An interview with the Italian photographer, winner of World Press Photo 2021 in the category ‘Portraits, Stories’.
edited by Maria Teresa De Palma
You are among the six Italian photographers who are winners of World Press Photo 2021: ‘Ameriguns’ was awarded first prize in the category ‘Portraits, Stories’. The project is the result of many years’ work, documenting a reality that known to most people, but never talked about enough: the omnipresence of firearms in the United States, its so-called gun culture. Can you tell us about the conception and evolution of this work, and about your relationship with these places in general? That is, the way you have calibrated and constructed your vision of a country as hyper-represented in the media as the USA?
I have a particular love for the United States, and it is a love that was truly born out of intimate, personal reasons. I started travelling to America because I had connections there, and then I fell in love with the country. It is also a place that has had a very strong influence on my development. As a teenager, I really loved the music, films, the culture of the United States in general, and when I later had the opportunity to actually travel to those places, this love, which at first was only ideal, was confirmed. My first trip to the United States was in 2004, to Texas. I still remember the first impressions, the arrival at Houston Airport and the drive to Austin: I crossed this strange Texan desert, which was dotted with McDonald’s and gun stores along the roadside. I must have seen at least forty in a three-hour drive. Over the course of fifteen years, I must have returned to the United States at least fifty times, doing a lot of my work there. To get back to ‘Ameriguns’ and its origins: three years ago, I was working on a report for National Geographic, documenting the market and private trade of dinosaurs and fossils. I was in Kansas and, while driving through the countryside, I happened across another of the many gun stores, a huge shop in the middle of nowhere. I went in out of curiosity, following a momentary urge. Shortly afterwards, I find myself chatting with one of the customers, who tells me that this is not his first purchase, but rather that he owns and keeps a lot of weapons at home. I asked if I could follow him home, so that I could photograph them, even if, at the time, I had no plans for a project yet. In any case, this is the where the series started. The first photo was taken in that context, already employing the visual formula that has now become, in a way, my signature: portraits with objects, collections, details. It is a style that is also found in my project on toys, ‘Toy Stories’, or the one on grandmothers, ‘In Her Kitchen’. It’s a visual formula that I have used on several occasions, and which I also adopted for this first portrait of American gunmen. When I looked at the result of the photo, I realised that it worked. A week later, using more or less the same technique, I took more, going to gun stores or shooting ranges, and always choosing my subjects randomly or spontaneously. A few months later, I returned to Washington, where I delivered the story on fossils and dinosaurs to National Geographic and at the end of the presentation, I mentioned the project that was in progress. At the time, the editors of the magazine were incredulous, as if surprised that I had chosen and portrayed, given the context in which they operated, that particular reality. And it was then that I realized that the project had to be done: there was something new in those images, even for Americans themselves. The work then lasted about a year and a half. In fact, I began a veritable research project, aimed not just at identifying the subjects to photograph, but at understanding the general phenomenon. The photographs are the result of two different trips, each lasting about a month: the first trip covered the east coast, from north to south, in theory from Detroit to Florida and passing through twenty States; the second trip covered the west, passing through about thirty-eight states out of fifty. Eight thousand miles of driving, and about fifty portraits.
It is interesting to reflect on this fact: that the Americans themselves needed someone looking in from the outside, you, to recognize themselves, to be able to look at a reality that is entirely their own.
In effect, this is something that surprised me. To see the editors of National Geographic, which is to say people who know the world, amazed, incredulous about that work was a particularly powerful experience for me too. The widespread possession of weapons in the US has been long known, and is nothing new: according to some estimates, 48% of the world’s weapons are in the United States. And photography also has this power, to reveal truths, with an immediacy granted by the power of the visual that perhaps numbers fail to communicate. The project in fact worked very well. In addition to the World Press, ‘Ameriguns’ also won the Premio Ponchielli, and the resulting book has been very popular.
Still on this work: these portraits are somewhat hyper-realist in tone, with a wide environmental contextualisation, eloquent in their irony, striking in their associations, often graphically very precise. Weapons, the primary subject of this work, create patterns and textures, with the effect of alienating and distorting the classic descriptive tone of journalistic photography. What are the motivations behind this choice of style – recognizable, amongst other things, in much of your work? Do you think your background in fashion photography has left its mark here?
Yes, at the beginning of my career, for the first four or five years, I worked in fashion studios. And the tools and techniques that I perfected during that experience – the use of light, the construction of image – are elements that I brought along with me when I started doing documentary photography. This was also something of a random transition which happened while I was in Texas, for personal reasons. It was there that I started my documentary research, photographing the United States and using the style I had learned from fashion photography: artificial light, the construction and staging of the image. At the start, it was not easy. Combining these two languages – purely documentary style, and the visual flair of commercial photography – was not something that was straightforward or self-evident. Fortunately, over the years, the language of documentary photography has undergone a profound transformation. The award that I won this year at the World Press, for example, would probably not have been possible five or ten years ago. In other words, my style would not have been accepted in the world of photojournalism, because my photos are obviously constructed, staged. Of course, what happens inside the photograph is all true, nothing is fabrication. But the general setting of the image bears the mark of my intervention very strongly. So, in perfecting my work as a documentary photographer, a sort of dual situation came about: on the one hand, the evident weight and influence of my past as a commercial photographer; on the other hand, the contextual evolution of the language of photojournalism, which is now open to experimentation and new forms that are just as effective in telling stories as more traditional styles.
What you say is very interesting, it reflects precisely on what was perhaps the distancing from or calling into question the paradigms of truthfulness usually associated with journalistic photography.
Yes, there has been a bit of a shift in focus. In many cases, what is important is still the story you tell, which must always be strongly tied to the facts, to the truth. In my photography, everything is true, I never make anything up. I only play, in terms of the language, with the elements and people that are already there.
In your projects, you often seem to follow a sort of theme, which traces a path, a transversal common thread that allows you to travel through multiple spaces, places and contexts. For example, the ‘Toy Stories’ project, which travelled through India, China, Morocco and the Fiji Islands, or ‘Couch Surfing’, which perhaps more than any other work exemplifies the nomadic nature of your photography; or the work on ‘Grandmas’ in the kitchen, which also became a photography book. Do you think that working in this way gives you the opportunity to grasp – beyond the even obvious differences – the forms of continuity that exist between people, cultures and communities around the world?
To get to the bottom of this question would require space and time that perhaps we don’t have right now. Certainly, my works, especially the more global projects, such as ‘Toy Stories’ or ‘Grandmas’, where I visited many different countries, are based precisely on an attempt to play with similarities and differences. The result I’m aiming for is to use a fairly neutral and light language to create an image that speaks for itself, very easy to read, but that is still full of information. This quasi-anthropological research, the efforts to capture the similarities and differences that exist from one continent to, another is the line I try to take for all my projects.
Where does the inspiration come from, the initial input for long-term projects such as these?
Almost all the work I have done has come about on the basis of almost random intuition. I believe I have the gift of good sense. I can sense if there is a story in the air that is worth telling, as was the case with my first major work, ‘Couch Surfing’, which came about a bit by chance. This is how it happened: in 2007, I was in China creating a book on the Beijing Olympics and, at the end of the job, I took a trip to the south of the country. It was not easy for a European to move around China at that time, alone, which is how I got involved in the practice of couch surfing. A spontaneous trip, of curiosity and pleasure, that turned into a professional project – thanks to an Italian magazine that then hired me to run a biennial column on the subject. Other projects have also come about almost by accident, such as ‘Toy Stories’ or ‘In Her Kitchen’. All my projects always have something that comes from an almost intuitive, unplanned, partly unpredictable approach.
You work regularly work for National Geographic. Can you tell us about how this collaboration began and in particular your relationship with the editors? How important is the choice of photos in the composition of a story?
Before arriving at National Geographic, I worked with many other magazines, all of which were stepping stones in my development. I first came to work with National Geographic in 2015, and it was obviously a great personal achievement. It happened because, that year, I worked with Paolo Woods on a project on tax havens: that too was a long project, about three years, one that was particularly challenging but which led to fairly satisfactory results. The challenge was to translate rather complex concepts – and locations that are generally particularly reluctant to be captured in images, such as big banks or finance departments – into a language that was comprehensible, accessible to the public: and this came to the attention of some editors at National Geographic, who then called us in to work with them. Since then, I have worked for them on seven, eight different stories, about two a year – half of the projects are my own proposals, half their commissions. Regarding more specifically my relationship with the editors, it is something that should be discussed case by case, magazine by magazine. In the case of National Geographic, the relationship is very strong. The editor is an integral part of the project: when you work on a story for them, you are never alone. Instead, it is a team effort, in which the role of the editor is fundamental even from a strictly logistical and practical point of view. In my case, there are no hard limits, I am often left free to travel in the direction I see most fit.
We were talking about the fact that many of your stories – including ‘Ameriguns’ – have since ended up being published as printed projects. What kind of work goes into the creation of a photo book? What is the relationship between text and image?
Working on a magazine story and working on a photo book are two completely different processes. The story intended for magazine publication addresses a completely different audience, and is usually accompanied by a supporting article. In a book, you usually have much more room for elaboration and wider margins in terms of creative style. This is something that I value particularly. In the course of my career, I have produced five books in my own name, and at least a dozen more in collaboration with other photographers, including seven or eight with Riverboom, the collective I belong to. In the case of ‘Ameriguns’, the book was a joint effort. Basically, the role of Gea Scancarello, the journalist who edited the texts and interviews, and Thomas Tanini, the art director who devised the book’s concept, was finding a way to create a dialogue between my photographs and text and graphics taken from Instagram, thus successfully placing side-by-side my representation, my perspective, with the forms of self-representation that the subjects of my photos put forward and constructed, often in a self-congratulatory manner. In many of my works, on the other hand, the relationship between text and image is very strong. They are, in some way, two mutually reinforcing elements: photographs and words offer reciprocal support and value, and often the text often to reveal new details and elements of the image which are hidden at first glance. Of course, this idea doesn’t apply universally: there are many other works, or many other photographers that I admire and refer to, and draw inspiration from, who do not use text, because they employ a visual language that in fact doesn’t need it.
One final, unavoidable question: who are your reference photographers?
Among many, Martin Parr, who was among the first to photograph the things around him, at home in his daily life, with the awareness that you don’t always need to travel around the world to create a story. For me, this was a minor revolution. He started doing it with a very powerful images and always with a hint of irony, which I believe I also put in my photos – like in the last one, ‘Ameriguns’, which is, on balance, a dramatic work, but which uses a language that is a bit of a nod to pop, to the world of advertising. The image can be almost misleading at first glance, seemingly a celebratory image. To really understand its meaning, you have to be able to recognize its almost humorous quality.
Gabriele Galimberti (1977) is an Italian photographer born in Val Di Chiana (Tuscany). He has worked on projects and reportages all over the world, working for international publications such as National Geographic, The Sunday Times and Le Monde. In 2021, he was among the winners of the 64th edition of World Press Photo, winning first prize in the ‘Portraits and Stories’ category with the ‘Ameriguns’ project, which has also been made into a photo book. For more information, see his work on Instagram, or go to gabrielegalimberti.com