Matilde Gattoni Photography: Building a Visual Story

An Conversation with the Photographer

The Love of the Land, Photography by Matilde Gattoni

For over a decade now Matilde Gattoni is faithfully capturing myriad facets of life. The photojournalist travelled to many places including India, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, Iran, Syria and Somalia.

Born in 1974, Matilde Gattoni studied History in Universite’ des Sciences Humaines, Strasbourg, France, before giving in to her passion for photography. Ironically, as she now treads the different parts of the world camera in hand she lets her own visual essays to be a part of everyone’s history.

Matilde’s career as a photojournalist began when she was travelling in Israel and ended up covering the second Intifada early last decade. In the process, she received much acclaim not only from her fellow photographers but also from aficionados of the art.

Since 2007, her name became a permanent feature in the International Photography Awards (IPA). For her project Drought and Fear in the Horn of Africa she received a bronze medal in Prix de la Photographie in 2012. Her visual portrayal, The Swallows of Syria, earned her 3rd place in Portfolio Lens Culture International Exposure Awards in 2012.

Matilde was also associated with the making of Uzbekistan, 10 years after independence, Tranchida Editore, Milan, 2002 with renowned journalist Ahmed Rashid. A similar endeavour with Cartiere del Garda produced A better time in 2008.

Whether, it is in The Swallows of Syria or in The Devil in Me, the plight of women feature prominently in many of Matilde Gattoni’s visual narratives. Similarly, their victories also receive due attention as could be seen through her photographic essay on Elham Al Qasim, the first woman from UAE to reach North Pole. Over a period of time she also diversified and set out exploring a wide range of topics from architectural marvels, posh interiors to high octane sports like Formula One but always with a humane touch. Read the full interview with Matilde Gattoni to learn more about her and her work as she is busy in ‘catching’ the ‘transient hour’.

Agadez, Tudu area, Photography by Matilde Gattoni

Were the strong cultural heritage of Italy and France a significant stimulus that encouraged you to be a visual storyteller? How the environment at home shaped the human being and artist you have grown up to become?

I wouldn’t be able to say if growing up in Italy has had some kind of impact on me wanting to become a photojournalist but from a very early age I started turning every book I would read into a visual scene in my mind. As a child I was attracted by visual arts in all its forms and studying ballet for 9 years only opened my mind to new forms of expression, that’s when I fell in love with balance.

Do your studies in history aid you in gaining perspective over the subjects, social or otherwise, that you explore today?

In history, you learn that in order to understand a subject fully it’s important to listen to as many voices as possible, it is the same when you are ‘building’ a story.

Kite Competition in Kuwait, Tudu area, Photography by Matilde Gattoni
Kite Competition in Kuwait

How momentous was your journey to Palestine on your first assignment?

I was not on assignment, I was travelling in Israel, taking pictures on my own and the second Intifada started when I was there, it was a coincidence. I’m not a war photographer even though I have often worked in war-torn areas, and it was very clear to me already. At the beginning it’s just difficult to know what are the subjects that drive you, so sometimes it’s good to explore a little bit of everything before you start following your own path.

You grew up learning about Eritrea from your grandfather. In reality when you visited the country yourself what contrasts and similes could you derive?

I went to Eritrea to cover the consequences of war and drought on the local population. I mostly stayed in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps and hospitals. But I did manage to travel quite a lot around the country and had the chance to see most of the places my grandfather and my father had told me about. It was like going back to my family roots… it was a very emotional trip. The last day I was there I took the time to visit the place where my grandfather used to work, the church where my father was baptized, the cemetery where my aunt was buried, and I desperately looked for my father’s home, though in vain. Everywhere I’d go I’d feel my grandfather’s presence.

Uzbekistan has in the long past produced all-conquering emperors and been the setting for important historical events. Ten years after its independence when you visited the country did you feel that Uzbeks have understood the true essence of ‘freedom’?

Uzbekistan is the only country I visited that gave me the feeling I was really in another world. It was absolutely fascinating to see that there was no way of communicating with the Uzbeks, the sign language that is usually understood worldwide was absolutely useless there. I felt that the people had been isolated for decades and they had no idea who they really were and where they were from. Today, Uzbeks have not reached a state of freedom. People of Uzbekistan are yet to experience the true essence of democracy and they are continuing to live in past. Everyone was telling me how much they missed the Soviet era, where everything would work, they had salaries, regular working hours, food on the table every day, education, great social services…

Uzbekistan, Photography by Matilde Gattoni

You documented the unsettling lives of emigrants of Syria. As a photojournalist how do you see a generation of Syrians grappling with the loss of identity and a life in ruin? How difficult are these assignments as a human being at an emotional level? According to you, in the face of such devastation what is the single most humane quality that endures?

It’s always very emotional to hear the personal stories of people who have fled their country because of war, they have been through hell and specifically when it comes to the Syrians we have met in Lebanon because they were still very much afraid something might happen to them despite they were on the other side of the border. Hearing a mother telling you how she discovered the dead body of her son in the sewage is just unbearable. But you have to be there, it just feels right to collect their stories and tell them to the world.

Swallows of Syria, Photography by Matilde Gattoni
Swallows of Syria

I think in situations like that love is what keeps you going, you fight for your relatives, for your kids, that’s why you stay alive, that’s why you run away from war, to give them a better life, to protect them from the horrors of war. Love and dignity.

Syrians are very much attached to their land but they are not different from any other population in that. I’ve never seen a refugee happy to leave his country, his family, his roots and culture. It is the most difficult choice one has to take in its life.

More recently, you focused on a social malaise where women again find themselves at the receiving end, namely, witch-hunting in India. Does it feel ironical that despite being a modern society that has undergone significant reformations we still are under the cloud of such superstition and social evil?

Despite the fact that I love India, I personally don’t see it as a modern society. I feel it’s pretty much retrograde. Like any other country that is undergoing an economic boom only a very small part of the country is benefiting from it and the majority is still pretty much confined in a world of strong traditions, some of them good some of them bad.

I see India as a male chauvinist country where the blame is often put on women when bad things happen. Witch hunting is just one example. The caste system is still very medieval and the fact that some people are still considered ‘Untouchables’ shows how much effort India still has to do in order to become a modern society.

You have travelled far and wide and covered many facets of the social vista. What do you make out of women’s position in society irrespective of geographical boundaries?

I don’t think you can talk about women’s position irrespective of geographical boundaries, even within Europe the position is very different between the north and the south. Women had to fight everywhere in the world in order to gain power and respect, they still have to do it in most part of the world. Personally, I’m not a feminist, I think men and women are complementary and it’s about time they accepted it.

Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya, Photography by Matilde Gattoni
Dadaab Refugee Camp, Kenya

Your portfolio is versatile with photographic essays from the world of fashion, architecture and Formula One. How it helps in broadening your horizon? Does your approach change with changing nature of the theme?

It helps a lot, when your assignments are different every time and you are never in your comfort zone, you are forced to make an effort every time in order to pull something good out of it. A great picture can be right around the corner, at a boring event, you never know.

How the many interactions with people and places all over the world help in enriching your soul?

It is essential to my soul. It is like experiencing hundred lives at the same time.

If you are to capture your artistic journey from behind the camera lenses what story would it reveal?

I’m just at the beginning of that journey, after 13 years of working as a photographer only now I’m starting to understand where I want to go as an artist.

Portrait of Matilde Gattoni

A little bit more about Matilde Gattoni

‘Life is the sum of all your choices’ – so said Albert Camus, whose book The Stranger is a favourite of Matilde’s. Whenever time permits, Matilde loves travelling to Greece and take a dip in the turquoise water of Aegean Sea. Crooning with Bob Marley’s songs, trip hop or Arabic music is one of her favourite pastimes. And, when it comes to food she can hardly resist Italian, Lebanese or Yemeni dishes.

Find more of her work at her website.

Image Courtesy: Matilde Gattoni