Escaping War: Documenting The Exodus of Migrants Through a Pinhole Camera with Fabio Bucciarelli


What happens when we dream? Studies have shown how the brain works during the REM phase. When the emotional motor system of our brain is active, it appears that the least active are some parts of the frontal lobes and this may explain why we can be so uncritical during dreams, accepting the crazy events as though they are real – until we wake up. But how crazy is it to dream of a life free from the horrors of war? War photographers are called to illustrate the battlefield and the destruction that conflict leaves behind. We see life disrupted.

In The Dream , Italian photographer Fabio Bucciarelli – winner of Visa d'Or News (Perpignan), World Press Photo and Prix Bayeux-Calvados for War Correspondents, among many other awards – illustrates the dreams that refugees have for a better life.
We sat and talked with Fabio for an interview, during which he told us about his ongoing project and the type of pinhole camera he used to create some of the images collected in his book. The camera was custom-built in Abruzzo, where Fabio has his roots and connections, and it is no coincidence that it is in Abruzzo that he began his career in photojournalism, in 2009, when documenting the earthquake.

This interview was adjusted for length and readability purposes.

Photo1: Refugees walking from the port to the first reception center in Augusta, Italy, June 2015. Photo 2: A poster destroyed by Islamic State militants in Sirte, Libya, October 2016. Photo courtesy of Fabio Bucciarelli

Hello Fabio and thank you for being with us. As a freelance photographer reporting from conflicts, sometimes there is not much time to prepare for a breaking story. What is your approach to covering a new issue? Do you have time to make artistic choices such as the use of one camera instead of another one and so on..?

First of all, it depends on the project and what kind of conflict event we are talking about. Initially, if I were to go to a new place there is a pre-production phase where you study the history of that country rather than immediately talking to people on the ground. There’s a network of freelancers that are part of a larger family. If I'm in South Sudan, maybe I can help you find a place to stay and vice versa. If you're in Ethiopia and know the territory, you can help me – in this way you create a network.

The type of sources that you use is fundamental, especially at the journalistic level. Even more so these days when information and images constantly flood us and the time and concentration people take to read a news story hardly goes beyond the headline, so through this compulsive use of social media, it becomes very complicated to understand what a post is about. And memory suffers greatly.

Photo 3: Refugees coming from Sub-Saharan countries waiting in line for the identification process at the port of Messina, Italy, July 2015. Photo 4: Iraqi children after the school set up at Ashti camp, December 2016. Photo courtesy of Fabio Bucciarelli

During these pre-production moments, can you give yourself space for artistry? Or do you stick to a purely journalistic approach?

It depends on the project. After that, my artistic approach is driven by strong content. In my project ‘The Dream’ using this pinhole camera, there are reasons that there is content beyond anything I’ve ever done before in my artistic projects, it’s not just aesthetic. The idea of using this machine and making images that are suspended from time and space for dreamlike images was exactly what I was looking for to create the leitmotif of the book where I combined different photographic styles. There are greater reasons why I chose this machine. I didn't want it because it's cool, I chose this machine because I want to create characters.

This allows me to keep migrants out of the constraints of time. There was a great exodus from the Balkans and mass exodus around the world keeps happening, the world population is kind of nomadic. So the idea was to create images that were not exactly journalistically descriptive, but they gave us the idea of this great exodus, of the birth of a new migrant population.

Looking at the portrait of the Syrian Lesbo family, this is a Syrian family but it could also be a family from another place at another time. I'm talking about the concept of an idea of migration and there are other types of images in the book. There are also images that deal with a more journalistic discourse but because there is a narrative development of the story, these images create a common thread and support the backbone of the book.

The Pinolina Photo courtesy of Fabio Bucciarelli

Talking specifically about the use of the pinhole camera. How did you handle the technical aspect of a long exposure colliding with the reality of the situation?

The machine was made over six months by a group from Abruzzo according to my needs. Primarily I needed to be able to shoot from the wrist so first, they created a mechanical shutter with a lever so I can hold it in my hand and use it without moving the image too much.

After that, the size of the hole gives a two-meter, sharp focus. As it needs a lot of light coming through, most images are taken during daytime. But the exposure time is usually not that long. It rarely goes beyond two and a half seconds. So it's still quite stable for that effect you were talking about before, of disassociation.

All the photos were taken with the camera handheld. I had magnets put underneath in case I wanted to use a support, but I hardly ever used it. The whole process can be guided, especially with regards to what we were saying before, by the fact that speed influences every photograph. There is a process in obtaining an image, you shoot with an idea in mind then at some point, you acquire a certain feeling with the machine.

Did you develop on location or did you have the images developed afterward?

Once I returned home, I had them developed at the laboratory that created the camera. My career began after the earthquake in Abruzzo, the pinhole camera was made in Abruzzo and ‘The Dream’ was conceived in Abruzzo, so the developments were made there too.

After development, I scanned the negatives using a digital camera, then began editing. The process of digital post-production involved cleaning the negative because you can imagine I went to many places:, Libya, South Sudan... therefore the negatives were so dirty, the process was much more expensive and slower. It is a process that works well for longer projects such as a book, but would be complicated for an editorial assignment.

Photo 5: A Iraqi woman walking in Tazade camp, Iraq. December 2016. Photo 6: African migrants and refugees, mostly coming from South Saharan countries, at Karareem detention center near Misurata, Libya, September 2016. Photo courtesy of Fabio Bucciarelli

The Dream focuses on the other end of a conflict, the refugees, who are depicted in a passive form, very slow, often stagnant in the limbo of camps. When did you decide to show the struggles of travel, to talk about this specific moment and how did analogue photography help you?

In my opinion, we are touching on a key point for me and that is time; also at the informational level. I think that to get certain kinds of information, it takes time to empathize with people, to get to know the area and to understand the culture. So, first of all, my production has always been linked to the course of time. I have never done a hit-and-run job. I stayed for a month or more in Western Libya, Syria, Sudan, Mexico, Brazil and now in Ukraine. That way, you have time to develop a story and develop information. This is necessary to counter the effect of fake news and a groundless spread of information.

So to answer your question, the use of an analogue machine goes along with the idea of a longer time. These pictures are part of a longer project, so there is no need to see the image and create a story immediately because you're taking the time to understand what the image is. I mean, it's not like there's a good or bad picture. There is the image that touches consciences, the image that makes you think, the image that reaches your heart. It is clear then that a photograph captures a moment and perhaps with a pinhole, this moment is slightly longer. But it's all part of the approach.

Photo 7: Libyan's fighters on the frontline in Sirte, Libya. October 2016. Photo 8: Portrait of an Iraqi IDP, Sulemainyah Iraq, December 2016. Photo courtesy of Fabio Bucciarelli

The idea of using this camera was to try to get out of the stereotype of the migrant image and if you also look at the project of portraits, the portraits with black all around decontextualize that person. This could be your sister, she is not linked to the idea of a migrant or a refugee. In my more journalistic photos taken in Libya, Syria or even elsewhere like when documenting the pandemic, I tried to illustrate the situation, give information and answers, such as how each situation affected patients and families. Here, the images created with the pinhole are more open: they are made so you ask more questions rather than to give you answers. It’s another level of language, away from space and time.

Where did the inspiration for this idea come from? From other photographers? From other jobs? From other ideas you had?

Well, from other photographers I would say no, in the sense that I have not seen many works that used a machine such as the pinhole camera for photojournalism. Many of my references come from paintings. Since I was a kid I have looked at many paintings and we can say these images are impressionist photographs. They are images where you see light with splashes of color. It is not realism but it is a type of impressionistic style, that is kind of a visual reference.

Photo 9: A destroyed car in Sirte, Libya, September 2016. Photo 10: Misurata's fighters on the frontline against IS in Sirte, Italy, October 2016. Photo courtesy of Fabio Bucciarelli

You have covered war zones in North Africa and Western Asia for eleven years. Has crossing the medium between digital and analogue photography helped you expand the way you tell a story?

Not to repeat myself, but it depends on the project. On an assignment for an editorial project it is difficult to use the analogue medium. However, the answer is also yes. I also use analogue photography side by side with digital photography. I'm currently preparing a book that will include both.

Do you think that analogue photography, in giving a more narrative feeling to the images rather than journalistic, can help people to see certain problems and conflicts in the world in a different way?

If this is driven by content, then clearly. It’s not just about analogue or aesthetic. It’s not about digital vs analogue, it is a matter of time. Certainly, we can say that analogue is a more reflective approach, but it is always very important that it is a reflection on the content. Digital photography could be, too. As far as photojournalism is concerned, an image must be supported by a piece of content. The aesthetic alone is not enough for me, there must be a certain logic behind the use of a particular camera.

The work in this book is a type of photography that sits somewhere between a journalistic photograph and a more artistic photo. If this helps people to get more information, then it is welcome. When these photos came out in the mainstream media, if they helped people to have a more reflective approach to the issue of migrants then that is very welcome. So if the tool helps to achieve the purpose and encourages people to think more deeply about these people, then that’s welcome.

A big thanks to Fabio for sharing these insights on his project. We hope you enjoyed this interview as much as us – feel free to comment below if you have any questions for Fabio! Follow more of his work on his Instagram.

written by eparrino on 2022-04-24 #culture #pinhole #photojournalism #documenting #war-photography #refugees #fabio-bucciarelli

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