Andrea Boccalini: Capturing the Human Dignity of the Corviale in Rome

Born in Umbria, a small district in Italy, Andrea Boccalini had been a journalist for more than a decade when he switched careers to pursue his passion as a professional photographer. He was thirty when he turned to reportage, working on several projects in Guatemala on child labor and the Campesino movements of resisting the exploitation of mineral resources. These projects resulted in an exhibition of his work  for the “Onu dei giovani” in Terni, and to the publication “Conflictos mineros y pueblos indigenas en Guatemala” by Joris van de Sandt. He is also passionately involved with jazz and theater scene photography and portraiture.

Over the past four years, Boccalini has collaborated with national and international journals (The New York Times, New York Post, the Republic, JazzTimes, Downbeat, Jazz and many others) and has taken pictures of over a hundred Italian and international musicians appearing on CDs, etc. In the theater genre he’s worked with numerous directors and including Peter Stein on “The Demons.” And during the final phase of Leica Talent search, he was selected from more than 45,000 entrants, rekindling his passion for the reportage. Here is his remarkable first-person account of his Corviale project that appears in the latest issue of LFI, on sale now.

Q: Can you provide some background information on your LFI reportage? What inspired the idea? Overall, what were you trying to achieve?

A: This project was commissioned by LFI. Corviale, a building, stretching over a kilometer in length, is considered the longest building in Europe and about ten thousand people live there. For a long time it was considered the most dangerous district in Rome. Over the years there have been incredible urban legends regarding Corviale that have further negatively influenced the opinion of people. To be with and meet the people at Corviale was a fascinating journey first conditioned by my own prejudices but soon these were replaced by a different point of view. My concept evolved into telling about the people of Corviale, not through their anger but through the melancholy and humanity generated by the hard conditions of their lives. My approach is typically very instinctive and journalistic, but for Corviale I preferred to take a more emotional and engaged approach. My interest was to change the way people speak about Corviale and to put the inhabitants in the foreground and use the building as the background for telling their stories. Before Corviale I always favored black-and-white photography and I initially thought this would be the natural approach to take with this project. Only after I visited the building did I convince myself that color might reveal more about the district and the unique esthetic research of Architect Mario Fiorentino that, through an accurate prospective and chromatic study, intended to make visible the utopia behind the urban planning concept. Moreover, since I live in Rome, to tell about a reality that is just few minutes away from where you live inevitably makes you feel part of it.

Q: What camera and equipment did you use to shoot your reportage of the Corviale building and its residents?

A: I used a Leica M9P, most often with the 28 mm Summicron ASPH. Because I’ve been an ambassador for Leica Italia for the past two years, I also had the chance to try the 50 mm f/0.95 Noctilux (which I like to use at maximum aperture) and a 24 mm f/1.4 Summilux.

Q: What particular characteristics and features of this camera do you find especially useful in your kind of work, and what effects were you trying to capture in shooting the Noctilux at its maximum aperture?

A: I love the amazing relationship between the size of the camera and image quality thanks to the combination of excellent quality lenses and sensor. A reflex sometimes could be a sort of visual wall between you and the subjects, but with the M9, after being in a situation for a while, the camera doesn’t exist. As for the lenses I love the extreme and extraordinary quality of the Noctilux’s blur, mainly for portraits, that seems to suspend the subject in an emotional atmosphere.

Q: Although in a sense your Corviale images are straightforward reportage in the photojournalistic tradition, they also embody an emotional element that is at once more heartfelt and revealing. Do you agree, and can you tell us how you balance this emotional element with the more detached observation without judgment aspect that is said to be the hallmark of classic photojournalism?

A: People’s faces and the appearance of the houses clearly show a difficult situation; therefore, objectivity is the only requirement in telling the reality of these people in a journalistic way. You can thus show poverty in many different ways: you can make people appear as ugly, dirty and nasty, or you can demonstrate that even in poverty people possess human dignity. If you use the first method, you will get the applause of the audience, but by pursuing the second path your subjects will not feel ashamed. I have chosen the second approach, since I don’t like cynical sensationalism.

Q: It is clear that trust was a key element that enabled you to tell the authentic story of the Corviale’s inhabitants and their struggle to create a meaningful life in a monumental structure that is widely derided in the press. How did you go about developing that trust, and how do you think this helped you to reveal the truth of their lives that transcends the urban legends that demonize the place?

A: I spent a lot of time walking around the building and living like the Corviale’s inhabitants. People understood that I was not only interested in shooting good images, but also in building a relationship with them. They also realized that I did not want to exploit the emotional aspect of their lives, that I didn’t want to show only their suffering, but also to tell their stories, which are of course difficult stories, but not so different from those of the other people living in Rome.

Q: The above image shows a shirtless, muscular, late-middle-aged man wearing a prominent cross on a chain standing in front of a doorway in the Corviale. His expression is kind of grim and assertive, even to the point of defiance, and the background is spare and unadorned. The image is exquisitely sharp at the point of focus but has a shallow depth of field, which makes the figure pop off the background. What does this image mean to you and can you provide the basic tech data?

A: That image reflects exactly the spirit of my projects. I could have represented that man in many different ways. Everything in his appearance was intimidating, from his figure to the hardness of his facial features; however I wanted to catch him in a sort of suspension, a moment of deep meditation. I highlighted this aspect by shooting at the widest aperture, and taking full advantage of the advanced features of the 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux that enables extreme sharpness at the focal point and the amazing blurred effect which allowed me to emphasize the subject in the foreground while making the background appear evanescent but recognizable.

© Andrea Boccalini

Q: The feeling evoked by this image is one of desolation, but also a kind of ethereal calmness imparted by the blue sky, the solitary figure sitting on the steps, and a blazing modern streetlamp, which looks eerily out of place. Where did you take this picture, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: That image represents what Corviale communicated to me; not feeling a sense of threat or danger, but of melancholy. The spaces designed for socializing, meeting people, and holding events are actually empty. They’re not the stage for great events, but of everyday life, and instead of a crowd you find single individuals. In this desolate space you have the impression of hearing the echoes of the utopian idea that led to its creation.

Q: This image evokes a completely different feeling from many of your Corviale images that show monotonous expanses of unadorned concrete. Taken out of context this looks like the façade of a grand luxury tower in a large city like New York or Rome rather than a decrepit and crumbling concrete monstrosity. Where did you take this shot and why did you include it in your portfolio?

A: Because here the utopia takes shape and is not merely evoked. If Corviale had “kept his promises”, today it would have been an extraordinary building. But if you look at the image carefully, you can see solitude, signs of negligence and decline, that is, all the elements that makes Corviale inhospitable. But all these aspects related to the appearance of this building disappear if you change your perspective.

Q: There is something both wonderful and terrifying about this image, which shows an elderly woman standing in an interior doorway of her apartment that is elaborately decorated with neatly hung clocks, knickknacks, picture frames, etc. She has clearly made her apartment her home, but there is still something unsettling and melancholy about this image. Do you agree, and what do you think it communicates to the viewer?

A: This image means a lot to me, because all those elements hanging on the walls are actually small pieces of a life and all together become something surreal: many of them are clocks, therefore it seems that the woman is burdened with all of them since, due to her old age, she is at the end of that path. You can see the toil of the years, her melancholy, the care and the patience that was required to collect all these objects. I find there is a very strong study in contrasts in this image.

Q: This image, showing a young man in the foreground wearing a white shirt holding a large bottle up to his lips, is both powerful an enigmatic. The tilted horizon certainly enhances its dynamic quality as do the smoke and sparks in the background. What’s actually going on here and how does this picture relate to the Corviale?

A: This image represents all the energy, the power and the impetuosity of Corviale and I choose to represent them in this way. I took the photo on New Year’s Eve and the gesture was directed to me, but in that moment I wasn’t a photographer, but a guest who was having fun and celebrating the New Year.

Q: Do you have any other social documentary projects in the works, and do you plan to revisit the Corviale after a while to see and document any changes, positive and negative, that occur?

A: Regarding the social dimension, at the moment I have been working on a project about the story of a homeless person, in which I describe all the moments of his life. It is not the common homeless life we are used to observing and imagining, but the story of a man that previously led an “ordinary” life and suddenly was thrown into poverty. During the day he does all kinds of casual jobs and at night he sleeps in makeshift shelters. We have this invisible despair every day in front of our eyes, but we do not notice it because it is not that striking and does not match the clichés of poverty we know. Moreover, I am preparing another project about a place in Eastern Europe that is similar to Corviale, but bigger and more tragic. However, I am still in the preparation phase. I often come back to Corviale, even if only to have an aperitivo or a good chat with the friends I have made during the course of this project. I always bring my camera, so I still keep telling the story of Corviale.

Thank you for your time, Andrea!

- Leica Internet Team

Watch a video on Andrea’s reportage here. You can see Andrea’s full reportage in LFI. Also available for the iPad and Android.