BY: CAROLINE GAVAZZI
My latest photographic project is about immigrants. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the plight of immigrants worldwide. The prejudice that they face is something that is deeply distressing to me. I want to transcend the preconceptions and clichés about migrants by going to the heart of the matter; that these are first and foremost human beings. People with hearts and souls who have endured unimaginable journeys filled with sorrow, pain and loss. And that they are still viable human beings who have much to offer society given the chance.
In my quest I discovered the most extraordinary place that embodied my beliefs, Riace.
Riace is a small village at the bottom "toe" of the Italian boot directly facing Africa. Best known for the discovery of two famous bronze statues dating from the Ancient Greek era, Riace is also a place of exceptional natural beauty as well as being the first port of entry into Europe for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
For decades the old village itself, perched on the top of the Apennine mountain range, was largely abandoned as people migrated to large cities and abroad.
But in 1999 something extraordinary happened. The mayor of Riace, Mr. Domenico Lucano, greeted the first boat of immigrants, Kurdish refugees escaping from Turkey. From this initial encounter a unique humanitarian project of acceptance and assimilation was born.
Mr. Lucano had a simple idea, to reclaim and restore Riace's abandoned buildings and dwellings, and to offer accommodation and training to the incoming migrants.
Thanks to his plan to integrate the immigrants into village life, the village gradually came back to life. The failing local economy was resuscitated and locals and migrants started living together in harmony.
In 1999 at the time of the very first disembarkation there were only 300 inhabitants in Riace. The community has now grown to 1,800 people where the immigrants outnumber the locals!
This has and continues to be a fairy tale; a success story with only winners. It’s an example of a natural integration process where everyone is welcome.
I travelled to Riace without any scheduled meetings; without knowing anybody (other than my invaluable assistant Elisabetta who came with me), but with the intention of capturing the spirit of the place through my lens.
From the moment I set foot in the village carrying all my photographic equipment, I realized it was meant to be. Within a matter of minutes I met a succession of extraordinary people. My first encounter was with a friendly and helpful blonde lady called Maria.
She introduced me to a lovely Nigerian boy who works for the Town Hall called Monday. He introduced us to the Mayor, who introduced us to the locals and immigrants working at the various Workshops….in one week I managed to meet more than 40 people!
Among them were Mohammed from Egypt, Tahira Jasmin and her daughter from Pakistan, Mesfin from Ethiopia, Zahra from Afghanistan, Rosine and her children Philip and Mariam from Cameroun, Monday from Nigeria, Fatima from Gambia, to list only few of the people who shared their stories with me. They carry a burden of suffering and insecurity, but their words are words of peace, tolerance and fraternity.
Now back home I am working on the fruits of these encounters, a series of B&W portraits which I hope to exhibit in festivals, museums and art galleries with the intention to spread the message of 'Identity, Respect and Integration' of the immigrants hoping that other villages/small towns all over the world will follow the same path of Riace.
When I left Riace, not only did I leave with photographs of an amazing experience but I was equally enriched on a deeply personal level.
Some references about Riace
Trailer of the movie “Un paese di Calabria”, Shu Aiello & Catherine Catella (EN subtitles) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-bK1g21LeA
About the artist