Born in 1959 in Milan, the photographer Fabio Ponzio spent twenty-two years traveling across Central and Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Tired of covering the news in Italy as a freelancer for national and international press, he decided in 1987 to pack it in and return to his original vision of photography: “passing the night on the side of a road, waking up in an unknown place at the first light of dawn,” and taking photographs. He wanted to rediscover “the essence of the gaze, the physical effort involved in walking, the joy of composing images, and the joy of being free,” as he puts it in À l’est de nulle part, published by Actes Sud.
As his starting point, Ponzio chose Istanbul, a city he had first visited at the age of fourteen. “I have only very vague memories of that trip, but I clearly remember the intensity that this sensual, unfamiliar border city infused in me. For the first time I glimpsed what, years later, I would come to regard as the ‘European unconscious’ — the deep, dark soul of Europe.” When the photographer embarked on his odyssey, the Berlin Wall had not yet fallen. Europe was still divided. From Istanbul, Ponzio traveled to Poland and discovered empty stores, queues for basic necessities, and a state on the verge of collapse. Ponzio witnessed a historical upheaval, the fall of one world and the rise of another.
He traveled by car, with a sleeping bag, a tent, a gas stove, a Leica, three Nikons, and a hundred rolls of film in his trunk. This period in his life, however, was no easy ride. “I had to overcome a lot of difficulties […] I often felt a deep sense of failure, even though, surprisingly, this gave me the energy to continue my travels. I began to equate my personal defeats with those of the inhabitants of the East, and as a result, to consider them as my family.”
À l’est de nulle part takes the readers on a journey in black and white through, among others, Russia, Romania, Armenia, Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic. The photographer tirelessly returns to villages and towns, as well as visits unfamiliar regions. “Once, in a remote house in the Albanian mountains, I was told that the last foreigners to have passed through the village had been two Italian soldiers on the run after the armistice of September 8, 1943.”
Fabio Ponzio photographed a child’s circumcision, friends sharing a drink, the discovery of a corpse, as well as family siestas. He doesn’t miss a thing, including every little detail of the homes he visits. The complexity of his compositions lends poetry to this oppressed world, where adversity reigns, but which the photographer seeks to transcend. His images intend to restore dignity to the people he encountered, “the Easterners who taught me to rest my gaze and observe, to look up and see the sky.” Ponzio hopes his book can repay these men and women for everything they had taught him. We thought these people were oppressed; but they are full of life.
By Sabyl Ghoussoub
Born in Paris in 1988 into a Lebanese family, Sabyl Ghoussoub is a writer, columnist and curator. His second novel, Beyrouth entre parenthèses [Beirut in Parentheses] was released by Antilope editions in August 2020.
East of Nowhere, Fabio Ponzio
Actes Sud, Beaux Arts
Format 23 x 29 cm
158 pages – 39 €