Capturing the Solitude of Being: Interview with Documentary Photographer, Massimiliano Corteselli.
Massimiliano Corteselli was recently introduced to me by a good friend, and whilst sharing a beer one evening a few weeks ago in Prenzlauer Berg, he told me of his project documenting wildfires in Southern Italy. When he showed me some of the photographs on his phone, however, I was surprised and intrigued by the strange and varied conceptual approaches he’d explored to create these compositions. I was interested to hear more about Massi’s practice — in a slightly more sober mind — and thankfully, he was kind enough to invite me to his studio to chat over a coffee and show me some of his prints.
We first spoke about Massi’s geographically splintered upbringing.
“I was born in Tivoli — a small town thirty kilometres from Rome — and when I was one year old we moved to West Germany and I went to kindergarten there. After that, we moved to Berlin for five years, and then back to Rome for two years. Then we moved to this little town in the centre of Germany. I really hated it there. One hundred thousand people max, and super conservative. The whole life is pretty ‘preset’ — everyone lives the life of their parents. It’s like a repetition and a repetition and a repetition. I hated it so much. And then we moved to Munich for a couple of months before my university, and then I moved to Berlin in 2013… I would say I’m from Berlin.”
I was curious about his accent, as despite having lived mostly in Germany, his accent sounded more Italian than Deutsche. I wondered which country he most identified with.
“I was always seeking a connection to Italy, probably. Because I felt a bit different in Italy and not fully integrated into the culture. I was seeking a place to belong to. And I really didn’t find it… I needed, so much, something to hold me as a child because we were moving so much. I needed some structure. But in Italy, I was a German guy, and in Germany, I was an Italian guy. So yeah, it was really hard to position myself somewhere.”
I wondered how he would define the word ‘home’.
“I guess somewhere you feel like you can culturally identify yourself with a place and a mentality. So for me, maybe Berlin… But, culturally, in certain senses, it’s not really in my DNA. Like I definitely feel like I’m Italian and this German culture doesn’t belong to me. But then again, Berlin is a little bit different [to Germany].”
How did you then uncover the artistic side of your identity?
“That’s a really good question… I did the wrong thing, at first. I studied History and Latin. I really didn’t know what to do or who I am. I felt like a complete alien. Because I was [studying] with these people who had a real attitude of rivalry. This really competitive situation. I really hated it and so I was like okay, you know what? I just want to do nothing.”
“So I stopped studying and started working in a bar to get some money. I wanted to go to Asia to just travel and see places. Different cultures. So I travelled around and it was just natural for me to pick up the camera and start photographing what I was seeing. I was kind of exploring the possibilities of communicating and I was like, wow, I can really talk to people without talking to them.”
“I communicated with my friends at home through my pictures, and they were reacting to the pictures and writing about them. It was so interesting. And that’s how it all started. It was just this natural process of wanting to document what I was seeing. And it kind of laid the foundation for what I’m doing now.”
Do any pictures from Asia stay in your mind?
“Definitely. There is this one picture of a valley. The most insane landscape. Four thousand metres altitude in the mountains North of India, populated by Tibetan refugees mostly. To get there you have to take a bus that takes twenty four hours, and sometimes you have these landslides and you can’t walk because in the night it’s so freezing cold, and there’s no water because it’s a desert. You could really die… But it was the most beautiful little village with these people with little gardens, and around you have 360 degrees of six thousand metre high mountains… And so I went to the road to hitchhike to a monastery but at the crossroads, nobody was going right [to the monastery], so I started walking — which was a stupid idea because it was a huge fucking mountain and it was already 1pm or something. But then a car came finally and I was like oh my god please take me to the monastery… I arrived there and these monks cooked for me and gave me this room and it was beautiful. I had breakfast together with the monks, and then I took a walk and took this landscape picture which shows the valley where I hitchhiked… This is a really dear picture to me. There is a beautiful reflection of the tiny river in the bottom of the valley, and it just reminds me of the hustle I did to come to this place. It’s like ‘wow’, I’m able to be there, but also be here. And there are so many more realities to experience. So, so beautiful. One of many wild stories.”
Courtesy of the artist.
It seems like you accidentally discovered documentary photography in a very personal way. What was your understanding of the discipline before your travels?
“I wasn’t really taught much about art or literature when I was a kid. I come from a working class family — my Mother’s side are shepherds. My own interests came in my twenties, really. I always thought that I’m so bad at drawing that I’m not an artist at all. But then I learned that creativity is not a birthright, necessarily. With some people, obviously, yes — but it also can be like going to the gym; a practice that you do every day.”
“I travelled for eight months, and this process of immersing myself into these new realities and discovering new ways of living is basically what made my interest in documentary photography grow. These were my experiences and it felt natural for me to document them… Now I’m talking about it, it’s so clear, right? That I was lacking a cultural identity so it became an interest for me to seek one somewhere else — without obviously living it too much, but just observing and cherishing the stability that it can give.”
I wondered why it was photography, specifically, that Massi adopted as his tool of documentation.
“It’s a good question… I always feel like [photography] really touched me in a very personal way. A way that movies or other forms of documenting never did. The possibility of telling you everything in one picture… Even if my own photography doesn’t work like that. It works more as a narrative. But, in a photography book, just looking at one single picture can really strike me. I don’t know. I cannot tell you why. It’s very intuitive.”
How did you begin to develop your practice?
“When I came back [from travelling] I was like, okay, how can I bring this to the next level? So I started just reading a lot and watching films and looking at works of other people. Just really learning. And then I applied at a Berlin school for documentary photography, and everything changed. I had such a strong exchange with other people. It was more like a family where you observe the process of others and can share whatever you want. Really personal things.”
I wanted to learn more about Massi’s portraiture work.
“I guess what I’m seeking with portraiture is a connection with a person. Because that’s what I always felt was lacking in my life. I did this project photographing naked people, as for me, it’s the most intimate thing. More intimate than sex or anything is a person trusting you and removing their clothes and showing their body the way it is, without any barrier. And that’s so beautiful to be able then to photograph that fragile aspect of a person’s character. I meet these people many times before photographing and there are a lot of conversations. It involves a whole process of getting to know each other and trusting each other.”
I wondered how he chooses these subjects.
“It’s not about the way they look. Not at all. It’s really the vibe they give me. Most of the times it’s when I feel there is a big barrier in the way they act or speak. Like there is something much more delicate and deeper. And that barrier breaks away when they get naked.”
Is there a single conceptual thread that you can trace through all of your different works?
“Probably the solitude of being in this world. Finding a sense of meaning and all that… Like the effort you have to make every day and learning you have to do it all yourself. That is probably the thread.”
Courtesy of the artist.
Where did your project documenting wildfires in South Italy emerge from?
“It’s not just the wildfires for me. I wanted to explore the cultural aspect of Italy. It’s this heritage that with the fires is getting lost. The traditions and these ways of living of Southern Italian people that are changing with this natural — or not natural — phenomenon. And with that, exploring my own culture and trying to find a connection, to get closer to something I couldn’t really experience as a child.”
“It’s not about politics much. For me, it’s something you cannot unsee right now in the landscapes of Italy. It’s something so dominant, affecting so many people, so it’s something we need to speak about. I mean, one month ago, if you were standing at the Colosseum, you could see a high smoke tower in the distance as there was a huge wildfire just ten kilometres from the city centre. And they keep getting closer and closer to urban spaces, and it’s affecting the whole society in South Italy and also dictating the ways certain agricultural things are happening.”
Courtesy of the artist.
“There were always wildfires in Italy. But the nature of wildfires is always manmade. People set the fire or there is a problem with a car or a gas tank. Something always related to humans. And in the last fifteen years, they’ve been getting more and more and more. So it’s definitely linked to climate change, but not in a direct form.”
“People do it on purpose so many times because they try to create agricultural land. Or they do it out of revenge — a really big issue, especially in Sardinia. For example, when the sheep go to a neighbouring land of someone else it can be really serious… There are fights and people killing each other. It really triggers ancient feelings and emotions of human nature.”
“One of the pictures I took in Sardinia is of this man dressed in sheep’s fur. It’s a tradition that they do on festivities to summon the devil, and for me, it’s this symbol of what’s happening right now in their culture. It’s like it doesn’t come from anywhere, it’s rooted in their psyche and in their emotions… And also, with us, all these challenges that we face, are a reflection of what we are carrying inside. So it is, in a way, also quite spiritual work. It’s about relationships between humans and landscapes, inner worlds and outer worlds.”
Thank you to Massi. You can find his links below.
Words and artist portraits by Ewan Waddell.
Photography courtesy of the artist.