Gaia Squarci is a photographer and videographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at the International Center of Photography. She's a contributor to major publications such as The New York Times, the New Yorker, or The Guardian, and produces both photographs for the press and personal projects with always the same goal: tell a story that hasn't been told. In this interview, she tells us her approach to documentary photography and its importance in our society.
Why did you choose to become a documentary photographer?
Photography was a way to find a more direct connection to the themes that intrigued me. It forced me to win my shyness and go up to people, giving me an excuse to be where I didn’t belong, opening a door to the experience of others.
So I see it as a tool of communication and I’m reminded of its value whenever I see even just one person visibly moved by a photo I took, but I’d lie if I didn’t say I do it first of all for myself. I do it because I like it, because it gave me a freedom of expression I didn’t know before, because I wouldn’t have met many people that are now part of my life and accessed a wildly different range of situations if it weren’t for it.
Growing up, photography also taught me quite early on that there’s not one reality. There are facts, but around one fact, a million stories can be told. Since the world today relies largely on images for issues of communication and representation it’s a huge responsibility to work in the photography industry, but it’s also a way to have a say, to avoid looking passively at the same flat or twisted narratives being repeated. After a few years I can say, retrospectively, that documentary photography changed me, and I think for the better.
How do you prepare a new project? What are the different steps?
It varies. When I prepare for short stories I usually work with a writer or another photographer or videographer. One of us has an idea for the story, we talk about it, see what form it can take and where it could find a home. Then we start working to secure access and to draw a timeline, and when the plan takes shape we start pitching the story to editors we think might be interested in it.
The way ideas are born always changes. They can stem from a person I meet by chance, an article, a place, or a theme I’ve been interested in for a long time and it feels like the right moment to work on.
On long term projects I’m usually by myself or I work with a collaborator on a specific aspect of it, like an article or an exhibition. It can take me years to finish one, and it’s usually hard to draw that line since all long term projects come from themes I feel intimately close to, whether they relate to my personal life, or my fears, or my questions without an answer.
The one constant in all projects is the way they evolve along the way. The initial idea often becomes something entirely different depending on the people I photograph, the crumbling of my preconceptions, or the turning moments when I’m able to listen to myself and bear away from the path I had initially envisioned.
Each photographer has a personal way of seeing things, photographing people and scenes, a unique sensitivity, a personal style. How would you define yours?
Stylistic components come from my taste, what captures me when I see other work, be it photography, painting, sculpture, cinema or theater. I like surreal images that maintain a little bit of mystery. In the end photography is a non-narrative tool, the perception of it largely depends on its context. Of course in documentary photography there's the desire to communicate a message, and images are potentially a vehicle of information, but when I have creative freedom I like to shoot work that informs and conveys a feeling without telling the viewer what to think, to make imagination travel.
Could you tell us about one of your projects, entitled “Broken Screen”?
When I started shooting photography seriously I noticed that my identity was becoming more and more related to my way of seeing things. So I wondered, who would I be if I couldn’t see?
Many blind people could once see, but after going blind their quality of life became deeply affected by disability law, support in the private sphere, and the level of awareness in the society around them.
The blind live in a sighted world. They function in a system constructed on the rules of seeing. I started following them in their daily lives, trying to understand how they had managed to reinvent themselves in their personal and professional lives.
I wanted to bring the viewer close to the people I photographed, to remember that blindness can crawl into anyone’s life, but the personality, the irony, the intensity of people we have in front of us stay untouched behind the dark glasses.
You exhibited this series at the Photoville festival in Brooklyn in 2014. One of the particularity of the exhibition is that visitors could discover your images through sound and touch. A surprising experience. Could you tell us about it?
I worked at the installation with writer and curator Laurence Cornet, who became a dear friend and frequent collaborator after that experience. The idea came from a work session of a collective of blind photographers called Seeing with Photography, in New York City.
Guided by a sighted teacher, the blind photographers placed the camera on a tripod in a pitch black room, and during a long exposure they lit the subject with torches, deciding every little visual detail of the image. The ones who were completely blind could not get any visual feedback about the photos they had just worked on, so the teacher, Mark Andres, printed the pictures and described them. The description was a sacred moment. I realized it’s the moment when the image takes shape in everyone’s imagination, and I thought: we lost this. The moment we want to explain something to someone else we just show it, and we lost the ability of describing without giving visual clues for granted.
The installation at Photoville was based on the idea that for any visitors seeing the image with their eyes should have been the last step of the experience. Laurence and I concealed every photo behind a veil, chose a number of writers and asked each one of them to describe a different photo. We printed the descriptions and hung them close to the frames. Each photo was also transformed into a bass-relief image by a firm that produces material for the education of the blind and visually impaired.
We wanted visitors to explore the photos through touch and description, shape an image in their mind and see it it only in a second moment.
This mechanism was also successful when I invited to Photoville the blind photographers I had met. Some other people who were experiencing the show that day took the chance to describe the photos to them. What I ended up seeing was unusual: blind, visually impaired and sighted people interacting together in a public space, guiding each other’s hands on the tactile prints. This is what I was aiming at. Breaking that barrier, even just for a moment.
You often work for major newspapers, like the New York Times, where you recently published a few stories, including “Senior Games” or “3 Days in a Van With a Shakespeare Troupe”. Could you describe a typical documentary assignment?
Usually an editor emails or calls me asking about my availability for a given day, specifying the time and location, and loosely outlining the theme of the shoot. If I give my availability I receive another email with a brief about the assignment, which contains all the info I need for context, puts me in contact with a writer covering the story and points out which people or aspects I should focus on. It also gives me the deadline to file the photos.
I like to collaborate with writers and some of them along the way became really close friends. I think of the text and the photos as elements that take shape at the same time, and don’t illustrate but reference and enhance each other.
The way stories come up also varies greatly. The Senior Games was an idea that came to me when I saw an announcement at my gym, and I proposed it to Jeff Furticella at the New York Times. As for the tour with Shakesperean actors, I was called into it by James Pomerantz, another editor at the Times. We follow each other on Instagram and I guess he saw that I’ve been shooting performance work, because he wrote saying that the story would have been perfect for me. I wouldn’t say I consider my social media presence a big part of my work but it can be very useful sometimes to keep people updated on what I’m doing.
Could you tell us about your daily experience as a freelance documentary photographer?
I guess it comes without saying, but the beauty and the curse of freelance life is that each day is completely different. Unlike most professionals I can decide where to live, where to travel, when to take holidays. My life is flexible and I virtually enjoy absolute freedom, but absolute freedom is sometimes complicated to handle. It obviously causes my income to go through fluctuations, but it also makes it hard to focus, and organize my time effectively.
The shoots are the easiest part to manage, because I have much less control over them. They largely depend on the clients’ whim or the subjects’ availability, and I have to try to organize my schedule around them. The real challenge is to manage the rest of the time. Writing for pitches or projects, researching stories, preparing lessons or talks, editing photos or video, emailing or invoicing editors are all occupations that most photographers need to spend a long time on, rarely with much of a structure. I don’t think I found a strategy to make it work flawlessly, but I got better with time.
The hardest aspect to confront psychologically is that in a situation where money does not abound, all freelancers know that if we stop, the work stops. We need to constantly be active meeting and emailing people, researching ideas, and realistically we all know that there are moments in life when we don’t or we won’t have all that energy. It’s the biggest price we pay for having an incredibly privileged occupation that half of the time doesn’t even feel like a job.
You also teach a course called Digital Storytelling at the International Center of Photography in New York. Could you explain what it is about?
The course at ICP has been conceived for photographers who want to learn to shoot and edit video and create hybrid projects, where photography, video, audio and writing can all contribute to shape a narrative.
One of my fundamental goals is to prompt students to develop and voice critical thinking about work in their field of competence, so I ask them to start the critique and only in a second moment I express my own opinion. I want the students to learn how to give and take constructive criticism, and this year I was especially happy with them from this point of view. By the end of the year there was always a lively and passionate discussion during the critiques and I loved the fact that we all quite often disagreed with each other, productively.
How do you think photographers have to diversify and enhance their photography practice today to stand out from the crowd?
If we think about it though, we all, already, do quite many things within the realm of photography, and this umbrella-term takes on a wildly different variety of meanings.
We have documentary photography, portraiture, fashion, food, corporate, performance photography, set photography, event photography, architecture photography, science-related photography, forensic photography, fine art photography, cameraless photography, alternative processes, space, satellite and drone photography, archive-based work, and I’m sure there’s much else I forget. Each one of those practices requires a different set ok skills, has its own rules and legacy, and its own market. Few photographers embrace only one of them.
In addition to this we write pitches and statements, and in recent years audio recording, video shooting and editing have become integrated to the practices a photographer has easier access to and is required to perform more and more often.
Personally I divide my time among shooting documentary photography or video for personal stories and long term projects, taking on editorial assignments, teaching, and shooting commercial work.
I think every photographer is a case on its own. Choosing one’s niche within the photography field isn’t easy for anyone. Sectoriality helps editors or gallerists identify and remember us as authors who can handle assignments on specific themes or known for producing a certain kind of work, but this mechanism can also be dangerous. Working repeatedly within our own comfort zone rarely brings productive challenge, and often the best work is the one that blurs boundaries.
I’d rarely say no to a job, even a job I know I won’t enjoy, but I don’t believe in letting the market tell us what direction to take in our personal work. Whatever medium I’m using I try to remember who I am and do work that feels like me.
Which advice would you give to photographers starting in the documentary field?
It’s such an uncharted journey. I think that no one who wants to work in the photography field can turn a blind eye to the way technology is evolving, because it’s changing the way and the speed of photography being made, sold and consumed.
It already changed the way we survive (or not) as professionals and the way we experience images as human beings, which is something that impacts our psychology immensely, in daily life and in our relationship to our own memory.
Even if as authors we’re driven to produce work as it could have been done in 1839 it’s important to have a critical perspective on how traditional forms of photography and the most recent ones are experienced today, who they can reach, if there’s value in blending them, what future will they have.
It strikes me that it’s almost impossible for me to predict how things will work 5 years from now in the very industry I work in, because of the exponential speed of its evolution, but I think the reaction can’t be to sit back and complain.
We need to make an effort to understand these changes, and possibly try to actively influence them.
Interview by Jonas Cuénin
More information on Gaia Squarci here.