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The Story From Within, interview with Lina Pallotta

A picture from Lina Pallotta's project Porpora and Valerie.
A picture from Lina Pallotta’s project Porpora and Valerie.

Long-term photographic narrative author and visual reportage educator, Lina Pallotta does not fear innovation.
We met her for a conversation about story-telling, visual education and nowadays’ expressive chanllenges for the photographic world.

Interview with Lina Pallotta

Sabrina Merolla: What is photography and, since we are meeting just before of your photographic workshop in Naples, what to expect from an intensive visual story-telling class with you?

Lina Pallotta: Well, it may sound commonplace but, to me, photography essentially is a way to narrate a story through images. But photography, in my view, can slip in the scene many other informations. Rationally indefinite nuances, elusive emotional elements, which still stay indispensable to define the nature and the meaning of the story and the personalities of both, the photographer and the characters he wants to describe.
I call it visual story-telling, because the truth is that the time of the single picture is relatively limited. I do not mean that the single picture per se cannot be representative. Nonetheless it is true that the more a story is long and articulate, the more it becomes possible to better define a character and his/her way to go through the events and read them. I do believe that the only way to introduce various elements of the story, as the unnumbered levels which can affect it, is by producing a longer accurate photo project. There is a long series of elements involved with the story – context, environment, social and cultural background, the course of things, the study of relationships – and all these are essential elements difficult to express through the time of a single photograph.

SM: You are both, photographer and educator. But there are numerous photographers who absolutely avoid teaching – they seem to perceive it as the end of a carrier. Nonetheless there are many others who are passionate about teaching and learning through it. For somebody like you – educated at the ICP of New York, then teacher there and in Italy – how was the interest for photographic education born?

LP: Sincerely, I have to say that I simply arrived to a certain point in my photographic carrier in which I felt some unwillingness for commercial editorial photography. Hence, I had to rationally ask to myself if there were other valuable professional alternatives to it. Teaching seemed, at the time, the most suitable choice for my nature. And I was right, because I am truly fond of teaching that always gives me a certain operating freedom.
The photographic profession is often associated with the idea of freedom. But this is just a misinterpretation and a stereotype. For every photographer working in a big organized editorial structure, there is a long list of limitations to face. Sure that nowadays this naturally happens everywhere, also in schools, by this time we all move in educational structures, which are getting bigger and bigger, more and more organized on standardized models and this potentially is extremely limitative. Nevertheless, as a teacher, I still can decide if some topics are essential and deserve to be deepened more than others. This relative freedom to maneuver the programs, still following and respecting them, always results as deeply rewarding to me. Because my performances as a teacher are quite individualized. Even in a strictly structured organization, I always try to see the students’ potentials, instead of imposing the same depersonalizing model to everyone.
It happens also because we are going through very peculiar transition times, now. This is especially true for photography, whose language is increasingly widening. So maybe this is the right moment to venture into new experimentations and push the borders, careless of the usual pressures to professionalize and work soon. Because we do not know where photography will get in the next twenty years, as I did not know anything about its destiny, when I studied twenty years ago. I had no idea I would have been witnessing to such developments of the photographic field, constantly challenged by so many innovations.
Because the so-called “crisis” (which is much more editorial than photographic per se) is opening up uncountable expressive chances.

SMToday everybody talks about “story-telling”, which basically is nothing more than the narrative, plot and style every story needs to have – today as yesterday. Do you believe there is any big difference between the present and past photographic language, or between the quality of today and yesterday’s narratives?

LP: I do believe visual story-telling has dramatically changed lately. Today there is an impressive number of stories around. There is a fragmentation of the points of view, but it is positive to me. In many cases, it can become a great richness, the flourishing of new expressive potentials, which is proper to this historical moment. Yet, needless to say, the great part of these new narrative choices often do not get the expected achievements.
Photojournalism has deeply changed tough. Once upon a time it surely did not number as many categories as today. There was news photojournalism, which often became the search for the most representative shot of the mainstream news (so contents were dictated by daily events) and basically the core of today’s news photojournalism stays the same, now. But news reporters do not look for the single representative photograph anymore – also because it is increasingly coming from citizen journalism, now – they shoot series. Reportage photography has widened – today it is difficult to imagine a photographer who wants to build a carrier without passing through the planning of longer stories. In fact this is the only way to define yourself as a professional today: making stories. Otherwise nobody really pays attention to your work. And it is extremely right to me. I mean if, in a very accelerated way, you have the skills to shoot and read single photographs, put them together in a meaningful order, so as to narrate a longer story with a deeper content, then you are exactly doing what is today required to a reportage photographer. Everything else can be done by everybody.
This is the real revolution of today’s photography. It is very similar to what happened before with writing. Basically there was a time when only few privileged ones had access to books. Then, thanks to Gutenberg, reading, writing and even expressing oneself through written words, slowly became accessible to everybody. But there is still a huge margin differentiating the ones who can read and write and the professional writers. This is not only a difference due to their abilities to write down something, or to their mastery and artistry. It is especially expressed, instead, through their ability to convey to the expression of contents in writing. I think this is exactly what is really happening in the photographic world, now.
Talking about this, I would like to introduce some assumptions about the point of view. Point of view today is, to me, deeply trivialized. Because “point of view” does not mean “this is what I see”. No! Having a “point of view”, first of all, means how a certain event is “felt”. It essentially means finding a narrative able to tell us about something more, behind the event per se. Otherwise it is not a point of view, not even a personal narrative – just brainwave. For example, if I shoot thirty portraits and say “I developed a story about bulimia, this is my point of view”, you may ask “what are we talking about?”. Yes, I shoot thirty portraits – excellent, but where is the story? This is just an example, however the question is: “What is these thirty portraits’ contribution to the subject?” Why do I insist on this? Because the search for a point of view should correspond to the research of a different perspective on the general bulimia story. Instead, too many times, I see views that, behind all the words, stay exactly the same as the others.
I believe the most important thing that has changed lately in photojournalism is narrative. Before, it was supposed to be objective, while today it is increasingly becoming personal. Yet “personal” does not have to mean “I, me, the photographer”, it could mean, instead, getting nearer to the persons we want to describe, humanizing them and ourselves, so as to overcome this wall of stereotyped narratives surrounding us all.

SMSumming it up, you are saying that there is an ongoing process of visual alphabetization, connected to today’s massive digitization process. Then, in the view of someone like you, who has lived the passage from photographic and editorial prints to their digitization, what is the perspective on the new multimedia alternatives for story-telling?

LP: I truly believe that is a great conquest. There was a stronger separation between different roles before: the journalist did his interviews and wrote an article, the photo-reporter took care of images. Still, we must differentiate true multimedia narratives from fineries. When I introduce my pictures through a slide-show with music, those are just pictures with music. While multimedia story-telling means undertaking the duty to really find the way to record different kinds of informations with different equipments and being able to mix and modulate the right informations through the right media, for the audience.
About today’s visual alphabetization, what really worries me is ignorance. I mean, if you do not really know your means you could really settle for its lowest performances, because you are not able to discern. In fact, I believe that today photography and visual education should start to be taught since the primary school. That is the only way to make people understand what they are really doing and how they are using the equipments.
We go on keeping our binary way of thinking and say “digital destroyed papery”. But this is only true in part, because it is a matter of fact that there has never been so much printed photography sold out in galleries as today and there have never been as many photo galleries around the world as today. Because nowadays the only real market for photography is there.
But what does it mean that there is so much photography around galleries, now? It means that “papery” starts to be elitist. So we should stop talking about the death of print and start analyzing where all this printed paper is going to. And it is clear: it goes only to the elites, because they are the only ones who can buy it. And yet we never talk about it. We keep identifying on an economic and editorial crisis a general discourse which is much more complex. The truth is that there are photographic languages and works today that, first of all, would have never been published before and, secondly, there is a long series of commercial work possibilities for photographers that simply did not exist before. Simply because visual language is everywhere today.
Then, instead of talking about the crisis of photography, I think we could better talk about the crisis of a certain kind of jobs for a certain kind of photographers.

SM: Yes. Also because there are so many new readers of visual story-telling, now. There are, for example, new magazines exclusively dedicated to it, which are exclusively digital and visible on iPads…

LP: Yes. Moreover, before every story had to follow the mainstream market’s rules. But now it is not the same. There is an extremely high range of stories which lay completely out of mass market and, exactly because of this, can develop narratives which are less conditioned by the general fashionable trends.
However, during every transition time people talks about the death of something. Who knows, maybe it is just a human way to exorcise real death. If you just think about all the times we heard about the death of painting…
As usual, we fear changes, because they force us to lose the certainties we built before. By the end, the usual editorial scheme still stays a safe reference point, based on the usual five questions [Who, Where, When, How, Why?], that let the canons to build a story constantly unchanged. Getting lost in the complexities of a story first, to finally find again the strings of the documentary plot, which must be narrated in an intelligible way, requires much more time and efforts.

(Interview with Lina Pallotta by Sabrina Merolla)

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Sabrina Merolla

Sabrina Merolla 1977, Italy. Free-lance photographer, sinologist and multimedia story-teller living between China and Italy. Her personal projects have mainly focused on contemporary China and its multifaceted identities and displacements. Her works have been exhibited, among the others, at PAN-Palace of the Arts of Naples (Italy: 2010 and 2012), the Italian Consulate in Guangzhou (2010), Yin Photo Gallery (798 Art District: 2012, Beijing) and Pingyao International Festival of Photography (China; 2012).

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