In your book Visti&Scritti, published by Contrasto, you say that the photograph of your daughter Francesca when she was five, evokes memories of the fragrance of jasmine. What do the memories of those scents and tastes mean to you and to your family?
Flavors are one of the strongest associations of identity and our memories. Even more so, if you move to another country, whether by choice or necessity. Being so far away from home, the fragrances and flavors become extremely powerful. When I come across the scent of Arabian jasmine for example, just as with Proust and his madeleines, I’m immediately transported back to my childhood.
What are your other ‘madeleines’?
Sea urchins, pane panelle (bread fritters), the scent of the verdelli lemons that we used to eat like there was no tomorrow when we were little.
You are curating the photo exhibition within the Bio-Mediterraneum Cluster. Can you tell us something about the photographs that you’ve selected? Which aspects have you focused mostly on?
It has been a gradual task. Deciding on an exhibition for that particular space was difficult, given the number of images that will be everywhere, not only inside and outside the Clusters, but also those inside and outside the national pavilions. We defined three areas within the Cluster: land, sea, and family rituals. These are the places where the food, the flavors, and the landscapes of our lives express themselves and convey that special quality to the Mediterranean as I know it.Then, via four themes and forty photographs, I have tried to convey my idea of the Mediterranean.
Would you say that this exhibition forms your ideal "return" to Sicily?
To return to a place you need to feel that you have left it. I may have physically left Sicily, even though I go back often, but I have never left it culturally, emotionally or intellectually. So it’s impossible for me to “go back” to Sicily, because it’s with me wherever I go.
During your travels worldwide, you’ve come across food and culinary traditions, abundance, and no doubt also hunger. Can you tell us about two occasions that affected you most?
Hunger is something that I encountered as a child. Nowadays we say "I'm hungry", but we really just mean that we feel like eating. Real hunger is something else entirely. Hunger is having dark circles under your eyes, it’s having stomach cramps. When I was a child, and people said that a particular family had nothing to eat, they really meant that there really was nothing to eat. Now, thank heavens, at least in Italy, that level of extreme hardship has gone, although some poverty still remains.
Extreme hardship is something that I’ve encountered in many places, as a photographer, in Bangladesh, in Africa. In Eritrea, for example, there were camps in which fifty people a day were dying due to drought. That is hunger. Hunger is when a handful of rice placed into open hands makes the difference between life and death. Naturally the experience of traveling is also an experience of different flavors, of other traditions, and is probably the best way to get in touch with another culture. On the Columbian shores of the Amazon River, the taste of crocodile steak makes you understand many things.
In your wonderful book published by Contrasto: Ti mangio con gli occhi (You eat with your eyes), which is “not a book on cooking, and much less a cookery book” you wrote: “wherever I go in the world, I’m a big fan of the wonderful foods that you can buy and eat in the street.” Why is that?
When I go to take photographs in a place that I’ve not been to before, I always do two things: the first is to eat some local street food, because I grew up eating street food. When I was a little boy I’d eat mafalda pasta with panelle (bread fritters), bread with ricotta, and stigliole (barbecued lamb intestines). Bread and fritters were a way of life.
In many of the places I’ve visited, sometimes without even knowing what some of those foods were, I would try them anyway. By eating them, I felt that I had experienced the same tastes as the people I was photographing – and this helped me to understand them better. One of my other rituals is to go and look in the shop windows of the local photographers because, through the way they photograph people and the way people want to be photographed, I can understand their aspirations, their hopes and dreams, the culture of a place.
Food waste. Again, in the book Ti mangio con gli occhi, there is a photograph titled "Lava of oranges, the flow of death". They also tried to prevent you from photographing this “massacre”, which is actually an iconic image of a horrible crime. What does it depict?
It depicts a paradox, a scandal, because it happens that Italy produces more citrus fruits than we can sell. I also once managed to photograph the same thing happening with pears in the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.
As there is too much of it, after its production has been subsidized, part of it is then destroyed to protect the price. This is completely scandalous, to the point that the people behind it have pretty much forbidden me to photograph it. This is not only to defend certain questionable interests, but probably because they are ashamed. I followed the trucks that were dumping the oranges that had been sprayed with poison, preventing them from going on the market, to landfill sites. A huge quantity of oranges slid down that slope and, having once photographed the eruption of Mount Etna, I saw once again a lava flow of sorts. Instead this time it was a flow of waste and shame.
The theme of Expo Milano 2015 is food. Which visual aspects do you emphasize when photographing? Rituals? Sensuality? Textures, patterns, shapes?
I am a photographer with the spirit of a reporter, so I'm interested in how food is made and how it is eaten. That’s why my photographs show families eating at the table. This has to do with family, but also with the identity of people who share a certain food.
The photograph of a wooden kitchen table on which tomatoes are being dried to make a preserve to be eaten during the winter months, almost takes on the appearance of an abstract painting. I cannot construct the photos. I am the one who sees the images, they hit me and I photograph them. Everything in my photos tends to tell a story. Of course the storytelling is done through shape, through surfaces, through colors, when they are present – and they are often present even when the photos are in black and white. I photograph sensuality and pleasure, but also rituals, as well as structures that can be seen in the landscape, like houses.
In the book Visti&Scritti there is a portrait of Gianni Berengo Gardin. Can you tell us what his friends gave him for his birthday?
I am surprised we have entrusted the Rice Cluster to Gianni Berengo Gardin. We should have created an Ice cream Cluster just for him, since he loves ice cream so much. Once, in Arles in France, as a joke at the end of a lunch, we got the waiter to bring him a tray with forty ice creams, which he ate, I might add, without even batting an eyelid. When he turned eighty, someone had the rather amusing idea of presenting him with a sculpted portrait of himself, made out of ice cream, and so, cannibalistically, he ate an ice cream version of himself.