Brexit Special | The Story Behind the Picture: Giorgia Tobiolo

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Given the recent headlines and media hoo-ha over the UK leaving the European Union, we decided to interview Italian photographer and Mango Lab tutor Giorgia Tobiolo about her series called Migrare-Wanderer. Her documentary style portraiture captures the spirit of immigrants who have left their home countries to settle elswhere. She tells us why these photos are now more important than ever, the difficulties of combining documentary photography with portraiture, and why she feels so connected to people.

What initiated your interest in photography?
Since I was a child I was surrounded by photographs – my grandfather took a lot of pictures. I was attracted to art because my sister was an artist, but I didn’t know that I would become a photographer. Although I knew I was very close to photography I didn’t think I could do it for work. In 2004 I was living in London and working in Leicester Square; there was a degree exhibition by LCC – I stopped in front of one of the photographs at the exhibition and I felt all these different emotions and I realised that was what I should do – try to become a photographer for real.

What inspired the shot you’ve chosen?
The man in the photograph, Scott, is from Northern Ireland. I was looking for a background where there was a church or something typically English with plants and trees or a church. We live very close to each other and there was this church with a cemetery inside and I asked him to pose in front of it.

He is holding a camera in the photograph. Why is that?
He is a photographer. It’s his favourite camera. He was studying with me at the University of Westminster for a Masters in PhotoJournalism. At the time we were using digital and he realised that we were spending a lot of money on digital, but in the end an analogue camera looks more expensive but it’s not – you just need to buy the camera and film. But for digital cameras you spend three or four thousand pounds. He fell in love with the analogue camera.

Is this photograph part of a series?
The name of the series is Migrare-Wanderer. ‘Migrare’ is a Latin word and as I am Italian it seemed relevant because in Italian the word is the same. In the series I am talking about the movement of people that has been happening for years and years. I thought a Latin word would be a good choice mixed with the English – it’s the language of the world and the European Union (until a week ago!). I thought it would be a good match.

Given what has happened with Britain leaving the EU, are these photos even more important now?
Yes, because now we cannot move easily with the passport. It’s going to be more difficult. I don’t necessarily want to talk about the politics because it’s not what I do, but in general we will not have the same freedom anymore. I think this project is more important now because it showcases how vital it is to have the freedom to move, to travel, and to make your own choices without anyone stopping you.

Did you have a specific intention with this photograph before you took it?
Basically what I usually do is decide my project and how I want to shoot it and what I want to say. I usually leave a door open to my work – I don’t stick to an idea just because I have one, I leave it open to change. For this I initially decided to have a series of portraits of people surrounded by a place or an object that was important to them or was related to the reason why they left their country. In general you don’t know how a portrait will turn out.

What camera was it taken on?
Nikon D700.

How important was using Photoshop to edit the image?
I used a bit of Photoshop or Lightroom. I generally don’t like to use Photoshop to edit my images a lot. I like to take a photograph in the way I see it – after I take a shot I look back at it and I try to take the picture perfectly, so I don’t have to use Photoshop later on.

With this photo did you have to take multiple shots then?
With Scott it was quite easy because we were already friends. It’s not always the case because sometimes you have good chemistry with other people even if you don’t know them. In this case we had that chemistry because we understood each other.

It’s two photographs next to each other – a portrait and the subject’s hands holding their passport. How symbolic is that design?
I think it is very symbolic – it’s the reason I chose to take a picture of the hands, which personally is a part of the body that is very important. Hands show the personality and character of a person. I don’t want to say you can understand the person from their hands, but it can certainly invoke a feeling about that person. The hands were symbolic, but the cover of the passport was also symbolic – it was very important for me to show it because every passport has its own symbol, way of writing, and even the language is different. You see everything from the cover and that’s why I didn’t ask anyone to show me the picture inside because I wasn’t interested in the personal information, I was interested in the essence of the country. Through the cover you can appreciate that essence and the differences between the countries.

I know you mentioned you don’t want to get political about this, but it seems so relevant now to talk about and how important open borders are. You’re an Italian photographer working in London; how has this project and now having to deal with Brexit affected you?
The first feeling I had was sadness because I left my country five years ago and I spent all my time in London – working and trying to make my dream come true. I left my family and friends in Italy so London is a second home for me. It’s a bit strange now because everything will make me think slightly differently. Everything will be more like ‘you’re not from this country’. It will be different, I will feel more distance or maybe I won’t – it’s all too soon to talk about.

In the photograph the subject looks quite subdued. Was that intentional?
He is natural in the shot. Scott understood how important it was to feel confident and comfortable during the shot and how important it is to think about something or feel something, because the shot is capturing a moment and a sensation at that specific moment. It’s also because he is a photographer and he is very photogenic.

Where would you say your photography lies – more towards portraiture or documentary?
I think I am in between the two. I love them both and I always mix documentary with portraiture in all of my projects.

Is that because of a connection you feel towards people?
I love people and I have always been interested in getting to know people. It’s a way of connecting with people – I understand and learn a lot from other people. I’m a very curious person; even if I’m not taking photographs I’m always asking questions. I always think about people – what they do and who they are.

What problems do you face combining portraiture and documentary photography?
Sometimes you want to talk about personal issues or for example if someone has done something bad it’s very difficult to ask them to have their portraits. Sometimes they want to work with you, but they don’t want to show their face. Sometimes they want to expose their problems, but they don’t want to expose their lives. That’s the difficulty. When you find someone who believes showing their problems and resolutions is more important than keeping to themselves it’s amazing because your project changes completely.

Is your style inspired by anyone in particular?
I think so, but I’m not the kind of photographer who duplicates another artist. I always try to avoid that. Some photographers I love are Alec Soth, Jim Goldberg, and Nan Goldin.

Where do you see yourself going now as a photographer?
I like teaching a lot because I love the idea of sharing my own experience with other people who dream of becoming photographers but don’t know how. I will also continue with my documentary projects, which I love and make me feel alive. Music is my second passion; I love taking portraits of musicians.

What does photography give you that nothing else does?
It’s the reason I am where I am today. It’s pushed me to express myself and as a result I’ve learnt a lot about myself. Photography taught me how to be more empathetic. When I see people now, even outside of photography, I feel like I understand them a bit more because you discover a lot being a photographer.

To view more of Giorgia’s work visit giorgiatobiolo.com
Giorgia will be teaching Be a Reporter for a Week (Teens) at The Mango Lab this summer.

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