The fact that a city so readily divulges her secrets to Viviana Peretti, or more aptly to her camera lenses, does not come as a big surprise. Viviana spent much of her childhood and teens in a small town close to Rome, greater part of a decade in bustling Bogotá, Colombia, briefly spent time in beautiful Marseille, France while firmly anchoring herself in the global village of New York. In true sense, as in life so through her art, Viviana has treaded from serenity to pandemonium before being back to orderliness. The artist is also an anthropologist who graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Rome in 1997. Viviana is fluent in multiple languages besides being proficient with the language of images. Nine years spent in Colombia have provided her with the necessary impetus to document lives of people around her as viewed from her own unique perspective. In 2010, she duly earned a degree in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism from the International Center of Photography in New York.
Unlike many other photographers of her generation Viviana Peretti finds herself equally adept in using analogue, digital cameras or even iPhone for the purpose of storytelling. These are only instruments for her to be used in accordance to the objective of the visual narratives akin to a painter’s choice of medium or different types of brushes. She also loves the freedom of selecting the subject of her photographic essays for herself, so much so, that often for her personal projects she captures the imagery for a particular series first and then pitches it to media for publication. It is undoubtedly an extremely risky venture, something that many would dare not attempt. But she hardly believes in a set formula for success. Viviana received numerous fellowships and awards including the Sony World Photography Award earlier this year. She keeps herself devoted in honing her skills as her reputation increases by the day and her photographs are featured in many esteemed newspaper and periodicals across the globe. She is determined to give every flying minute something to keep in store.
Tell us of your childhood experiences and how that period helped shape the human being and artist in you?
I think I had a ‘normal’, happy childhood. I felt loved by my parents and enjoyed the freedom to live in a small city where it was possible to spend entire days on the streets or in the park playing with my siblings and classmates. In that moment I was dreaming about becoming an agronomist or a veterinarian. Becoming an artist was not an option.
How the heritage of your country, from grandeur of ancient Rome to the modesty of ‘arte povera’, stimulated your artistic senses? Do you as a photographer owe much to the humane way of storytelling of the neorealists, such as, De Sica and Rossellini?
I guess I was exposed to art since early age also if in an unconscious way. I think Italians don’t realize the beauty and exceptionality of their country until they leave it. It is something that surrounds us and is part of our daily life almost in each part of the country. I think I absorbed it without much attention and without effort. I remember when I was a child and during a very hot summer my parents decided to bring me and my siblings to discover Rome. The idea was to go to Rome (my parents live 20 kilometres from the capital) each weekend to see something different. They had the brave idea to start with the Vatican Museums. I remember walking around for hours looking at the Vatican pomp and asking myself why my parents had such brilliant idea about how to spend the summer. Fortunately their plan stopped that same weekend after arriving at home exhausted and without any desire to keep discovering other secrets of the eternal city. I consciously ‘met’ Rome again the past summer when I decided to re–discover and photograph it as an adult. I never felt particularly in love with the capital but the experience to walk by myself in an almost desolate Rome, where the ancient and the modern combine cruelly to create a new urban reality that is no longer eternal and ‘divine’, was interesting. Today and especially during the summer, Rome is a surreal space far from the glorious and mythical image many have of it. I also remember the holiday trips with my parents. We used to camp on the Mediterranean in the Southern regions of the country and spend the afternoons visiting small cities full of art and beautiful architecture not far from the camping. It was an amazing way to discover other places in Italy far removed from the capital and full of culture, traditions and colours.
When I was a teen, Italian television used to stream a lot of movies by De Sica and Rossellini. So, without knowing too much about Neorealism, I used to watch movies like ‘Ieri, Oggi e Domani’, ‘Sciuscià’, ‘Bycicle Thieves’ or ‘Rome, Open City’. Each summer the television repeated the same movies that became part of my background as an Italian teenager and helped me to visualize what was written in my history’s books and what my parents used to tell me about life when they were young. I don’t know if my black and white images and my way to frame and use the light relate to Neorealism, I just think my Italian background, with all its ancient grandeur but also contradictions and modern decadence, is part of who I am and how I look at life.
How does it feel to understand the threads of human life through camera lenses after having studied anthropology?
Many people who are familiar with my photographs say that is quite obvious that I am an anthropologist. I think anthropology gave me a different way to relate and analyse things also if it is not a conscious process, especially when I am on the streets of a new place and I respond to it more in an emotional than in an intellectual way. But probably there are things that I am able to see, identify and frame also thanks to my background as an anthropologist. There are subjects that interest me — sexual orientation, religion or how people relate to death — that are really connected to my past as an anthropologist and to my personal life.
The face of a modern city is nowhere as exposed as in New York. Tell us about the pulse of this metropolis as you have come to experience it by visiting its various nooks and corners?
I think New York is a city that makes people invisible. Invisible to the others. A city where 8 millions persons live together but alone. Where everybody is always too busy, where there is no time for human connections. At least, this is the NY that I faced five years ago when I arrived and that is reflected in my series ‘Desperate Intentions’. I am sure there are many New York in the same metropolis but the one that I first met years ago doesn’t have that special appeal that the city brands all around the world. When I first arrived in 2009, discovering the human desolation of the city was quite a shock. I was coming from a very welcoming and ‘warm’ country like Colombia where human connections shape life in a very different way. Then the summer came and in some way NY and its habitants changed attitude. So I learned to have a better relation with the city and I would say that today I am a kind of reluctant lover.
By observing the rituals and practices of the devotees belonging to different religious communities what insight did you gain which might have eluded you otherwise? According to you, what is the common thread of humanity that binds them all?
Before I came to New York I expected to find a secular and consumer–driven city. I was really surprised by the rich, diverse, intense religious life present in each neighbourhood and the complex and sometimes complicated implications these different belief systems have for how people live their lives. The number of temples is overwhelming, but so is the media’s indifference to this aspect of the city, as is their consistent tendency to sell the world the most glamour–focused, profane vision of New York. These encounters with different religious groups and the lack of representation of spiritual life in the media began to form in to an idea which has developed in to ‘Babel, the Urge to Pray’, a photographic exploration of religious celebrations in the urban area that took me more than three years.
‘Babel, the Urge to Pray’ focuses on different religions in New York, some practiced by various immigrant communities and others where the majority of the faithful are Americans. In the immigrant communities that I began photographing in 2010 — Hasidic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Haitian Vodouists, Hare Krishna, Roman Catholics and Greek Orthodox — spirituality represents an element of unity for people that, whether they migrated here fairly recently or many generations ago, still belong to very separate social, linguistic and religious groups. New York City is not just a multi ethnic, dynamic, composite metropolis but also a ‘Babel’ full of enclaves, mainly faith based. For many people in New York, religion represents a source of community and intimacy with their fellows and at the same time an element of separation from the rest of the world that doesn’t share their beliefs.
Tell us about your love affair with your analogue camera. As you utilise analogue and digital cameras plus iphones to shoot, what do you think of a medium’s contribution to the art of storytelling?
Love affair? I like that… I never thought about my relationships with cameras as love affairs. I love black and white photography and I enjoy spending hours developing my films or printing in the darkroom rather than being sit in front of my computer to print digitally. Analogue photography still has a magic that I don’t find in digital photography. Also when I use my Iphone I shoot a lot with Hipstamatic using filters that in some way emulate old fashion photography, tintype and other ‘weird’ analogue processes. In the past two years I shot most of my street photography using a Holga camera. I like analogue photography because in some way slow me down and gives me the time to think about what I am doing. However, I honestly don’t think the medium matters. What matters it is if we still have something to say and if we have a peculiar and original way to say it. I think too much debate is about the medium and too little about what and how to say things. Often we see a lot of images full of content and with a total lack of form and aesthetic. I believe that, being photography a visual medium, it will be amazing if we could stop to talk about what medium to use (analogue versus digital) and would start questioning ourselves about our visual language and aesthetic.
For a greater part of a decade you lived in Colombia. As you revisited the place camera in hand in 2012, how did the country reveal itself to you with all its emotional tautness?
When I first arrived in Colombia, I totally fell in love with the country and its people. I got a scholarship and I was going to be there for six months that turned being almost ten years. The country allowed me to grow on a personal and professional level. I went to do a PhD in Anthropology and I had the big fortune to start a photography class with Magdalena Agüero, an amazing photographer and teacher that saw something in my images that was unclear to me and pushed me to explore my hidden desire to be a photographer. I will be forever grateful to Colombia and its people for allowing me to be the person that I am today. It was a wonderful personal and professional journey in a beautiful but complex country and one day I realized that it was time to move on, say ‘thanks’ and leave. I returned to Colombia in 2012 after spending four year in New York and in some way it was a nice reencounter but at the same time a very sad one. I guess Colombia is a country where, as an Italian writer used to say referring to Sicily, ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ Colombia is like that, an immovable country where few little changes eventually happen in order to keep everything in the same way: forever still.
You often choose to avoid the distraction of colour while developing a narrative. Does it help in surveying the profundity of a subject by limiting the palette to light and darkness?
I believe that most of the time colour is a distraction and I like to focus on light, shadows and geometry without dealing with it. I like to use black and white in order to abstract from reality. I use colour only when it is part of my subject matter, like in the series ‘Infierno Paradisiaco’ about Colombian cemeteries, where the colour is part of what I want to say and a reflection of the magic realism that I found in the country.
What preparation did you undertake to capture the power of rhythm and motion in Brighton Ballet Theatre in a photographic frame?
No preparation at all. Since I started photographing I was interested to portray a ballet school. I tried it in Colombia but without succeeding, and after six months of efforts (email, phone calls, more emails, etc…) I was luckier in Brooklyn. I always had in the back of my mind the desire to explore how people struggle and suffer to shape their body in a more graceful way. It was really interesting to spend time with child and teenager that train every day in order to do it. When I was a teenager I had a lot of swimming competitions so in some way I know what it means to train everyday trying to reach a goal.
What perspective did Marseille offer after having lived in other prominent cities, Rome, Bogota and New York? It is said, ‘To travel is to take a journey into yourself’ — how much of this is true in your case?
Marseille was an amazing discovery and a beautiful personal journey. A kind of present that life gave to me. I fell in love with the city since I was flying over it at the sunrise by the end of September. It was a total revelation to see from the sky a city laid down between the mountains and the Mediterranean. I walked tirelessly on its streets and beaches in a state of trance for its beauty, the grace of its architecture, its light, the Mistral — a strong and noisy wind that sometimes mess up its streets and make you feel crazy with an incredible desire of silence — and the Mediterranean that seems to contemplate its beauty. It was an immediate connection, the one that I never had in New York. Probably its beauty was also the projection of my state of grace during months when I was an Artist–in–Residence at L’École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie (ENSP) in Arles and I had the freedom to work and do what I wanted and what I enjoyed the most as a photographer: walking around a new place apparently without a plan or something in mind and just taking photographs while I discover it and myself.
The French writer Jean–Claude Izzo used to say: ‘Wherever you are from, you feel at home in Marseilles. The world is full of beautiful cities, but Marseilles has an inner beauty: her humanity.’ In his book Total Chaos, Izzo talks about the city as an utopia, ‘the only utopia in the world… A town where, having barely set foot on the ground, a man could say “I am here. This is my home”.’ In some way, I felt at home in Marseille, more than how I feel at home when I am in Italy. I love the sea and I have always dreamt about living in a city overlooking the sea. Four months in France were a beautiful, invigorating inner journey. An amazing gift and discovery.
How do you see the journey of your life meandering into the distance from here?
Honestly I don’t know. I would like to keep exploring life in different cultures while I photograph diverse urban labyrinths around the world. I want to keep photographing metropolitan life and I hope the next cities that I will explore will also overlook the sea.
The sight of ‘white beaches and blue sea’ always touches a deeper chord of Viviana’s heart. She likes watching In the Mood for Love directed by Wong Kar–wai and released in 2001. Viviana often turns over the pages of Un Uomo, a biographical novel penned by journalist and author Oriana Fallaci in 1979. The melody of Andean music played with flutes moves her profoundly among many other sonorous songs. Viviana satisfies her taste buds with Indian, Mexican or Thai delicacies. However, nothing more satisfies her than reaching out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experiences.
Find more of her work at her website.