America

Index

We fly over Greenland and land in Los Angeles. Then we set off for Death Valley. There are four of us. The ten-lane motorway takes us to the north. When we arrive at Zabriskie Point I see a boy with paralysed legs who is travelling alone in a camper van. He drops his wheelchair from the open door, jumps in and with the strength of his arms pushes himself up to the top, where the view opens to infinity.

We arrive in Las Vegas. No views of infinity from the Golden Gate Hotel. Instead air conditioners, ice machines, slot machines and girls in miniskirts dancing on the game tables. The following morning we continue on Route 93 and a section of 66. I miss a red light and a stop sign just before we enter Navajo country. In Monument Valley I feel even smaller. We get stuck in the sand and some Indians help pull us out. Here nothing but silence for millions of years. As we head south we see petrified trees. At Tucson I touch the Kennedy presidential jet. Lucina and Vincenzo leave, and Josef and I continue along the Mexican border. We see whole cities of trailers. These are people who have come from the north for the winter. Nothing around us but desert. We get to Indio. I see motels, petrol stations, road junctions. It’s Thanksgiving. Even though it’s already evening, we must celebrate. The only place open is the casino. We eat a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. And the following morning we head for Los Angeles. All around us: nothing. They say in these parts that if you want to die you just walk into the desert. We pass police checkpoints set up to stop immigrants from crossing the border illegally. I stop for petrol while a river of vehicles passes on Interstate 10. In the next life I will photograph America.


Los Angeles, CA, november 2014

 

© Fabio Ponzio

L'età dell' oro

 

I am in Cologne for the Carnival. I watch happy people singing, dressed as bananas, mice and princes.

1979 - Germany

On the newspapers in the kiosk I see a line of people dressed in black next to a line of men dressed in orange. I wonder what sense there is in being here, today. Everything merges, gets confused, lost and then returns, differently configured. This continuous flux of images and information that comes at us like an endless tide, makes us doubt what is real and what isn’t. Walking through the city I see shops loaded with incredible quantities of products. Where do all these objects go? How many need to be bought to keep the economic system afloat? And once we have stuffed our houses and closets with everything we’ve bought, what has changed? Nothing. Wait, no; our thoughts, dreams and hopes have changed.

2013 - Great Britain

With smartphones, laptops and tablets we are no longer there where we ought to be, but in some other place, incapable of seeing what is right in front of our eyes. All of this makes us lose time. And time is the profound force of photography. Even in Seville, when the Madonna passes, hundreds of smartphones are raised. Even as the people weep. And pray. Once again, everything merges, gets confused and contaminated. In the evening, in a motel on the city ring road, I turn on the television. I watch those hard faces, full of confidence, false, made of stone. It is difficult to love people like that. And difficult to photograph them. The compassion, communality and sharing I always felt in the east, vanishes in the west. I think the most correct way representing my psychological and moral state is to say that I have no feelings for the people I photograph in the west.

2014 - Great Britain

When I came back from the east the faces, glances, words and hands of all the people I met crowded in my mind and heart. In the west I can travel for two weeks without any kind of communication with the people I photograph. Aside from a primary form of communication obviously, or when I meet some travelling migrant. In the last seven years in the west I have hugged just five people and all of them, one after the other, in the space of two minutes. It was a group of German kids in the street who were offering passers-by free hugs with open arms. They had a sign on which was written: “Free hugs. Lass dich umarmen”. I took advantage. In this kind of context I often perceive the reality of the west as a sequence of situations and events that are completely predictable and without any element of surprise. There are rarely any breaks in this infinite chain of banalities. And on those few occasions when I find myself in front of a break in normality, real life appears for an instant that only photography, in the flowing vortex of time has the miraculous ability to capture. Music, literature or cinema can’t do this, perhaps only poetry has the same capacity.

2014 - Spain

The morning of Mardi Gras I leave my motel and cross an industrial area on foot to reach the train station. Although it might seem paradoxical, when I travelled in the east, I used to think that God had created man, but now in the west I have become convinced that man created God. It is strange even for me to see things in this way.  Perhaps these thoughts have come to me because westerners strike me as so falsely happy, lost among their airports, motorways and shopping centres, that I imagine them unable to bear the idea of being alone in the universe.

2016 - Great Britain

The train moves through the mists of dawn. I arrive at the station. I cross the square in front of the cathedral, go down a few steps and reach a place where I slept on the ground, one freezing night, thirty-eight years ago. While I gaze in solitude on those few square metres from within the entrance of the underground station, an angel passes. Or maybe I just imagine I saw it. An instant later, it’s no longer there. Maybe it was just my imagination. Or maybe it really passed and I photographed it.

 

Köln, february 2015

 

© Fabio Ponzio

The Circle

 

« What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence. […] The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”

2011- Spain

Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you have answered him: “You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!"»

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, The Gay Science, aph. 341 - The Greatest Weight

 

Roma, january 2015

 

© Fabio Ponzio

On the road

 

August 2009, I set off. I’m looking for this Europe but I can’t forget the other Europe, eastern Europe.

The motorway runs along the Tyrrhenian Sea, crosses the Apennines and loops through the Po valley. I see endless fields and no sign of human life. In the evening, before dusk, I reach a fairground on the banks of Lake Garda. The car park is bursting with vehicles. I see a lot of people, mostly working-class families from northern Italy wearing t-shirts and shorts, weaving in and out of the many attractions. I ought to take some photos but I don’t like what I’m seeing. I’m looking for a harmony, a mystery, a geometry, but I find nothing.

1991 - Hungary

I spend the night in a nearby campsite. It is crowded, and despite the fact that it costs me 30 euros for a place to sleep in my car, it seems like a refugee camp. The next morning I photograph the seals in the aquarium and head off north. I decide to travel through the Val Gardena. The happiness inspired by the beauty of the Dolomites is muted by the sight of all the mountain villages that have become tourist centres. I cross Austria on the motorway and, after sunset, the services are lit up like space stations where you can take refreshment and encounter other humans. I go on past Vienna at night in the midst of a rainstorm. I sleep in a pensione just before the Czech border. At dawn I get to the border. The first time I passed that same point it was March and there were men with their shirts open and Kalashnikovs around their necks, ready to kill. Now everything is quiet: the woods, the fields covered in dew, the houses still immersed in sleep, a few farmers already on their tractors. Did that impenetrable border made of barbed wire and watchtowers ever really exist? Two powerful cars overtake me at speed and I have no answer to that question. Little by little, as I cross Moravia, from Brno to Ostrava, the traffic intensifies dramatically. Hundreds, thousands of vehicles moving fast, too fast. I see a lot of accidents. Lorries of every nationality pour past me: I’m going too slowly, and I’m doing 100 km an hour. Cars, cars, cars: this is the real change. The car patently occupies every space. It has become impossible to take a photograph without a car appearing in the viewfinder.

2009 - Hungary

I pass the Polish border without even realising it. The ring road loops around the border city of Cieszn and then winds into the hills, towards the north. The traffic is immense, and queues are constantly forming. I finally reach Czestochowa, the most important pilgrim site in Poland. The monastery of Jasna Gora rises at the centre of the city. Thousands of pilgrims come here in August. But their faces are no longer the same as twenty years ago. Nor are their clothes. The beggars and the old people sitting on the benches in the park have all but gone. Many bars and shops have opened along the avenue that leads to the monastery. Mercedes and BMWs are parked in front of the religious buildings. The next day I leave Czestochowa and after five hours of traffic arrive in Kalwaria, another great Polish religious centre. The people I meet have changed. The strong weathered faces of workmen and farmers have given way to faces that are smoother and less expressive. Only nature has remained true to herself: the ancient trees that have seen three centuries of history and pilgrimages are still there, alive and impassive.

1994 - Poland

For three days I take photographs and then leave for the south. I cross Slovakia. Endless woods and tidy towns. There is no room for surprises. I see young people on mountain bikes, families returning from their holidays, old people out walking. I see gypsies who have taken over degraded and hidden spaces by the railway lines, disused industrial sites and dumps. These faces are still the same: pained, exhausted, suspicious, curious and merry. I reach the motorway that runs from Budapest to Lake Balaton. It is the evening of the 15th of August and a stream of lights miles long is carrying the Hungarians back to their homes. The holidays are soon over. The financial crisis is making itself felt in Hungary. I stay a few days on the lakeside and set off to the northwest in the direction of the Austro-Czech border. I have been told that after the fall of the iron curtain, the Czech towns there filled up with casinos and cheap brothels aiming to satisfy the desires of passing strangers. A little before sundown I arrive at the border. I see a lot of gaming houses and prostitutes in the street. I leave behind me an old village and press on in search of a place to sleep. Just past the last curve, before a big dark wood, a very young girl appears on the side of the road, wearing a white mini dress and very high heels. She smiles and signals to me to stop. Instinctively I raise my Leica and snap. Only at that moment I realise she is pregnant. Nature is bathed in all its August splendour and the light of the closing day covers everything in gold.

 

 

Roma, november 2009

 

© Fabio Ponzio

The Trip

 

A Sikh driving a yellow taxi took us rapidly into Manhattan. The following morning we got up very early and went out. The sun lit up half of everything.

2012 - New York N.Y. USA

This was the same light that I had seen in many cities in the east, in the same season and at the same latitude. But the people were quite different. They all had attractive smartphone faces. Even the nights were different. I hadn’t brought my tent. Had I been bolder, much bolder, I would have brought it and slept in Central Park or on the beach at Coney Island. But I didn’t even have my red Volkswagen with me anymore. Who knows where it is now.

1996 - Romania

I had given it years before to Valodia, a Russian friend who, as I remember, became famous for setting off on horseback from the Tierra del Fuego and reaching Alaska after a three-year journey. At any rate, in New York I found I was quite incapable of photographing the people. I need to feel love for the people I photograph. Maybe the problem was that I had arrived by plane, and everyone knows that when you fly your soul takes at least three days to catch up with you, depending on the distance travelled. Too late. When my soul arrived, I was already long gone.

1993 - Ukraine

Years ago when I travelled to Romania, it was quite different. Me and my soul we travelled together, ate together, slept together, for three days and three nights. When we finally arrived it was as if we had always lived there. Perhaps this is the real reason why I was unable to photograph the people of New York.

 

Glasgow, giugno 2013

 

© Fabio Ponzio

The people of the east

 

On the night of the 13th December 2009 I left my room at the Buyuk Londra Oteli in Istanbul and took a taxi to the airport.

That journey was to conclude 22 years of travelling in the east.

While the taxi motored on through the night across the city, I thought about the time that had passed since the fall of the Berlin wall. I thought about how everything had changed over the last two decades, both in reality, and in the minds of Europeans.

1987 - Turkey

Before the collapse of the Warsaw pact regimes, every time I looked at a map of Europe, my attention was always irresistibly drawn to the east and its mysterious names, inscrutable frontiers, and roads that ran on into unknown, prohibited lands.

The division between east and west was like an enchantment, holding us westerners anchored to something unnameable on which our lives, our vision of the world and our fears, depended. That wall was the division between the conscious and the unconscious mind of Europe. Beyond that line, everything was played out in shadow, apparently without any connection to what was happening in the west but, like the human unconscious, the east would not allow us to forget our past.

2000 - Romania

1992 - Czechoslovakia

1992 - Yugoslavia

To breach the confines of the east was to enter into a universe that had been crystallized, and where people and things had evolved differently from our own.

My journey began in Istanbul in 1987 and continued, in the years that followed, in Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Russia, the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia. When I arrived in Poland in 1988, the country struck me as being on the verge of collapse. There was little food in the shops and the queues to buy bread were immense. The people congregated in the churches and gathered en masse during celebrations. Places like Jasna Gora or Kalwaria Zebrzydowska were islands of freedom, lost in a sea of grey immobility. One could almost say that the Polish people lived between coal and incense, in sacrifice and transcendency. They had lived through and survived the depths of the mines, war, the gulags, thanks to their unshakeable faith.

1988 - Poland

In Ceausescu’s Romania, people’s lives were reduced to a succession of dark days, always in search of something to eat. The Securitate had absolute control over the people and used informants, bribery and violence to beat any instinct for freedom out of individuals. When I first went to Romania, in June 1988, I stayed just long enough to spend one sleepless night there. The next day I was arrested and my passport was confiscated, with the excuse that I had photographed some phantasmagorical military airport.

In the same period, in Yugoslavia, the beginnings of what was to become the catastrophe of successive years were being laid out, while the west looked on in supreme indifference.

On 28 June 1989 I saw hundreds of thousands of Serbs gather in Kosovo, on the plain known as ‘Blackbird field’ and listen to Slobodan Milosevic give his tragically famous speech in which he laid out the ideology and programme that would lead to the tragedy of the Yugoslav wars.

During my travels I realised how important it was to penetrate this world that I was just beginning to get to know. I had the distinct sense that history had created a vantage point from which it was possible to see through to the essence of human beings with greater clarity.

1991 - Romania

Then, in the autumn of 1989, suddenly everything changed. The various regimes of the communist countries of central and eastern Europe began to collapse in Budapest, Berlin, Warsaw, Prague, Sofia and Bucharest in an incredible domino effect that continued in Albania and ended two years later in the Soviet Union. The men and women who had lived for years without hope, were often incredulous and confused in the face of this new thing that they did not know. Everything seemed possible, and in fact, was possible. The old energy that had fortified itself through pain and sacrifice was joined now by a new energy, full of hope.

1992 - Poland

In this atmosphere, suspended between uncertainty and expectation, I continued my travels across an immense territory, in search of the people of the east.
In these countries I discovered the peasant class, deeply bound to nature, to tradition and faith. In the east I came to know the working class, whose pride was still intact despite the defeat of ideologies and the collapse of economies.

I saw the new man of communist rhetoric in all his outdated greatness, crushed and humiliated and unaware that he represented a primeval force that survives everything and draws strength from everything.

I sought out these men and women during my travels, before everything succumbed to the consumer bonanza/trap that followed the conquest of freedom.

1990 - Poland

1997 - Romania

1989 - Poland

The fall of the Berlin wall allowed me to pass freely across territories that had once been in the suffocating grip of regimes, drastically limiting the movement of whoever wished to testify to a reality that did not fit with the ideology in power.

I chose to travel by car, carrying with me a sleeping bag, a tent, a gas stove, a Leica, three Nikons and 100 rolls of film. The maps were very approximate but there was almost no traffic on the roads. I slept wherever; in a wood, among the pilgrims in front of a sanctuary, in the homes of people I met along the way. Once, in a poor house in the Albanian mountains, I was told that the last two foreigners that had passed through the village had been two Italian soldiers fleeing after the armistice of 8 September 1943.

1992 - Romania

Life in the cities was very different from in the villages. While it was sometimes possible to maintain a certain dignity in the rural areas, in the towns and cities the atmosphere was different. Here the sudden end of communism revealed the extent of people’s vulnerability. They did not have what they needed to survive, as the rural population did. In Boris Yeltsin’s Moscow, the pensioners were tatters in the wind, with nothing to depend on. The railway stations of Kiev or Kharkov in the Ukraine, were full of homeless people who were seeking shelter. In Hunedoara in Romania, the inhabitants were dying, poisoned by the gigantic steel industry where they had laboured for a tiny salary. There’s no doubt that I rarely saw in the countryside the hopeless poverty I encountered in the cities. But perhaps this was the reason why one felt the expectation of a different future in the cities, and the anxiety for something that would come though no-one knew exactly what form it would take.

1995 - Russia

In this context, one of the most obvious things that differentiated the east from the west was the almost total absence of commercialisation of daily life. Clearly, this condition allowed reality to appear in all its essence. Symbols were more obviously recognisable. Paradoxically, a system founded on lies allowed for a more limpid vision. Poverty and suffering made everything more elemental. And this was also why the people in the east struck me as so strong and unique. In their apparent simplicity, their patient acceptance of the difficulties of daily life, of toil and injustice, in their humility, the people of the east expressed a force and courage that we in the west have long forgotten, lost in the constant search for security and comfort, overwhelmed by the infinite necessities instilled in us by consumer society.

1991 - Albania

In the end discovering the east was my discovery of the world. The people in the east taught me to still myself and observe. They taught me to look up and see the sky. What I retain from all those years spent in the east are just a few photographs in which I sought out the souls of these men and women.

I had the presumption to attempt to turn them into symbols. I would love to have been successful in this, and give back to them in small part what they gave to me.

 

Roma, april 2011.

 

© Fabio Ponzio

Discovering eastern europe

 

In December 1987 I began to travel in Eastern Europe on a regular basis, but there were three previous trips that shaped my fascination with the countries of the east. When I was young I was struck by the scarcity of images and news features coming from that part of Europe, which seemed to me closed and mysterious. At the time it was almost impossible to meet or speak to anyone who came from the East. I remember that the first Eastern Europeans to reach our part of the world were the Soviet Jews. I saw them for the first time in the winter, with their grey coats and their humble, affable faces, selling cameras made in the East in the market.

But it was in 1973, at the age of 14, that I visited the other Europe for the first time. Istanbul was the first city I discovered. I have very hazy memories of that trip, but the clear recollection of a strong emotion that was provoked in me by that frontier city, sensual and unknown. For the first time I caught a glimpse of what in later years would come to symbolise the European ‘unconscious’, her deep dark soul.

1973 - travelling to Istanbul

Three years later in 1976, I travelled with my family in the Balkans – crossing through Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria. My memories of that trip are distant and dim, but what I saw certainly insinuated itself into my mind and stayed there. I remember trucks loaded with grain in Bulgaria, a dead body by the side of the road in Bosnia, an old lady inside a cardboard box in the market of a Yugoslavian village, children appearing out of the woods in Romania and asking for chewing gum, fishermen in the delta of the Danube at dusk, and smiling, welcoming women along the wide streets of Wallachia.

It was during that trip that my father first talked to me about photography as we waited at the port in Split for the ship that would take us back to Italy He explained how it was possible to create an image on film and afterwards enlarge it, and print it on paper. During the trip I had taken a few colour photographs with his Voigtlander Vitomatic II, and I wanted to know more. When I got home I bought my first camera, an Olympus OM1.

My third encounter with eastern Europe took place in 1983 when I was already working for various Italian and foreign magazines. I went to Berlin for the 1st May celebrations. At the time my photographic style was conventional and sterile, designed to meet the requirements of the publications I was working for. But the trip turned into a surreal journey. Crossing from West Berlin to East, through the underground networks that connected these two worlds was a dreamlike experience, moving through time and space. I remember the border guards of the DDR, the meticulous inspections, the neon lights, the long tunnels, and at the end, the staircase from which you emerged into a far-off and obsolete world. I saw the buildings of the Third Reich blackened with smoke, and the parades celebrating communism. I saw the then President Honecker and his henchmen, smiling and saluting the soldiers on parade.

It was not a particularly edifying experience, but it was important to witness close up, for the first time, the suffocating control exerted by the powers that were, and the farcical display organized to celebrate Honecker. Everything was controlled and preordained. I had my own personal interpreter to whom I had been entrusted by the press office of the ministry, I don’t remember whether for foreign or internal affairs. This girl followed me everywhere and subjected me to a stream of regime propaganda. Once I saw her crying. Two men in black raincoats were interrogating her because I had managed to slip out of her sight in a moment of distraction during the never-ending parade, and had spent the whole time among the military ranks that were on parade, all the while being broadcast live on television in front of millions of citizens of East Germany as I dashed from side to side to another. On the one hand Berlin gave me a clear perception of a police-communist state, on the other it aroused in me a desire – at first tenuous, and then, over the years, growing stronger – to push beyond that curtain of prohibitions and censorship to discover what lay behind the things I had seen and what made up the identity of the inhabitants of eastern Europe.

 

Roma, march 2006.

 

© Fabio Ponzio

Why photography

 

I have always been fascinated by painting. I painted as a teenager and while painting was a great liberating pleasure, it also isolated me from the world. With photography I found I could create images and also interact with other people. Photography forced me to go out and look at the world. It has made me more attentive and taught me never to take anything for granted. Being constantly forced to evaluate the relationship between form and content has allowed me to refine my awareness as I continue to discover and perceive reality.

2009 - Spain

Photography has matured and educated me. Without it I would be a different person. To be a photographer is to accept a strict discipline, remembering that every thought and every action in your daily life should directly or indirectly contribute to making better photos. It might seem exaggerated to say so, but behind every good photograph there is a long journey made up of choices, some of them difficult. In order to take a good photograph you need to find within you a degree of concentration that doesn’t take a day or even a week to achieve. You need to rid yourself of all the negative stimuli that generate a superficial and limited perception of reality and which prevent you from really becoming aware of time and space. At the moment of taking a photograph, in that precise instant, you instinctively make a decision about how to organise those two elements. To reach this point, you need to have a deep understanding of the significance of time. If you don’t nurture a respect for the passing of time during the days, months and years of your own life, you cannot understand how to manage that final instant when the photograph is created. That instant is the miraculous conclusion of a journey travelled in time over many years and which must be able to precisely define the space portrayed.

 

 

Roma, january 2007

 

© Fabio Ponzio

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