[S4C INTERVIEWS] S4C meets Alfredo Bini
NICOLA: Ciao Alfredo! Thank you for being here with us.
It’s an honor for me to have the chance to ask you a few questions regarding your photography, I am fan of your work. A few years ago, I wrote to you expressing my admiration for your photography.
Then we met in Crema, about a month ago, during “Non Solo Turisti” (“Not Only Tourists”), a festival about journalists, tourists and travelers, which is dedicated to the memory of Tiziano Terzani (1938-2004) and the significance of documenting realities so distant and different from ours. That was when I began to wonder if you would be interested in hearing about Shoot 4 Change. I called you and presented the idea, the project and its several initiatives.
What does social photography mean to you? Would you define yourself as a social photographer?
ALFREDO: I think documentary and social photography is a medium which allows us to experience reality from a first person perspective. By telling the stories of the people involved, you document and analyze the issues you treat. I don’t know if I can call myself a social photographer, I do photography because I believe in its usefulness for spreading news, and because it increases my awareness and allows me to grow. Photography is curiosity and entails a person’s profound need to see. Social photographers are people who try to get close to contemporary issues concerning the world’s population, not only because it is good or ethical but because they feel the need to let people see.
NICOLA: did you study photography at school?
ALFREDO: No, I didn’t. The first project I published was shot in 2000. I did not attend photo, journalism or art classes, but ever since my childhood I’d been influenced by other family members with a passion for photography. Later on I started to attend workshops led by photographers such as David Harvey, Bob Sacha or photo editors like Kent Kobersteen, who taught during the summer at the TPW, Toscana Photography Workshop.
At the same time I continued to travel and to learn about places I visited, especially in South East Asia. On my travels I would read books by journalists and writers who dedicated their lives to those places in order to gain a deeper understanding of the realities I was encountering. Those story tellers had a profound knowledge of the history and culture of the places they wrote about. A passion quickly arose: I wanted to become a photojournalist. The enjoyment I gained from meeting different cultures and their habits soon became a mission. I have always had a particular interest in social issues and aspired to move souls and to open people’s eyes, hence the main focus of my work, but I do also enjoy portraying daily life.
NICOLA: I really think we can say that you are a social photographer Alfredo..
Do you think photography can represent a key factor in making things change?
ALFREDO: things change very slowly, it might take one or two generations to see change. Photographs allow people to see what’s happening around the world. As a matter of fact, it’s extremely hard to be objective: one tries to give as much information as possible, but the way in which you do this inevitably influences one’s audience.
If you think of the images which have somehow really made a change you can count them on one hand. I believe photography can make people open their eyes, but the mass media do not always allow people to see certain contexts. Everyone should have the opportunity to see them, and in order for a change to occur, they should see them several times every day.
NICOLA: I met Dambisa Moyo who is the author of the New York Times Bestseller “Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is a Better Way for Africa” (see also www.dambisamoyo.com) where she presents her economic theories detailing why aid is not always effective at stimulating growth and reducing poverty. You worked for an Italian NGO, Bambini nel deserto (www.bambinineldeserto.org), which carries out projects in sectors as instruction, health, micro-credit and water.
You know international institutions like the UN agencies operate in Africa, NGOs are deeply involved in development projects, and multinational companies are there to do business and also carry out sustainable activities. What do you think of this situation? What you think about those cooperation projects? Do you think they are effective or not? Do they help people and solve problems?
ALFREDO: I can give you a good example. In Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries, there is a complex situation of social issues like economic under-development and political instability. But one of the reasons why things do not change is that the people don’t recognize the causes of the problems. In Niger the Tubu, Tuareg and other the nomad populations who farm livestock and, at times, live in the areas where water is a recurrent issue during the dry season, do not cultivate the land even though in some areas water is very easy to find – it’s only 30/40 cm under your feet – because their culture and habits prevent them from working the land.
So I say that any project that is for the good of the people has to be in line with local necessities and culture, and it must also be feasible. Is it certain that those who define aid and design assistance and development projects have hands-on experience? I am not so sure. We can’t expect to impose cooperation strategies based on our ideas. I refer not only to what the UN, the World Bank or the International Monetary funds do but also to the approach taken by NGO’s. As far as the multinational companies are concerned, first of all they have to recognize that they have direct responsibilities, and they must admit those. Second, they should be committed to avoiding spoiling local realities. So before communicating messages about the sustainability of their activities, they should show active respect for the areas in which they are present.
NICOLA: Are you always able to photograph what you care about?
ALFREDO: No, not always can one work on contexts of social denouncement, but sometimes one has the chance of working on other types of project (laughter). I am currently shooting the backstage of the Global Champions Tour, an annual jumping competition in which the world’s top 30 riders compete. It is interesting from photographic point of view, but clearly is distanced from other projects which have strong impact on social level.
NICOLA: Are you enjoying it?
ALFREDO: Yes (pause)..a really positive aspect is the trust that the client has shown, which allows me to experiment new forms of photographic language. Sometimes I use a 50mm f/1.2 for daily shots at maximum aperture, and also 85mm f/1.2. I had never used anything longer than 24mm or 35mm before (laughter)!!
NICOLA: your last project, Transmigration, has been covered by the blog of the New York Times blog LENS, and the reportage has also been published by the BBC, El Pais Semanal, by Corriere della Sera Magazine, by the magazine of Il Manifesto ALIAS, Avvenire, and by the photojournalism online magazine Witness Journal. I believe you absolutely deserve all this international recognition. I know you worked very hard to complete this project, which tells the stories of the people who come from Western African countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Togo, Benin and Burkina Faso, to cross Niger and migrate northwards, sometimes as far as Europe…
ALFREDO: Transmigration was born during a reportage in Burkina Faso where I met the first migrants who told me they wanted to get to Europe. Later on I came into contact with some journalists who told me about the migration routes stimulating me to find out more about the phenomenon. The route I photographed has been the most active of all of them over the last decade, traveled as it is by Africans aiming to reach Italy. In Italy and in Europe they often talk about migrants and migrations but I wanted to tell the stories of the stranded travelers, of whom we often hear nothing for the simple reason that they never reach Italy.
….there is a continuous flow of people leaving Nigeria, although contrary to general expectations many of them do not come from the Niger Delta areas, where oil companies’ activities and projects are centralized. A high percentage of people leave central Nigeria, driven by the poor economic situation, political instability and social conditions which reign there and depend to a certain extent on the oil industries in the south of the country. I hope to have more frequent opportunities to work on this type of assignment in the future.
NICOLA: Why did you decide to follow several migrants rather than focusing on a single person and his or her story?
ALFREDO: For two main reasons. Right from the beginning I wanted to document the route and the stories of the stranded. To follow just one person effectively I would have needed a freedom of movement that I just didn’t have, and I couldn’t be with the migrants all the time. For instance I couldn’t get into Agadez on the bus from Niamey: the soldiers would have noticed my equipment and I would have been arrested. I managed to get into the city thanks to a friend who took me in a car, but once in I had an extremely stressful experience: the next morning, while walking in the customs zone I was arrested and put in jail. In this and similar situations I obviously couldn’t use my Reflex and so had to shoot with a compact camera.
NICOLA: What were the greatest challenges you faced when traveling with the migrants?
First of all, sharing an experience like this with other people who did not feel any sort of pity for the people who had embarked on this journey, but who rather mocked, taunted and scoffed at them. My traveling companions were not the migrants themselves but local personages moving through the desert on an electoral campaign. I did try to bear in mind that their attitude was not born of nastiness but depended entirely on the fact that they lived in this kind of social framework and had never been exposed to a different vision, but sometimes I found it impossible to keep calm and I had some arguments that could have got me into trouble.
Second, the check points and the continuous risk of being arrested, which happened twice, in Agadez as I have already mentioned, and in Niamey, just the day before I was due to set out on my trip across the desert. I wanted, foolishly in retrospect, to shoot a building site where a bridge was under construction, and I’d heard that amongst the Chinese workers on the site there were also some prisoners. With a few words of rudimentary Chinese and lots of smiles I got permission from the boss to enter the site, where I stayed for quite a long time until deciding to leave around sunset. Some Niger soldiers stopped me and confiscated my passport and camera. I feared that I had jeopardized the whole migrants project, but after two hours of grueling talk with the commanding officer, he decided to let me out, on condition that I cancelled all the pictures I had taken on the building site, which I let him think. I can tell you that this was the most delicate moment, where I felt I was really in danger. The general attitude to the press in the country was tangibly tense, another example occurred whilst I was documenting some issues for UNICEF in the hospital in Niamey and was stopped by the soldiers simply for announcing my presence at the entrance.
NICOLA: You also recorded audio. How do you think other media, like audio, video, internet, social networks, etc can go hand-in hand with photography?
ALFREDO: I think any new form of storytelling can reach more people and communicate a message, so it can be helpful for our work. But I also believe that it is fundamental to focus on the content: a photographer must be able to shoot images and put them together to tell the story. Then one can add audio and photoshop (by the way, personally I am not a fan of extensive use of image editing tools).
ALFREDO: Apart from Camera 16 as you said, where four of my photographs are part of a collective exhibition compiled of the work of World Press Photo prize winners – I am very proud to have this opportunity to exhibit with these great photojournalists – I have been contacted by other organizations about participating in other exhibitions in Sardinia and Emilia Romagna, although the details are still to be confirmed. I would very much like to have an exhibition in Rome too, but again the timing and venue have not been defined yet.
Thanks a lot for your time Alfredo and shoot for change!
I hope we can really build something concrete out of all these initiatives together in the future!