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Telling the soul of a place: interview with Beniamino Pisati / #URBANinsights

Here we are again with #URBANinsights, a series of exclusive interviews and insights dedicated to the winners of URBAN Photo Awards. After Harry Giglio it is the turn of Beniamino Pisati, who won the first prize in the Projects & Portfolios category with “Up There”, selected by Rebecca Norris Webb.

Good morning Beniamino and thank you for your time. How would you introduce yourself to someone who doesn’t know you as a photographer yet?
I am a travel reportage photographer. I like to describe the soul of a place through images. This is what I try to do.

I wanted to congratulate you on behalf of dotART for “Up There”, the winning project of the URBAN 2020 Photo Awards, chosen by Rebecca Norris Webb. Can you tell us about the “behind the scenes” of the project?
The sheep farming work in Valtellina, the valley where I live (Lombardy – North of Italy), has been carried out a few miles from home. In 2009, I wanted to organise workshops on the mountain pastures. I did many walk-throughs to check out how it was, and I immediately got passionate about this world and its people, I felt a strong bond that was going beyond the simple documenting. Over the years, I have visited several mountain pastures and met dozens of alpine farmersand I have been trying to spend time with them so that I could listen to their stories and document their lives. Over the last two years, I have tried to focus my work on the relationship between man and the environment, something that is perceptible and inevitable when you live and work in these areas. The signs of the past on the land show that this bond has deep roots, roots in which the importance of traditions and cultural identity is still essential. Working close to home and therefore dedicating the right amount of time to a reality and returning to it several times, is very important if you want to give importance to a job.

How long have you been photographing? How did your interest in photography begin?
Actually, when I was a kid I wanted to be a vet, not because I particularly loved animals, but because at the end of the 80s the Amaro Montenegro advertisment went on air. In this ad, vets, aboard jeeps or planes, were rescuing struggling animals and so I perceived something adventurous and involving. I thought that being a photographer and travelling could somehow emulate those adventures. I used to read National Geographic and I was fascinated by the reports from all over the world. I’ve always lived on photography and by the age of 18 I was already working as a photographer for the weekly news magazine of Valtellina, which was a great training ground because I could deal with all kinds of photography. But my real passion was travel photography, the same as the photographers who had inspired me. However, I soon came up against the reality that it was diffucult to trave and make a living from it. So, in 2009 I decided to start organising photographic trips for photography enthusiasts to places I knew very well. The idea was to offer my clients a situation where they could take home good images and on the other hand to put my experience into work. I could then travel and produce my own work during the workshop visits. Since then, I have collected 180 trips in different areas of the world.

Did something strange ever happen to you while taking a picture, an unusual situation or something that surprised you?
The situation I always talk about, occurred in Burma, in 2004 during my first important trip (whose work was later published). I found myself in the Yangoon Pagoda, I was photographing a monk praying on his knees and facing an altar with his bach turned and suddenly he stood up. Somehow, I asked him politely if he could repeat the movement, he agreed, so I took the picture and then he came towards me, so he reached out his hand as if to get a tip in return, but the hand dropped and touched my underbelly! I was shocked at the time, I even thought it was a local custom! He asked me to take more pictures, but I understood the kinky game and said goodbye without too many regrets…

How would you describe your photographic style? Which photographers have influenced you?
I don’t know if I have a style, and I wouldn’t like to depend on it, let’s say I prefer clean and careful shots from a formal point of view, aesthetics is an important element for me, but it shouldn’t be an end in itself. The photographers I grew up with are David Alan Harvey, Michael Yamashita and Salgado. Of Salgado, I was given my first photographic book “Man Hand”, which made me passionate about documenting people and their trades.

Do you usually work on long-term projects or do you concentrate on single shots?
I prefer to take single shots, photography must be the maximum synthesis for me. In the travel photography field, the image should immediately communicate the place and it should evoke in the observer a past journey, a memory, or to make him want to go on a journey. The “projects” (which is a term I don’t like and that is often abused) require different photographs, photographs which do not say everything solo, but which say a lot if you look at them together. This is how other skills of a photographer emerge, they go beyond taking good pictures, i.e. choosing images that are functional to the story. And that is a great skill!

Could you describe your creative process? How do you choose your photos subjects/projects, what do you try to capture? What captures your attention the most? How do you get inspired?
Photography is a necessity for me, the need to fix what I feel about a place, a situation, an event. If I don’t take pictures, it is as if I were unable to internalise those sensations, I need them. In my photos I’d like to find all those sensations, atmospheres, impressions, a bit like having small bottles of perfume from which I could smell the essences of places. I would like this to happen in those who look at my photos.

Tell us about the most difficult shot you have ever taken. And what do you consider to be your best photograph / project?
I prefer to think that I still have to take the best shot.

What equipment do you use? Do you spend a lot of time editing and post-producing your images?
I use light gear, I walk a lot.
I mostly use a Leica Q so with 28 fixed, or a Mirrorless (now a Canon R6) with 24-70. I prefer to shoot with lenses close to 35mm to also have some consistency within the work. I don’t spend a lot of time on image optimization, I work with Lightroom and do the normal raw development and conversion to BN when needed.

What are your future plans? What are you working on now?
This period of total deadlock has completely stopped my trips, my future project is to travel again! I’ve spent time editing old works, and as the years go by you see images differently… I have some ideas about new works, but I prefer to start them first and then say what they’re about.

What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer who wants to turn his passion into a job, or at least into a professionally run business?
When I started out in the 90s there was no internet, I remember buying up all the photography magazines on the newsstands, that’s how I learned! Now everything is much easier, the learning curve is faster, but first you must learn to see, that’s the challenge. This is to say that to stand out, it is not enough just to know how to take good photos. And since there are many more of us taking good photos than in the past, everything is harder. In my field, travel photography was difficult 30 years ago, not to mention the situation now, that every place has been told. It is necessary to do it using different keys, I try to tell places through micro-stories. But now through the internet, our work can potentially be seen all over the world and this is a great opportunity if used in a clever way.
The most important thing is to understand in which field you want to specialize. To live on photography can be easy like, for example, being a wedding/events photographer, but it’s harder in other fields such as reportage, which is perhaps the most sought-after one, maybe the most fascinating. Attending a good school can be useful, like the newborn Jack London in Fermo managed by some friens of mine: Giovanni Marrozzini and Angelo Ferracuti. It is a school that guides you into the professional world and has high-qualified teachers. Then, as I always say, if you really want something, you get it in the end.


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