Giovanni Savino is at once a protagonist, an author and a critic of the many tales that he endeavours to narrate each day. After all, these are nothing but mini-episodes of his great life’s show, the core of his creative self.
Camera in hand he observes each moment as a precious uncut diamond waiting to be given shape and context to let it shimmer in exhilaration. A weather–beaten traveller and photographer, Giovanni Savino knows the how a man’s freedom and restriction both lie in these four letters: Time.
The acute awareness of it driven him from his birthplace in the Tuscan landscape to the Dominican Republic and now in New York, with many stops in between. The consciousness of the same also motivated him to extract the maximum out of his own self, day in and day out. His eloquent images bear the testimonies to it. Read this thoughtful interview to know more about the man himself.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood experiences – as a toddler how you perceived the world. How were you influenced by your immediate environment?
I never talk about my childhood. It is a period of my life I mostly ended up erasing, at least on a conscious mnemonic level. Obviously, sudden, involuntary flashbacks happen to me sometimes. I could not deny that those years unmistakably shaped who I have been, what I have done and how I have done it for the rest of my life. All I can say is that my childhood feels replete with enormously long periods of emotional suffering punctuated by moments of bliss.
How do you feel the millennia old artistic exploits of your native country congealed into you and found its expression through your work?
Today I am able to consider the strong art and cultural heritage that I absorbed during my early years in Italy to be a blessing in disguise. As a young man I had a very rebellious and critical stance towards it, especially when it came down to my father speaking Latin and ancient Greek to me at the dining table, while all I wanted to do was to listen to Joe King Oliver jazz records, take photos, make movies, travel the world and play my trumpet.
Later on, especially as the trivial, unstoppable cultural globalisation became an unmistakable reality, I learned to value my now geographically distant Italian roots. Unconsciously or not, I had absorbed a very Mediterranean sense of aesthetics and creative philosophy.
Obviously, when my juvenile rebellious refusal softened, the ancient roads paved with the millenary culture I had walked on while growing up, became increasingly important and apparent in my own work, both stylistically and conceptually.
Then again, I stopped living in Italy at a very early age and, aside from going back to work for short periods of time. I haven’t actually lived there for over thirty years. So, often, I ask myself if what populates my fondest memories of Italy can still be found there.
Probably not! However, I would love to produce a photographic body of work, going back and exploring my birthplace with the peculiar eye of someone who was born and raised as a Renaissance man from Tuscany, but has lived most of his life away from there, while processing and absorbing many cultural influences along the way.
You have been introduced to the world of photography through a chance discovery from your grandparents’ kitchen table. Describe how photography became a trusted companion during your passage through life.
During yet another cold winter evening, nothing worth watching on the only black and white television channel available in those days, my maternal grandparents would fill the wooden oven with chestnuts and, while waiting for them to roast, they would pull out the photos.
This humble photographic archive of their sub–proletarian, pre-industrial life in the wild swamps of southern Tuscany, Maremma, was kept in a battered shoebox, tied up with a piece of rope.
We would spread the photos on the ancient marble kitchen table to then pick one at a time and comment on it.
There were photos of dusty roads with primitive vehicles, of family, friends, a lot of people who had died already but who were still vividly alive in my grandparents’ memory through those yellowed images and the anecdotes associated with each one of them.
I remember that some of the pictures were printed on a really thin photographic paper, it felt as if they could easily crumble between your fingers and turn into dust, to be lost forever in the annals of time, just like the people they depicted.
Others, the more formal images, the individual or family group portraits, shot in early 1900s photographic studios, were mounted on cardboard and had somewhere, often in a corner, the name of the photographer or the date.
Others had been made into postcards, with fading stamps of a forgotten denomination still attached to them. On the back, they were scribbled in the doubtful calligraphy of someone struggling their way out of a historically widespread illiteracy: ‘Tutto bene’ – everything’s alright, ‘Ci mancate molto’– We miss you a lot, ‘Maria ha messo il primo dentino’– Maria’s first tooth just came out… ‘Tanti baci’– Many kisses.
Although I was very young at the time, it was obvious to me that none of those images was casual snaps. They were precious mnemonic aids to hang on to, in the never-ending social and geographical displacement of the poorest social classes my grandparents belonged to.
Those images were a time capsule, they were the only positive, tactile evidence of the past, of a personal identity which was, and still is, easily misplaced … due to many inevitable relocations, poverty, disenfranchisement and years of brutal, underpaid work exploitation.
Those pictures were the first thing in my existence to suggest me a strategy, a method to reduce, to fight back against the often frighteningly ephemeral quality of time, something that had always caused me great anxiety, since early infancy.
That yellowing shoebox was the first and perhaps the strongest reason to inspire me, later in life, to become a photographer, to try and stop the passing of time with a camera, to attempt expressing my innermost feelings not through words, but through images.
But then, the chestnuts were ready. The photos would gently go back in the shoebox and the chestnuts were pulled out of the oven and briefly wrapped in a rag. One by one, burning our fingers, we would start peeling and eating them, piping hot.
Chestnuts, ‘Il pane dei poveri’– poor people’s bread.
It was still raining outside.
The old photographs you found out helped you to take a journey back in time. How do you see your work having a similar effect on the viewers today and in time to come?
I think we can all agree that any photograph we decide to ‘keep’ becomes more interesting, important and relevant the more time elapses between its capturing and its viewing. All photographs halt time and everything visible in a frame remains frozen there, potentially forever.
When photographing is your job, not only your passion or your pastime, assuming you are able to maintain a fairly constant degree of quality and unique style between your commercial and personal work, you are still ‘walking’ on two parallel roads.
Some image are taken on a client’s brief, to fulfil a client’s specific needs, others are taken because of an inner, unstoppable desire to stop a moment, a situation, which is relevant to you as a person, whether you are getting paid for it or not.
I have taken many photographs and moving pictures of many subject matters over the last thirty years, always striving to give my clients the best, using my intellect and my soul, as much as possible, on every single assignment.
Fact is that, although I have been fortunate enough to sustain myself for all my life doing something I love, I feel my most important and personally relevant photographic and cinematic work is still largely unknown and unpublished.
So, if my work will help someone in the future to journey back in time is yet to be seen.
I am very unsure about the destiny of my photo archives. Part of me is inclined to have it destroyed upon my death in order to avoid what has happened to far too many artists throughout history, being ‘discovered’ and overwhelmingly celebrated, often de–contextualised or even downright misinterpreted and commercialised. Posthumously.
Then again, technically, I am back to my early roots these days, mostly shooting large format photography on film and paper negatives: these are not ephemeral binary files, these are large things that you can actually touch, hang on walls and stuff in drawers or in cardboard boxes.
So, I suppose, if there is a chance for any of my work to still exist in the future it will be this very material, versus the hundreds of thousands of digital images I shot, stored in a plethora of hard drives in my studio and in a bank vault.
Then again, I am not overwhelmingly concerned with the destiny of my work.
To me, the process, the journey, has always been, and always will be, more interesting and important than the destination. At this point of my life I keep shooting mainly as a way to maintain some intellectual sanity in an increasingly alienating (to me at least) world order, as well as to explore something extremely intimate, perhaps mystical, my own way to connect with a Higher Entity, the mystery of the universe, the blessings of daily inspiration and creativity. Something that, obviously, money can’t buy.
Please share with us how the time spent in the Dominican Republic from the very early phase of your career contributed to your artistic maturity. According to your estimation how the intimacy you developed with the land and its inhabitants helps in introducing a deeper tone into your storytelling?
Actually, I only travelled to the Dominican Republic for the first time a bit more than a decade ago, during the production of my documentary ‘Bachata, Musica del Pueblo’, a film about a discriminated yet extremely popular musical genre, mostly played in poor neighbourhood bars and in brothels.
Back in the US, the film received a good degree of success and some press. It was broadcast twice on PBS stations in prime time and it was acquired by many academic permanent collections, to be used as a valuable and rather unique teaching tool by ethnomusicology and anthropology scholars.
I was invited to show it and talk about its making at many American universities and academic institutions, which gave me a precious, very positive (and quite rare in the filmmaking) direct feedback from truly illustrious audiences.
In the following decade, I filmed and produced three more documentaries in the Dominican Republic. They all focus on a rapidly disappearing cultural heritage and oral traditions.
‘Misterios’, the second documentary, explores the fascinating world of Dominican / Haitian Vudu worshipping.
‘The Culture of Palo’ examines in detail the traditional, ritual drumming, of obvious African descent, still punctuating most religious and festive events, both in rural and urban Dominican communities.
My fourth documentary, ‘La Comarca Fija de Liborio’ (The real Comarca of Liborio), traces the life and philosophy of a controversial ‘messianic leader’, Liborio Mateo, who, at the beginning of last century, while preaching social and economic justice, gathered thousands of followers, and was later persecuted and killed with many of them, by the establishment– serving Dominican army. Liborio was said to be able to heal people by the power of his music: ‘Comarca’.
To this day, in the very region where he was most active and worshipped, the rural south, near the Haitian border, his spirit and ideals live on, particularly thanks to the last, very old musicians, still able to perform his ‘Comarca’ music.
I painstakingly researched and found the last few Comarca musicians, often living in very remote locations, and managed to successfully record them for posterity in my documentary. I presented some of this work at the first TEDx Mediterranean in Cannes, France, where I also talked about researching and preserving disappearing oral tradition through photography and documentary filmmaking.
So I spent the best part of a decade living between New York City and the Dominican Republic, filming and shooting hundreds of thousands of still photographs, periodically returning to the US to work on commercial assignments, in order to further finance my field audiovisual research.
My Dominican photographs constitute today, I have been told, one of the largest, if not the largest, archives of Dominican rural lifestyle imagery in existence.
But to me, even more important than being able to achieve a successful documentary research in the Dominican Republic is the fact that I found the true love of my life there, and married her!
My lovely wife, my muse, soon became my first assistant in field research. Over the years we built an almost endless repository of anecdotes and tales to eventually tell our grandchildren, about filming, recording and photographing together in the remotest corners of her beautiful country and in many other places.
Having initially entered the fascinating world of this greatly understudied Caribbean island with an outsider’s academic and photographic stance, just like I have done in other countries during the course of my career, soon my position unusually shifted towards becoming more of an insider in that culture and society.
My Spanish became perfectly fluent, and, for example, the Vudu worshipping community I had originally approached as yet another foreign researcher, started considering me and treating me as a new member of their family.
The more I lived and worked in the Dominican Republic, the more I discovered unexpected similarities with the rural culture of my Italian grandparents.
In more than one way, through my work and a lot of relationship building, I have learned a lot from a country that is less than a four-hour flight from New York City and most Americans only associate with fancy tourist beach resorts.
I am grateful for that, and I am glad I have been able to document at least a few elements of the rapidly disappearing Dominican oral tradition and popular culture.
The corporate ‘new world order’ advances there too, at a fast pace, destroying all the living forms of autochthonous popular culture and values, replacing them with new, imported, life goals and values.
I witnessed this in my native Italy years ago and I see it happening in the Dominican Republic today. They call it ‘progress’ but I could find valid arguments not to entirely agree with that.
Faces can be considered to be the journals of the inner world of human being. What perspective do you gain as an artist in trying to read these ‘journals’ from behind the camera lenses? Tell us the satisfaction you derive in portraying the lives of common men on photographic plates?
In portraiture and life alike our faces and, particularly, our eyes, play important roles in communicating emotions and socially engaging with others. The eyes are the strongest focal point and emotional indicators when observing a face, trying to understand or define the person behind that face.
This is the basic concept of what I regard as perhaps the most important photographic body of work I have, so far, produced in my entire life: Portraits with Closed Eyes
While this project has been positively received by a small, carefully chosen number of photo editors and galleries I showed it to, I was left with the feeling that the most challenging and perhaps historically innovative characteristic of this series went barely noticed.
Most viewers focused their attention and praises upon the rather unorthodox manner I photographed these portraits in the field: I used a large format camera loaded with 3 ASA direct positive sheets of paper, which I developed at night, during interminable Dominican electricity blackouts, that turned a small village near the Haitian border into an ‘environmental darkroom’.
There, with three small trays, a red–gelled flashlight, lukewarm river water, and a concoction of coffee, salt and vitamin C, I processed my images. But the truly important thing, what motivated me in producing this work, after endless research and a good deal of sleepless nights, is the fact that all my subject were to keep their eyes closed for those very long six seconds that picture–taking required, due to the slow sensitivity silver gelatine paper I used in the camera.
Closed eyes break a rule in portraiture, there is no reciprocal eye connection between the photographed subject and the viewer of the photo, there’ s no guessing the subject’s emotions.
The person we look at in the photograph could be asleep, or even dead.
And it wasn’t a casual choice when I decided to shoot this series of portraits with closed eyes in the Dominican Republic. In the course of my career, the only photos with the subject’s eyes closed I was asked to shoot, were in the Dominican Republic.
Those were photos of dead people, resting in a coffin, people who had not owned any other photograph of themselves in life. My images were to be used in producing the customary ‘recordatorio’, a small, cheaply printed ‘in memoriam’ card with their photo, date of birth and death and a psalm from the bible. The ‘recordatorio’ is usually distributed as a small gift, amongst the people attending the funeral and the nine days of grieving.
After over two weeks of shooting ‘portraits with eyes closed’ in the small hamlet near the Haitian border where my wife was born and I have been periodically photographing for the past ten years, as departure approached, something tragic happened: my wife’s mother, who was very old but relatively healthy, suddenly passed away.
Grieving, we were able to make arrangements for her funeral and the nine days of prayer, still customary in rural Dominican Republic. When she was alive, she always used to say that I should be the one to take the photograph for her ‘recordatorio.’
She had never been photographed before I met her, but since I married her daughter, she was always very happy whenever I pulled out a camera and took photos of her in the house. So we chose a photo I had taken a few years earlier when she was a bit younger and had it made into a ‘recordatorio.’
In that photo she smiled, and her eyes were open.
As someone who is adept in capturing everyday stories, do you ever store nuggets of your experiences / observations for future exploration?
No, I usually don’t, unless we mean it on a subconscious level. My experiences are my pictures. Whenever I embark on a new photographic pursuit, I always try to do my homework first, research the story, the subject, then I decide on the type of equipment I want (or need) to use and from then on I just resort to being as flexible, determined, focused and yet as open-minded as possible.
How do you plan your reconnaissance to survey the many facets of nature – its beauty and the destructive power (like during Hurricane Sandy)?
After thirty years in the News business, covering tragedies and natural disasters worldwide, I don’t volunteer for this type of work. Naturally, I can still shoot it, when I get caught up in it like it happened during Hurricane Sandy.
However, in this new era of ‘citizen journalism’ when endless quantities of images are instantly uploaded and offered, free of charge, to all news outlets I don’t pursue shooting newsworthy material as if it were a personal or artistic project.
I still remember the time I used to shoot the beauty and the destructive power of nature because it was my job, and I was being paid to do it well. The only image of mine I got published during Hurricane Sandy was a dark, silhouette like panorama of Manhattan, taken from the New Jersey shore, where the only visible light in the entire city was the top of the Empire State Building.
New York Magazine used it on the obituary page of the hurricane victims. I know someone who would put that on their website in ‘tear sheet’ section. I don’t.
Tell us of your passion for music. How delightful the experience is when you blend your appreciation of music to the love of visual storytelling for films?
I started loving and practising music, together with photography, very early in life. At some point photography took over and music somewhat remained, but mostly just in my heart. I guess there was more of a need for photographers and cameramen than trumpet players where I happened to be at the time.
However, after I decided to fade out of a precocious, brilliant career as a trumpet player, I always continued, as much as possible, to keep the gift of music near me.
My classical training and passion for music enabled me to compose several soundtracks and sound designing most of my own films and some film by others. I acquired sound engineering skills and also worked as a sound engineer, recording everything, from interviews with the rich and famous and powerful to entire classical orchestras, from shanai virtuosos in the desert of Rajasthan to punk bands in smoke-filled London studios.
To be honest, I think music, like visual art, is another form of a message in a bottle that can either contain dogma or not. In my case, I prefer it without dogma.
You fill the bottle with a message and throw it into the cosmic waves. There is nothing to explain, really, nothing to judge, to assess and to compute. I like to leave it to the individual sensibility and perception of whoever will open that bottle, if anybody ever will, to decipher and draw their own impressions and conclusions from the message I put inside.
From your own unique perspective, how do you view your adopted home, New York – much featured yet still containing hidden angles?
I hear people saying that you could take interesting shots in New York even if you kept your eyes closed! It is indeed an architecturally interesting place to live. Manmade canyons.
It is the most modern ancient city in the world. It is a testament to a time when American ingenuity, technical wizardry and massive resources were able to ideate and produce the best of the best in the world. And it still shows some of its former glory.
But the times are a–changing, and like many other metropolitan areas in the world, not even New York is immune to the apparently never-ending financial and intellectual recession we are in today.
Despite prices rising every day, from groceries, transportation to rent, despite one of the highest taxation in the country and a constant structural patching, fixing and asbestos removal activity, the city shows its age and it is really not ageing very gracefully.
The infrastructure is a mess and that is just one of the messy things New Yorkers have to deal with. The oldest subway in the world is painfully rattling and screeching away to the dismay of an ever-increasing number of multiethnic commuters.
The effects of a still widely denied Global Warming are flooding larger and larger areas, especially downtown, where once the twin towers stood tall, as the terrain there is basically all manmade, a landfill, hence prone to flooding.
Then again, no matter if you are a native or an ‘imported’ New Yorker, deep inside we all love this freaking city!! I think we love it and hate it at the same time, like in a perfectly dysfunctional relationship. It’s the best place in the world!
‘If you can make it here you can make it everywhere’, the song says. And many of us still believe it or want to believe it or need to believe it. This city is unique: it is a magnet.
What it actually attracts would be open for discussion, but it certainly attracts a lot, like it always did, since we stole this part of the land from Native American tribes for a handful of glass beads and mirrors.
Are there still hidden angles here? Unseen photographic opportunities? Certainly.
Just walk these streets at any time, day or night. You’ll need to be able to see those hidden gems, but they are there. And they will continue to be there, for anyone who has the eye to see them, forever, until the end of time, or the end of New York City, whichever comes first.
How do you manage to be ingenuous even within the constraints of commercial projects?
First of all by being completely honest with myself and with my clients. Photography, based on my experience, is much more about relationship building than about clicking a camera shutter.
I try and always tried to keep the ‘BS factor’ at zero level. I am punctual, committed, dead serious about the assignment, and at the same time as relaxed, easy and flexible with the clients I work with, as I can possibly be.
It is very important to listen to people, even when what they say appears not to make any sense. People appreciate being listened to. Always. When I talk, I try to be concise and always know what I am going to say before I do.
Sometimes, if I don’t particularly like the work, I try to squeeze out of my personal reservoir of inspiration every single drop of creativity and enthusiasm, to be able to make the best out of a lousy assignment.
If instead, I do like the work, then it’s just marvellous. I hear bells ringing in my ears, I keep riding the waves, like an expert surfer, I juggle the balls like a weather happy clown. I garnish the pizza pie like a gifted Neapolitan chef!!
I do my magic, and the benefits of my magic, as I click along, creating good images, instantly remunerate me in an even greater quantity than my client’s cheque in the mail will. However, that cheque is also indispensable to keep my family fed and my creative mind machine greased and flowing and I am very grateful for it.
The weather-beaten traveller that you are, how did you find your many journeys having a nourishing effect on your heart and mind? Can you share with us any anecdotal story from your treasure trove of experience?
I have travelled extensively all my life but during the fifteen years I was based in London, mostly working for CBS News, I travelled almost nonstop. When you travel that much, you must always try to find your small personal comfort zone, because all you do is basically travel and work, continuously, for many hours, upon arrival.
It is also vital to be travelling with a good team. People you enjoy, or at least you don’t mind being with for endless hours, days and weeks. Plan your work and work your plan. Have a plan B, C, D, and possibly E as well.
It was a different world back then, but I remember what my beloved mentor, whom I assisted for many years, always used to say whenever we were approaching an iffy border or checkpoint on a remote road of some backward nation: ‘Don’t speak to corporals … drive as if you bought the place!’
Anecdotes? Too many to recall! They usually surface better during a dinner with friends or old colleagues, where we feed each other’s mnemonic vaults with little hints and a few glasses of good wine.
Perhaps I could tell you about that time I hired, for ten thousand dollars (cash), the last available mono engine plane from Brindisi, Southern Italy, trying to film the arrival of a ship replete with the first wave of Albanian refugees attempting to reach the shores of Italy.
I remember how the nervous Italian pilot, whose aeroplane doors we had removed in order to film better from the air, suddenly started cursing and nose-diving into the sea below, screaming that a couple of Albanian MIG jets were trying to intercept us, as we, unknowingly, had trespassed into Albanian airspace!
For the next hour or so we flew at what appeared to be only a few feet above sea level, huge waves splashing inside the plane and wetting the camera gear… in the end, we got the shot.
How would you define ‘happiness’? If you are asked to provide a panoramic view of your artistic voyage what would it reveal?
Happiness is accepting yourself for who you are and making the best of it. Happiness is doing something you love doing and never want to stop doing it. Happiness is finally ‘feeling at home’, like you never felt before, not even as a child, next to a wonderful person who truly loves you and slowly savours every instant of your life.
A panoramic view of my artistic voyage would simply reveal a child who was born old and a man who never completely ceased to be a child. It would also reveal a genetical rebel spirit who never left any stone unturned in order to discover the alchemic process to transform negativity into positivity.
Holiday destination: My last holiday destination was Castiglioncello, a seaside town on the Mediterranean. My mother took me there, one summer, when I was eight years old. I never go ‘on holiday’. The very concept of ‘going on holiday’ doesn’t exist in my life. Perhaps I don’t have the time for it. Or I simply enjoy too much my ‘non–holiday’ time. I also generally dislike ‘holiday goers’, especially if they travel in large groups.
Book: Too many to even start a list. I adore reading. There is something else I liked doing as much as reading: smoking. Good cigars, cigarettes, bidis, anything… I Just loved smoking, but my doctor, eventually told me I ought to stop and I did.
As they are still allowing me to read books, I keep reading as much as possible, facilitated by the fact that I almost completely stopped watching television about ten years ago, so I don’t waste that time. Sometimes I read the same book in Italian, English and Spanish, as I recently did with the entire published works by Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Right now I am reading ‘Against Interpretation and Other Essays’ by Susan Sontag.
Movies: Very many of them— Italian, French, German, Russian, American, Latin American etc. cinema from the invention of the moving image until 1960 circa. After that, my preferences rarefy significantly. I sometimes discover remarkable new movies, true masterpieces, usually playing just once or twice in some obscure movie house of the very few that are still open. Those ignored and often forgotten masterpieces fill my eyes with tears of joy. That’s because I love motion pictures like a mad man, especially good ones.
Food: One, simple and cheap: polenta, also called maize meal, or corn meal, or in Haiti and the Dominican Republic ‘chen–chen’. This was the staple food my grandparents were raised on. Poverty was so real in those days, they reminisced with me about having a piece of dry fish hanging above the dining table and everyone would just rub a slice of yellow polenta across the fish, before eating it, so that it would absorb ever so slightly a bit of fish flavour and smell. I could eat polenta everyday. If I were rich I would order my private jet to bring me fresh porcini, weekly, from Italy, to make a sauce with them and eat it over my polenta.
Find more of his work at his website