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Alessandra Sanguinetti: For my photographs I want to experience the contact between man and nature, even at the table

Culture / -

SP Alessandra Sanguinetti img rif cover

A symbiosis between people, places and nature. Alessandra Sanguinetti of Magnum Photos travelled to the islands of the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean to take the photographs for the Islands, Sea and Food Cluster exhibition.

For Expo Milano 2015 you are in charge of the photographic exhibition within the Islands, Sea and Food Cluster. For this project you traveled to some fascinating and beautiful places, to islands in the Pacific Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean, and have covered life in these places. Which aspects did you focus on when you selected the photographs?
During my time spent on the three islands I concentrated on aspects where people had a direct connection with the land. Be it the coral paste in Mayotte that women cover their faces with, or the use of the land as a playground, the use of vegetation for housing, for spiritual and physical sustenance. My work is just a reflection of this.

Which food that you tasted during these trips has left the biggest impression on you?
The preparation and presentation of the Lap Lap in Vanuatu. The process begins with banana leaves being torn from the trees next to the house and used as a container for the layers of mashed plantains, the catch of the day and vegetables. The banana leaves are then folded around it to form a package tied with vine.
 
This is then laid on a bed of hot rocks and left to cook for one hour. In the event of a village party, a large hole is dug in the ground, a fire is made in the middle where the hot rocks are placed, then the lap lap is covered in dirt, resembling a volcano, and unearthed by the children after one hour. Beginning with the banana tree leaves, the rocks, the vine used to tie the lap lap, to the branch used to grate the plantain, every single ingredient in the lap lap comes from the land it is made on.

You grew up on a farm in Argentina. How is this early contact with nature reflected in the way you photograph?
I didn’t grow up on a farm. I grew up in the city spending summers and weekends at the farm. I loved the life there, I became alive in it, but it was inevitably more as an observer than an active participant. So I would spend my time roaming the corrals, watching the sheep, cows, and pigs being herded, being taken care of, vaccinated, and eventually shipped away or slaughtered. My view of this wasn’t the practical farm girls view, but maybe a more romantic and also a questioning one. As a child I would see most things from the point of view of the animals, rather than the people, and I stayed very attune to that all through my photography project, “On the Sixth Day”.

From the farm you went to live in San Francisco: how did this change your way of eating? What locally-farmed produce to you still eat? Are there any foods that you miss, that you can’t find in the city?
In the farmlands of Argentina, the staple food is meat with very few vegetables and fruits in the diet. I am an anomaly in Argentina, for I don’t eat meat, so I can’t say I miss the food there!

San Francisco is a food oasis in the US, with so many fresh fruits and vegetables always in season, with delicious and healthy food all around. However it’s far from free, and land to grow your own food is a luxury few can afford. This came into sharp relief after visiting Vanuatu and Dominica, where because of the nature of the land, everybody has access to banana trees, coconut trees, cacao trees, avocados, mangos, pineapples, figs, breadfruit, fish and clean water.
 
Processed food hardly exists and delicious healthy food is made from scratch from the land right outside people’s homes. I'd never been anywhere where, no matter what the financial situation, people are so independent in their nourishment, where eating is a natural continuation of the land around them, and the way they grow and prepare food reflects rituals and traditions carried on for generations. It was beautiful to see this.
 
Your official biography describes you as a 'trobadora', a storyteller whose stories feature real people transported into a dreamlike, often theatrical setting. How important is the element of dreaming for you and how does it combine with your photography?
It is only with The Adventures of Guille and Belinda that I combined the dream lives of the girls by encouraging them to act them out – thus giving the images a theatrical quality. That was specific to that work. As I photographed them this approach came naturally, for it was their world I was trying to represent. And a child’s life is best explored through play.

I approach each subject or theme I work on in the manner that I intuit will be the most organic. With animals, I would instinctively go down on my knees and photograph them at their eye level, follow them around and try to be in their rhythm.

It’s the way you tell a story that matters. Every subject, place or theme I photograph, will evoke different feelings, reactions, expectations, so as a storyteller you use the best tools to evoke what the story means to you. In the case of Guille and Beli evoking their (and my) fantasies seemed like the most natural and faithful way of presenting them.
 

Brunei. From a Kingdom of Spices to an Agricultural Laboratory

Culture / -

© Jacob Maentz-Corbis

A 600 year-old monarchy which once dominated a large part of Borneo, with a powerful role in the spice trade, today investing its resources in technological research to improve food efficiency without damaging the environment.

Known normally simply as Brunei, this state’s full name is Negara Brunei Darussalam… meaning “State of Brunei, Home of Peace”. And effectively Malays, Chinese, Indians, Europeans and natives live pacifically in this fraction of Borneo facing onto the South China Sea, once upon a time frequented by the pirates which so stimulated the imagination of the novelist Emilio Salgari, producing characters like Sandokan, Yanez de Gomera, Tremal-Naik and James Brooke, the “White Rajah”… the latter a real historical figure, rewarded with the gift of the Sarawak region in 1841 by the Sultan of Brunei as a reward for helping him quell a rebellion, which Brooke and his descendants ruled for over a century. Turquois seas and lush flourishing tropical forests are Borneo’s visiting cards, both contributing to making it one of the few areas of the planet catalogued as a megadiverse zone. Here the primordial jungle, 130 million years old, teems with almost 15,000 plant species which offer refuge to an amazing variety of animals: 210 species of mammals, 600 of birds, 150 lizards and thousands of insect species of every description.
 
A crossroads of flavor
Centuries of trade, plus various colonizations and waves of immigration, have left their mark on Brunei and on its food preferences. The mixture of Chinese, Indian and Malay culinary traditions has led to a vast assortment of gastronomic specialties. Like the rest of Borneo, Brunei too has a taste for dishes like nasi lemak, nasi goreng, nasi katok, spicy dishes based on rice (fried or cooked in coconut milk) with vegetables and – depending on the recipe – egg, fish, beef or chicken. Specifically typical of Brunei, however, is ambuyat, a paste derived from palm marrow, which can be eaten with a wide variety of sauces. The passion of the Sultanate’s inhabitants for the sea is evident from dressings like belacan, a paste made from dried shrimps, tahai, flour made from smoked and sun-dried anchovies, and cencalu, krill mixed with salt and sugar and then left to ferment. Chili pepper is widely used, for example as the basic ingredient in bumbu, a paste made from garlic, shallot and various spices, widely used in soups and stews.
 
Technology to reconcile agriculture with ecology
Strong flavors and spices justify the presence of Brunei Darussalam inside the Spices Cluster in Expo Milano 2015, even though the wealth of the Sultanate is no longer derived from its ancient seaports serving the Spice Route: the discovery in 1929 of large oil and gas reserves has brought widespread prosperity to the population. Average life expectancy is 77 years, there is no income tax, and the entire population has access to free education, health services and pensions. What the country still lacks is food self-sufficiency. But in recent years the government is investing strongly in scientific and technological research to improve crop yields and avoid cutting down forests to gain more cultivable land. This is the specific theme chosen by Brunei for Expo Milano 2015: “Science and technology to ensure healthy, secure and top quality food.” In the exhibition area, large screens and projections illustrate the methods and ad hoc solutions implemented specifically for this nation, to develop agriculture without damaging the environment.
 
 

Gianni Berengo Gardin. Farming: a great civilization

Culture / -

Gianni Berengo Gardin per Expo Milano 2015
© Barbara Francoli

The internationally acclaimed photographer, Gianni Berengo Gardin, has worked for most important photo agencies. He emphasizes that he is not an artist, but a "witness of an era." He speaks about work, nature and ... food.

As a photographer, what is your view of reality: do you aim to interpret or document what you see?
I absolutely want my eyes not to interpret, but rather document. That said, occasionally and unintentionally, interpretation does slip out.

Forest green, the color of fruit, the variety of colors of meadows. How does the variety of the agricultural fabric, the consistency of the land, and different vegetation transfer into black and white?
Landscape for me is all black and white, but I worked so much in color when I worked for the Italian Touring Club and the De Agostini Geographic Institute. Some landscapes are at their most beautiful in color, others are more graphic in black and white.
 
What is the social value of photography? 
Its social value is its ability to document. In some cases it is important because we believe that something changes with a social photo, and yet it changes very little. Only through photographic work done in asylums was something changed: with the book I put together with Carla Cerati (ed  “Morire di classe”, Einaudi 1969), Basaglia presented the law in Parliament that imposed the closure of mental hospitals. By showing those photographs that no one had ever seen more or less before, we documented all the atrocities that occurred in asylums and we changed something.

You have interpreted changes in our times, and with your camera lens have been the witness of an era. With your reportage “Il racconto del riso” (The rice story) you tell the story of the agricultural world and the people who live there. And your photos of this agricultural environment range from the 60s to the present day, from decade to decade. What is it that fascinates you, captures your attention and your interest in this sector?
I have always considered farming a great civilization and so I have always documented it: I look with attention at people working and slaving: farmers, just like workers. Before doing "Il racconto del riso," I took ​​several photos, using the world of rice as my subject. I also photographed a number of agricultural museums in Italy. To produce the reportage I focused on the production of rice first, then on the crop, the sowing and the harvest, all the way to the industrial development of production and its treatment. In old farmhouses I documented environments, left as they were, where the weeders used to sleep, where children went to school: it was like a small town, with all its activities.

We know that you are in contact with Expo Milano 2015 to curate the photo exhibition of the Rice Cluster As selected photographer for this space, what is the story you are looking to tell?
I have already started making a selection of photographs. I want to illustrate the story of the actual cultivation of rice and then how farmers lived, what the landscape was like and finally the farmhouse, which is the most important place. Shots are drawn from “Il racconto del riso" and from previous collections.

Have you devoted time and shots to olive trees: what is their most fascinating aspect, in your opinion?
The olive tree is a beautiful tree and years ago I photographed the most important olive trees in Italy, including those which are not only, as you might suppose, in Liguria and Tuscany, but also in Umbria and Sardinia, where I found olive trees even a hundred years old. The olive tree fascinates me because it is a strong, robust plant but also graphically very beautiful and dramatic: there are olive trees that are linear and simple, but others that offer a completely different form.

Have you ever photographed a landscape, then come back to find it is no longer there?
There's a famous picture of mine, of Tuscany, near Siena: a road that is all curves. I came back years later and the landscape had gone. What once was a dirt track had been tarmacked over, the curves straightened out and a guard-rail, previously not there, added. All the plants that had been growing there had died off with the great frost of 1985. So yes, the landscape was changed. It no longer existed. The value of photography lies in documentation because the only thing that remains is this photograph as a document, not as art, of what was once an extraordinary Tuscan landscape. I always want to say: I am not an artist, I do not want to be taken for an artist. I am someone who documents, who recounts. I am a witness of my time, and I tell the story of the things that have disappeared or will disappear, but always in a documentary – and never artistic – vein.
 
What is your relationship with food? For example, do you cook?
I do not cook because I have a wife who cooks extraordinarily well. In fact she is also working on a cookbook that will be released soon, with stories about eating. I do not know how to cook, because the life of the photographer is made ​​of sandwiches and traveling. I like to stop and eat, but I can do it only occasionally, like all photographers.

Do you have a favorite dish?
It may seem a bit phony, but actually it is rice. I love rice in every way. My wife sometimes tells me, "Enough of all this rice. Eat a little pasta."
 

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