Interview with Renzo Grande
Sabrina Merolla: Renzo Grande, you are a “street documentary photographer from Lima with a bed in New York”, as you write on your Instagram account. What led you firstly to street photography and why, at a certain point in your career, did you chose to start using a mobile device?
Renzo Grande: I have always loved photography but, when I moved to New York, I found myself in a place where the city itself made me desire to constantly take pictures of it. It is always so very cinematic!
Back then I did not really know what type of photography I wanted to develop. I experimented with many types of photography: night events, fashion, products adv, even paparazzi. But I was always interested to people and portraits. So, we may say it all started with me trying to take portraits of human beings and that was also a kind of personal therapy. Because we all have different issues, different problems and I started taking my lunch break at work as a time for myself -as a way out of the routine of my own thoughts, a moment to go around and take photos of the new things I was experiencing on NY’s streets. I tried to capture them. Moreover, I wanted to find a way to share them with the others, too.
But it is more difficult with a big equipment. Instead, at that very time – three or four years ago – it was already possible to shoot good pictures with mobiles. It actually became a discreet way to shoot without interrupting the flow of things around, being able to capture those emotions that I was feeling and seeing at the moment. But, of course, it was a way to express and rediscover myself – my own way to therapeutically deal with the personal problems I had at the moment, too.
How did you meet Sam Smootherman, cofounder with you of 24Hour Project?
Our project started four years ago, when we met through Instagram. We only met, physically, two years after the start of the 24Hour Project, when we finally organized an exhibition in Los Angeles. Then I went to Sam’s house and we finally met. As many other people having a daily interaction on Instagram, there was something deeper between us. It was like meeting an old friend for the first time. Because the daily interaction with someone who shares your own passion can build bounds through the net. It is not all about looking at pictures saying “I like it”, “I don’t like it”, “I really like it” or “I totally dislike it”. It is more than that. Since people do not only share pictures, they share their feelings and, if someone else is touched from those emotions, many deep human bonds can be built.
The project probably started because I was always walking on the same streets – going from home to work and from work to home – and I was basically bored of it all. Then I posted a picture, asking if there was someone who wanted to show me his/her routine at the mean time. Then Sam, who is from Los Angeles, wrote to me asking to talk privately, because he seemed to have an idea. So we discussed it and, at first, we planned on doing a comparison between the streets of Los Angeles and New York for twenty-four hours. We kept on talking about it for more months and then we invited other close Instagram friends to do the same thing. It was 2012 and we were in sixty-five to experiment the project for the first time. With that basic group of sixty-five we had a base for the content of the project, which was: documenting the different human conditions of people in different cities, during the same twenty-four hours.
The following year we became 300 photographers, on 2014 we were 900 and this year there were more than 2000 persons documenting their daily routine in many cities around the world.
You always talk about a street “documentary” project. So what is the next step for it? Now that there are so many persons taking part to the project, do you have any intention to edit it as a unitary documentary, or do you prefer to keep it scattered on, occasionally organizing traveling exhibitions?
The next step is still to be able to share what each photographer goes through, while discovering their city. Now we do not really organize a traveling exhibition, but multiple exhibitions in different locations and that will keep on going sure. But the experience that the participants go through is not being shared yet. We do not share if they are meeting new people or not, we are not showing whether they are going back to their old schools, whether they are walking the streets that they usually walk on, but at a different time. We still cannot show how they feel connected with the other participants, even if they are walking alone on an empty street in Poland, or a crowded street in the Philippines. So I am trying to find a way to tell that part of the story. Perhaps it could be a video documentary, having different persons filming the process in different cities. But for sure that’s what is next: sharing the experience and feelings of all the participants.
So, could we say that, even if the topic stays the “human condition”, it actually is a project about human connections?
Yes, that is true. This is the point: while people share those human conditions they are witnessing to in their own cities, it is an opportunity for them to tell about it in their own perspective. So people do not think anymore that Paris is only the Tour Eiffel and New York, suddenly, is not only Times Square. There is poverty, there is solitude and hunger, smiles, so people get to see and visually experience the real connection among the all of us, as humans. But yes, you are right, this is what creates a deeper connection between the participants. It is about a city being more human, beyond stereotypes, it is about going out there and feeling connected with whoever you will find on your way.
Did you ever follow any of the @Everyday Projects as @EverydayAfrica, @EverydayAsia, @EverydayEgypt, etc?
I think the EveryDay Projects started around two years ago in Africa and, yes, I think it is an amazing way to see the real life of real people from many remote places and it is being great to follow them. But there are differences between our projects. Because usually the persons posting through the Everyday Projects are journalists, professional photographers chosen to do it and they daily chose what they want to share. But in the 24hour Project, while you are discovering yourself by doing the project, there is no filter. (…) Everyone can spontaneously take part to the project and this is amazing to me. It is more amateur. Maybe this is the secret of the success of our project: keeping it humble and open to anyone who wants to share their own view on their city. For example, this year there was, in Jakarta, a kid that was only fifteen years old and she was sharing her day in school. She showed as she woke up, how she was taking her transportation to school, her doing her homework, her parents. So it was her own way to share her story.
Ours is a more personal and amateur way to show our own worlds. It is not only about showing, for example, that there is an injustice, somewhere in the world.
Let us step back to a more general topic: mobile photography. What the potentials and limits of it?
The potential is the possibility to share everything at every time of the day. Because in this particular time of human history we all are addicted to our phones. We need them, because those smart phones are part of our daily communications. So, potentially, using it we can share everything that we see, everywhere at every time. The limits of it all, to me, are just people. It is more about them thinking that their equipment is not enough, that smart phones have a lower quality, because they start to compare their phones with a professional DSLR camera. That is the time when all the problems have a start. So the only real problem with mobile photography is actually people, it has nothing to do with the actual mobile phone. There are so many stories and situations in which mobile photographies have been used on big magazines, for reportages or visual documentaries. As for the very start of the riots in Detroit, when a mobile picture made a cover on Times Magazine, because it showed a story, it witnessed how the policemen chased a black guy. And that one was one of the pictures of the year. It does not really matter with which camera or mobile camera it was taken. So, the real limit of mobile photography is people, who are restricting themselves from using it. (…)
More than that, I would like to point out that unnumbered professional photographers use their mobile phones to take pictures everyday. Because it is a good training, a good way to exercise the eyes’ muscles and it helps them to improve on their daily job. And many of them have started to come to shoot and to come to social media to practice and share and test their work and its audience. So, to me, those photographers that are not using mobile phones… well, they are missing out so many ways in which to improve their work. This to say that I would highly recommend to any photographer to use a mobile phone, to practice and to take it to the next level. There are so many projects out there that use mobiles. There are even films made with mobiles… At this point of date, it is very hard to recognize what was taken with a mobile phone and what was not.
(Interview with Renzo Grande by Sabrina Merolla)