Michele Mattiello and “L’Urlo”
I met Michele Mattiello for the first time in person during the Festival of Photography SI FEST, which is held every year in October in Savignano. On that occasion, Michele was presenting a work titled “Balkan Express” (2014). An interesting travel experience by train from Venice to Istanbul, crossing the Balkans or, as best said by the author, “(…) getting lost in the Balkans”. I started out by asking him some questions, keeping it rather vague, and I learned that he became to get interested in photography and darkroom in the ’90. In 2002, he decided to collaborate with an NGO and make photo features on its activity, thus approaching photo reporting. That experience lasted 5 years, and when it ended, he began a very personal research that led him to explore the emotional language of the moment. I asked him a few more questions since I was getting more and more curious and… he handed me a folder out of the blue containing a set of pictures printed on aquarelle paper depicting stark naked persons shouting and screaming. I was flabbergasted. Michele told me it was a work of 2011 called “Urlo”, presented at the Festival Européen de la Photo de Nu in Arles (2012). I needed to know more about it, so I asked him if he would be so kind to allow me to interview him, and he consented. The following is the result of our conversation.
B: With all due respect to your latest work, “Balkan Express”, which you are presenting here at the SI FEST and that I find extremely strong and full of an emotional empathy quite hard to find in reports, although in your case I’d rather not call it that way because I consider it indeed a journey through emotion as seen from the “dirty windows” of a running train, in the streets, in the houses… I would like to talk about “L’Urlo”, since it is an integral part of the research you started. Where does this project come from?
M: It started from a personal experience: in a “negative” period of my life I would let everything out by shouting. Later, I discovered that other people, in similar situations, reacted in the same way. The project started from there, from a personal experience that turned out to be common to others. Almost all of my works start from an experience, and sometimes it happens also the contrary: after all, what is photography other than an excuse to make new experiences?
B: I guess it hasn’t been easy to ask people to literally take off their clothes and shout before a camera. It’s not only a matter of physical nudity, but of getting rid of all those emotional barriers that often condition the human being. Shout as an act of freedom. A deeply intimate situation that creates an emphatic relationship between the person behind the camera and the subject. When you shot the first picture what was your first thought before this flow of feelings that was about to crash against you?
M: Rather than a crash I felt it like an actual encounter. True, those were strong emotions that I carried with me for the entire shooting. In fact, the “flow of feelings” probably kept growing along with the work’s progress. As if at each click I would realize more and more what I was doing. But I can’t tell whether there was a difference between the first and the last shot... So, both the first and the last picture carried several feelings, I can’t tell just one:
The consciousness of the gift that these persons were giving me; of the empathy that was being created and was growing more and more; also of the responsibility I had towards that person I was about to portray.... It has been a complex and deep work, especially from a personal point of view.
B: You wanted to freeze particular moments of the life of each of your protagonists, where anger and pain seem to be the two prevailing feelings. Hence, photography as a therapeutic tool to exorcise the fears of such a frail human condition or as an existential search for the latter?
M: Initially, to exorcise, no doubt. Releasing your fears, or your anger too many times suppressed. Then, once finished, it can also be seen as a research, although that was not my initial purpose.
B: During this project, you decided to move to the other side and show your “nudity” before the camera. What did your “Urlo” represent to you at that time?
M: First of all, I had to experience it on my “skin”. Accept to be on the other side of the camera, before it. The series was born from a personal experience, as I said before... and that was the first shot of the entire project.
If someone wanted to understand how the photos would be before participating, I would show them that one. Then, I didn’t use it for the exhibition because the result of the transfer was different from the others, it was one of my first experiments. But it was important to make me feel involved as much as possible. As photographers, nay time we forget, in part or in full, what it means being portrayed, especially in a moment of vulnerability. That’s it. I always try to feel also how it feels being on the other side. It is also a form of respect...
B: The desired imperfections of the images and of the feelings they represent converge in a rather dramatic result, with a theatricality that goes beyond reality. Did you expect this result?
M: I strongly wanted it. I looked and waited for persons who had “the scream inside” to portray them. Eventually, I took 14 shots (I’d better call them sessions) in eighteen months. I looked for and obtained a printing technique that would further emphasize those moods. Even the way to display the prints, left hanging and waving within a frame of raw wood. The whole thing to exalt and amplify the mood I photographed. For some people the whole thing was even too intense, but that was my vision.
B: The printing technique used in that work is very peculiar not only in the choice of the materials you have used, like the aquarelle paper, but also in the realization of samples that cannot be reproduced. Indeed, they are actually unique pictures, as unique are the single emotional instants of my subjects. Was the choice of this technique born experimenting, as it often happens when you start from an idea to end up with a totally different result, or you had already clear in mind what you wanted to reach?
M: Initially, I only knew that I did not want a “perfect” print. Those screams were the outburst of an imperfect moment of life. Representing them in a perfect way would have been nonsense. I thought about image transfer with a Polaroid, but by then the materials were hard to find and very expensive. So, I started to experiment various methods to get a similar effect of imperfection and uniqueness. I had clear in mind what I wanted, but not how to get it. Ultimately, we can say that the search for the medium progressed alongside the shooting.
And I like to think that starting from a digital shot – which can be reproduced endless times – one can obtain a sample that is always unique, and what’s more, with a purely mechanical transfer...
B: Compared to other works of yours, in “ L’Urlo” you have abandoned black and chosen to use color. Why? What allowed you to transmit the color?
M: If you observe the prints, in some of them you see a strong presence of red. If you touch it, you can even feel the relief, it seems blood. This wouldn’t have been possible with black and white. I don’t like people touching my prints, but in the case of L’Urlo I invite persons to do it: some colors are in relief... it becomes a tactile experience as well, not only visual.
B: Could you explain us the technical steps?
M: In themselves, the steps are apparently very simple: I out an inkjet print in hot water. As soon as the surface emulsion starts to peel off, I transfer it on aquarelle paper, removing it from the inkjet print’s paper support. Unfortunately the current inkjet papers have a shiny surface layer too thin and waterproof. That’s why I have to use “old” papers that have been out of production for years and allow this sort of processing – I stocked quite a lot, but it will end....
B: I know you’re working on another project on nude and you went back to black and white. Any sneak preview?
M: It is a work on the stages and changes of our body, how it changes in time, not only on aging, but also in relation to the bodies of other people.
B: Thank you Michele, it’s been a pleasure.
M: The pleasure was all mine!
 Si FEST – Savignano Immagini Festival, Savignano sul Rubicone. The SI FEST is one of the most important national and European events dedicated to photography. The show proposes emerging authors and famous names of international photography. Very important is also the SI Fest OFF, an independent photographic section dedicated to young talents.
B.O. ©Floz Visions 2015