The Italian photographer Nicola Lo Calzo has spent nearly ten years investigating the system of slavery and its active remembrance. He has traveled to many countries, including Benin, Guyana, and Cuba, in search of communities that commemorate the painful history of this inhuman practice and of the resistance to oppression. Nicola Lo Calzo talks about the results of his research, which make up what he calls the “Cham project”, in reference to the term "black" used by the Egyptians, then reused by slavers.
How did the “Cham project” get started?
Many things have come together here. I began working on this project in 2010. My interest in the subject stems from the encounter with people around me, African and Caribbean friends whom I met in Paris, and from the desire to understand the mechanisms of power. I have always been interested in minorities, in how a minority group defines strategies of resistance vis-à-vis the dominant system. The memory of slavery tells one such story. I wanted to understand how, amid the horror of slavery, people could nevertheless maintain dignity and build a culture. My project thus addresses above all the survival of all these practices developed despite and against slavery; people’s ability to cope, to remain true to oneself… I realized these practices needed to be known and photographed. What I’m also interested in is beauty created in the face of violence. There was much humanity that was born in the very opposition to dehumanization perpetuated by the system of slavery, plantation, and later colonialism.
Your work demands rigorous self-critical analysis, doesn’t it?
Indeed. This sort of project would be impossible if one were unable to challenge one’s own sense of self. That’s the basis. Which is also why I have tried to take the time to photograph these communities. These communities are willing to share their memory, their practices, their suffering, as well as the beauty of what they have created. I owe it to them to find a way of telling this story in an honest way, to find the right balance...
“ Sometimes, its traces have been physically obliterated. ”
… And to bring to light something that may be hard to see—memory that has been erased from certain collective representation.
Quite right. What I’m doing is documentary work. When you work on memory, you also work on the absence of memory. Sometimes, its traces have been physically obliterated. This is what constitutes a real challenge for me: How to convey this memory, how to hint at it, without staging it? For example, I did a whole project in the United States on the memory of escaped slaves who managed to get out of the south and make it to the north. I photographed key sites, in this case, the former location of the house of a famous Black abolitionist, Jermain Loguen. Because he was Black, his house was demolished, and in its place they built a drugstore, which I photographed.
Hence the importance of contextualization, of captions…
This is crucial work. In any case, there must be some text. This project is a photographic investigation… There is the investigative aspect, but there is also a lot of wandering, moving around. The objective is not to inventory all these memories, but rather to build a personal journey. I use the methods of anthropology, sociology, and journalism, combined with a visual arts approach. This is not scientific photography.
It’s more about inventing a medium expansive enough to represent a very complex reality.
I really try to visually render the different levels of memory. There are also contradictions. So, the question is, how do you bring them to light? I try to work at different levels of interpretation. Then comes the power of photography. I want to make all my research on slavery accessible to a public who are not necessarily scholars. Tackling such complex subjects using images is much more accessible than an academic paper.
Where do you plan to go next?
I am not sure yet. But I’m thinking of going to Brazil and Angola. I’ve covered a lot in the history of French colonialism (Benin, Guadeloupe, Haiti, New Orleans, Louisiana…). Now I’m shifting my interest to former Portuguese and Spanish colonies.
Your work is exhibited at Paris Photo 2019. What do you expect from such an event?
Paris Photo gives me an opportunity to meet representatives of institutions, museums, in the hope that they might help produce an exhibition and a book based on this project, which would be a substantial undertaking, given the size of the budget involved.
Interview by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
The Cham project - Nicola Lo Calzo
Paris Photo - Solo Show - Galerie Dominique Fiat - A4
Grand Palais, 3 Avenue du Général Eisenhower, 75008 Paris