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Hyper-realistic photography: an interview with Luca Meola / #URBANinsights

New interview for the #URBANinsights series, the exclusive contents dedicated to the winners of URBAN Photo Awards. We had a chat with Luca Meola, winner of the Projects & Portfolios section of the 2021 contest with the Crackland project, selected by Paolo Pellegrin.

Hello Luca, thank you for taking the time to give us. How would you introduce yourself to those who still don’t know you as a photographer?
Hello everyone and thank you for the opportunity. Before being a photographer I would define myself as a very curious person and a traveler. In recent years I have had the opportunity to live in Spain, Bolivia, Senegal and from around the end of 2014 my life has been divided between Italy and Brazil. As a photographer my main interest is marginal areas, particularly problematic and complex contexts. Photography is nothing more than a means, the one that has always been the most congenial to me, which has allowed me to navigate these worlds, to collect and tell the stories of the people who live there. The human being has a great ability to adapt and in my photographic projects I am interested in small and large acts of daily resilience and resistance.

I want to congratulate you for “Crackland”, the winning portfolio of URBAN Photo Awards 2021, selected by Paolo Pellegrin. Can you tell us the “behind the scenes” of the project?
This project was born from an obsession, the desire to tell about one of the most extreme places I have ever set foot in. It was the end of 2014, the first time I went to Cracolandia, the land of crack. I had just moved to Brazil and I had heard of a neighborhood in São Paulo so called for the consumption and sale of drugs in the open air. A guy I met on the street took me there, I trusted him and in exchange for a few cigarettes he led me into the fluxo, the drug market, the concentration of more than a thousand people between smugglers and crack users. The feeling was to enter a place halfway between a Dante’s circle and a post apocalyptic Mad Max scene. The consumption of crack devastates not only those who consume it but also the buildings in the neighborhood, which are half destroyed and decaying. In these dilapidated houses live numerous families in conditions of poverty and over the years an entire system of services has developed around the fluxo. Cracolandia is a community, a sort of black hole in the center of São Paulo, with its peculiarities and rules but where there is room for everyone. The goal of my project, which began in 2018 and lasted for about 3 years, was to try to humanize such a stigmatized place, trying to describe it as much as possible from the inside. If I succeeded, it is thanks to two people: The “shepherd of bread”, a sweeper who, self-proclaimed shepherd, enters the fluxo every day with donations and Giulia, an activist, also called the godmother of Cracolandia. They are both two people who have dedicated their lives to claiming that he ended up in the hell of crack: frequenting this area with them on a daily basis has allowed me access, recognition and respect on the part of those who control the drug dealing market.

How would you describe your style? Which photographers have influenced you?
My photography is halfway between street photography and documentary photography and, due to the topics covered and my photographic style, I would perhaps define myself as “hyper-realistic”. I like it when reality overflows from my images. I like strong colors, the materiality of the bodies, I like it when what I photograph is so surreal that it doesn’t seem real, when it is almost magical or tragicomic. At the same time, I pay close attention to remembering the names and stories of the people I tell about. While photographing interviews, I collect field notes. I try to treat this sensitive material with great care and respect. I think that photography must not only be a mere exercise in style, but must aspire to a political function by offering a key to reading as deep and multifaceted as possible on a given context, theme and situation.
I study, love and feed on photography every day so every day I discover some new author who undoubtedly sharpens my gaze.
I am fortunate to live most of my time in Brazil and therefore, if I really have to name someone, I quote two photographers who are important for the history of Brazilian photography: Claudia Andujar with her visionary work on the Yanomami indigenous communities and Luiz Braga to make so vivid the colors of the Amazon. In these Brazilian years I have also had the opportunity to meet in person a new generation of photographers who document this rich and at the same time complicated land with great rigor and passion: Isis Medeiros, Nay Jinknss, Camila Falcão, Raphael Alves, Bruno Kelly, Victor Moriyama, Rafael Vilela, the members of the Everydaybrasil collective, the members of the Farpa collective… are the first names that come to mind, because the list would be very long. Most people know Brazil only through the eyes of Sebastião Salgado but, without taking anything away from the master, Brazil is a very rich and varied land also from the point of view of its photographic production.

How long have you been photographing? How did you get interested in it?
I received my first camera as a child, because my uncle was a photographer, but it was only in 2003 that I made my first real reportage on the street children of La Paz, when for a year I worked as a white helmet in Bolivia. Certainly my interest in social issues is linked to the fact that I graduated in Sociology and worked until about 2010 as a social worker and researcher in marginal contexts. I am still a partner and collaborator of Codes, an independent research agency in Milan. Since 2010, photography is my only profession and source of income. I am a freelance documentary photographer, I publish my works in international magazines, I collaborate with NGOs, I hold photography workshops and I necessarily also dedicate myself to several commercial works, from studio portraits, to backstage photography during fashion week both in Sao Paulo and Milan.

What equipment do you use? Do you spend a lot of time editing your images?
I only switched to digital in 2009 because I used to shoot analog and I dedicated myself to developing and printing in a dark room that I had set up in the same room where I slept. Today in my room in Milan there is a monitor instead of the enlarger: my raw files are not very different from my negatives because they need to be developed and interpreted. In reality I find that all photography is a sort of interpretation of reality starting with deciding what to include or exclude from a frame and which focal lengths to use. Especially doing documentation photography I don’t spend too much time retouching my images while I waste days and nights in the editing phase. As a photographer, I never think about single photos: for me, individual photographs are like sentences that will then compose a story or a poem. Editing is by far one of the most difficult challenges: how to put your hand to thousands of shots to come up with a small selection that is coherent from a narrative and stylistic point of view for a publication, a competition or a book?
My favorite camera is the Fujifilm X100 (I now have the X100V because the previous models have used them so much they have worn them out). With the Fuji I can shoot in any situation and condition and if I leave the house without the car attached to my belt I feel naked. For everyday commercial work and even sometimes for reportage I use a Canon 5D Mark3 coupled with fixed and zoom lenses.

What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer who wants to approach photography professionally?
Every day I tell myself that my greatest talent is determination and my greatest motivation is to be able to live off what I most love to do in life. I love photography and I dedicate myself to it every day also because, apart from maybe cooking, I don’t think I know how to do other things as well. Today it is not easy to make a living from photography, even less to make a living from reportage. In my small way I found a compromise and I divide myself between more commercial works and my long-term reportage projects. I do not disdain any kind of photography and I assure you, I always learn something. For many summers from Brazil I returned to Italy and was a wedding photographer: if today I can shoot with flash in any type of situation, it is also thanks to this work experience. Finally, if I had to give some advice to a neophyte, they would be the same ones that I give to myself every day:

  1. eating daily photography, art, cinema, literature and whatever is a stimulus
  2. be passionate about new stories that are worth telling, the world is full of them and find your own style to tell them
  3. get used to receiving no… there are many more contests that do not work, photoeditors who do not answer you and magazines that do not want to publish you. We just have to insist
  4. always and constantly leaving your comfort zone… there is a risk, it is tiring but it is the only way to produce something valid

What are your projects for the future? What are you working on now?
It is a very good time in my working life. In January I will publish my first photographic book and it will be called Selva de Pedra, the concrete jungle, a very personal and real story of the city of Sao Paulo and of today’s Brazil. This book will be divided into five chapters: in addition to the land of crack, there will be my first work on the center of San Paolo (Cidade da Garoa was exhibited at Trieste Photo Days in 2016), a work on the street carnival, a project on a indigenous land to close with a report on a suburban favela. They are all “marginal” territories, peripheral worlds that coexist in the city of Sao Paulo, which I have crossed and told in my last 6 years of life. The book will be printed by selfselfbooks in Milan and will be distributed in specialized bookstores or through my website.
In February, I will finally be back in Brazil on an exploration trip along the Rio Negro of the Amazon, a project funded by a research institute. Brazil today is a country devastated by the pandemic and by a generalized political, economic and social crisis. In the next year I will try to be at the forefront to photograph and tell this very difficult and intense moment of an extreme and wonderful country that adopted me years ago and where from the first day I felt at home.

IG: @lucameola1977

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