as demonstrated by his early pictures, documenting and witnessing the Albanian exodus on the Apulian coasts.

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Since 1994, he has been cooperating with several national and international photographic agencies and humanitarian organisations such as the UNHCR and IOM. He has been reporting on the situation at the Continent’s borders, on behalf of the European Union Agency “Frontex”, since 2011.

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Describing his pictures, without taking into account the context and without going back in time up to the moment in which they were taken, is difficult. The starting point is not what I see in the picture, nor what happens after that shot. It all starts before, with the war but also with hope and «hope has two beautiful children: outrage and courage. The outrage to see how things really are; the courage to change them. » Francesco said. …[…]

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While looking at the pictures I pause on a “nativity scene”: a mother holding a baby surrounded by a crowd. No one is looking at the camera except for the kid in the foreground. An almost Caravaggesque light cone lights the central scene that is shrouded in obscurity. The baby held by his mum – protagonist of the scene, so much so to inspire the title “Nativity” – seems to be a newborn, perhaps he was conceived during the journey. His hope and his story, despite his very young age, are sufficient to confer sacredness to the image.

Browsing through the images, another biblical scene draws my attention, the “Way of the Cross”: hundreds of people walking and bearing their crosses made out of cloth, very few things folded in a backpack. A long journey towards the next boarder. I asked him if the biblical references were intentional or not. «During the holiday season – when he chooses the pictures to publish – people distance themselves from problems, they focus on celebrating. The aim of the picture is to raise the awareness of those who are distracted. It’s to awake the consciences always. The truth is that those who provide information play an important role because they keep alive, and sometimes awaken consciences: Therefore, we can’t stop, even if sometimes the darkness of the night, like that of the mind, becomes thunderous. »

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[…] This makes me wonder if professionals in the sector always find it easy to photograph and if they ever feel like there are things it’s best not to share with the world, especially something painful. I think of Alyan Kurdi (or, according to other sources, Alan), the kid who died off the shores of Turkey photographed by photojournalist Nilufer Demir. I share my thoughts with Francesco and I ask him if there are times when photographing is a struggle. «You have to be in that situation in order to understand what’s best. I think that if I had been her I would have acted exactly the same way. I too have many pictures of coffins and corpses in my archive. Sometimes conceptualisation does very little while such strong images are needed to shake the human soul. Just think of Angela Merkel, one week later she took action to ensure that as many refugees as possible would enter Germany. Do you remember the 380 deaths off the island of Lampedusa in October 2013? – he asks me – At first, no photographer was allowed there, then the institutions and politics permitted publishing those images, because one image is worth way more than a thousand words.»

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[…] «I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of photographing those faces, on the contrary, I feel like I want to do more, I want to give more through my direct testimony because only by reporting as direct witness, perhaps, things will change. I hope I too can broaden my horizons and work outside Europe. 90% of my work is on migrations, I hope I can get it to 100% and if I ever decide to change subject, I would do so to quit journalism altogether. I would photograph nature and its beauty instead. »

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[…] My last question to Malavolta is if one can ever get used to seeing all this, that strange habit that is already common in big metropolis where a kid sleeping in the street no longer shocks people.

«We can never get used to so much pain, it actually piles up. Those who have been working in this field for many years sometimes can’t help but remain in those places where help is needed. They need to be present, always and everywhere, and to absorb other people’s suffering, to make it somehow their own, as if it would make it better for the others. We get used only to certain things, like when you fight insomnia and manage to get used to sleeping or to eating even when you have a knot in the stomach. »

Francesco, in one of his pictures, quotes Bauman: «Families, children, elderly people: one unified body of rejects whose only crime is to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time. A human waste that we distance from our lives marked by hypocrisy. » In Wasted Lives, Bauman wrote: «Waste is the dark, shameful secret of all production. Preferably, it would remain a secret. »

There is so much humanity in Francesco Malavolta’s pictures, but the question arises of whether this humanity lasts even when things get difficult. We can only appeal to our humanity, trying to remain human, always, as Vittorio Arrigoni[2] used to say, and let these artworks revive our consciences and capture us with their beauty.

By Caterina Guerrieri

Translator Francesca Colantuoni

This is an abstract of the Italian article published on vorrei.org on 12th April 2016

[2] T.N. Italian reporter, writer, pacifist and activist murdered in Gaza. (1975-2011)

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