Donato Chirulli: Expressing the Beauty of the Human Experience

A serious photo enthusiast since the early 1980s, Donato Chirulli was born and is based in Rome, Italy. He made the unusual move of abandoning a 20-year career in medicine and dentistry in the early 2000s to devote himself entirely to his abiding passion — photography from a distinctly humanist perspective. Since then, has published the photography books “Rome the line and color” in 2004 and “Alla Scoperta della Street Photography” (Discovering Street Photography) in 2012. As a pro, he has collaborated with major Italian travel, food and lifestyle magazines. Here is the story of his quest to capture the extraordinary beauty in everyday moments, including his deeply held views on street photography and reportage, and his experience with the Leica D-Lux 6.

Q: Can you tell us which characteristics or features of the Leica D-Lux 6 make it particularly suitable for your type of shooting?

A: This Leica is almost ideal for street photography and reportage (if only it had a manual zoom), because it’s very compact but solid, powerful and has a fast zoom lens of very high quality.

Q: In general, how would you describe your photography?

A: I’m always searching for beauty, regardless of the kind of photographs I’m making (fine art, reportage, street). I can find beauty in a landscape, such as in an art piece or in a human being. And it’s not only the exterior beauty, but also the inner beauty that’s often hidden in the simplest aspects of human life.

Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast? When did you become interested in photography?

A: I’m a full-time photographer, but the current economic crisis has had a profound effect on my work as I worked for many travel magazines that are struggling. Actually, I prefer to think about myself as an artist who uses photography to express his point of view.

I have always loved photography and became seriously involved with it as a teenager. I made ​​the classic journey through analog photography: I would load rolls of film by myself, I developed the film and printed it out in the darkroom of a friend and so on. I got my hands dirty with acids. Then in the early 2000s, with the advent of digital, I appreciated the immediacy of the results and the ability to learn from my mistakes.

But I loved medicine too and so, I became a doctor. I made it my profession for about 20 years. Then, my ancient passion became so burning that I had to devote myself entirely to photography.

Q: Considering your love of medicine and the fact that it is typically much easier to earn a living as a doctor than as a fine art, reportage, or street photographer how did your transition to full-time photography come about? Was it gradual or sudden? Do you think you are developing a distinctive style, and if so can you say something about it?

A: Oh my, this is a very long story. I loved medicine very much ever since I was a child. I was fascinated with anatomy, biology, chemistry, physiology and so on. So, I decided to become a doctor. But in Italy it’s not always easy to reach our goals. I’m a dreamer, an idealist, but medicine (and mainly dentistry, which I have practiced for 20 years), has become a business, where the managerial skills count more than the purely medical ones. So, despite the fact that I was a good dentist, I wasn’t a good businessman and it was hard for me to earn a good living as a doctor.

At the same time, I have always loved photography too and I have always practiced it as an amateur, especially after college. Starting in early 2000, I became more and more involved with photography and decided to devote myself entirely to this art. Gradually, I abandoned medicine and became a pro. I published a photo book and started collaborations with many major Italian photography and travel magazines. Unfortunately, the general economic crisis that began in 2008 has dramatically decreased job opportunities in this field, and it is increasingly difficult to give serious attention to photography. Millions of amateurs are willing to work for free just to be published in newspapers and magazines and the media take the opportunity to continually reduce their costs. No one cares any longer whether a job is really executed well or professionally. But, as I said, I’m an idealist, and as long as I have the strength I will continue to take photographs.

I honestly do not know if I have developed a personal style, because I like to experiment, or devote myself to topics that are ever-changing — art, travel, street photography, reportage, conceptual images. I’m continually evolving;  however, I think that, in certain specific fields, my photographs have attained their own recognition.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: Leica has a kind of mythic quality. When I was young, an older friend had a Leica. He made great photos. The first time I saw an M4-2 I thought it was broken because I could hardly hear the click (just joking). The quality of Leica lenses is undisputed and many great photographers (i.e. Cartier-Bresson) used Leica cameras so I grew up thinking of Leica as this mythic entity.

Q: What does photography mean to you?

A: For me, photography is the most powerful way to express something, whether it’s telling a story, communicating feelings, investigating human life, creating art,or just contemplating a dreamy landscape. What else could possibly be so powerful and eclectic?

Q: The moments and juxtapositions captured in your portfolio all have a distinctly Italian feeling. Were they all shot in Rome and did you have an implicit or explicit theme in mind or are they just random slices of life?

A: Yes, the shots were all taken in Rome, and they are random slices, but all are focused on the main theme of my street photography: the human being and the human condition.

Q: All the images in this group are presented in black-and-white, but the Leica D-Lux 6 you shot them with captures images in full color. What is it that you find especially compelling about the black-and-white medium for your kind of work, and do you actually see the world in terms of black-and-white or select your subjects primarily on the basis of form rather than color?

A: I don’t see world in term of black-and-white or color, but, when shooting street photography, I prefer to do it in black-and-white. Moreover, this time, I appreciated very much Leica’s native B&W JPEGs. These capture an excellent range of grays, so it has been very easy to process them in post-production to achieve the precise results I wanted.

Q: All your pictures include people and reveal aspects of their daily lives, expressing what could be termed a humanist point of view. Do you think that your background as a medical doctor and surgeon has anything to do with that or has had any influence on your creative work as a photographer?

A: Yes, I think my cultural formation has been in the humanistic mode because medicine is not only a science, but mainly an art. This has profoundly influenced my approach to photography. Of course, this is mainly evidenced when I’m shooting people. I always try to follow Aristotle’s statement: “The beauty is the gift of God,” so I’m always searching for the (inner and outer) beauty of the people who suddenly appear in front of my eyes along the streets of the world.

Q: There are a couple of images in your D-Lux 6 portfolio that can be described as humorously ironic — the image of a young man selling Italian renaissance paintings, and the image of a paunchy well-dressed middle-aged man standing absentmindedly in front of a mildly erotic painting. Was this irony intentional, what were you thinking when you took these shots, and what do you think they communicate to viewers?

A: Regarding the first shot, I almost always take my photos on the fly as soon as a significant subject strikes my attention. A gesture, posture, expression, the mode of dress, the place where people are located and their relationship with the environment, are the main reasons for my shots. I never have the intention of being ironic or offensive, but I always try to tell, with delicacy and empathy, simple scenes from the everyday life of ordinary people. For me, it’s like finding the extraordinary in what seems just plain ordinary.

The second image comes from a series of four I shot in the same place, also not usual for me. In fact, I just saw the billboard with the woman, and many people walked or stopped in its vicinity. So, it seemed interesting to capture the relationship between these people and the image of the poster. Personally, I do not see any irony, but just shape, position, expression and relationship with the geometry of the environment. Of course, everyone is free to  see different things in the picture, because every human being is different based on their own culture, vision, intelligence, life experiences and so on.

Q: Another picture that elicits a smile shows a man dipping his feet in a public fountain with some details of a city square or open plaza visible in the background. What makes this image particularly effective is the fact that the man’s head is not seen at all — you cut him off just below the shoulders! Why did you decide to compose the picture in this unconventional way and what does the image mean to you personally?

A: If I remember correctly I shot a couple of images of this man, but I chose this one because, in this case, it did not matter who he was, but what he was doing.

Q: This image shows a rather intimate and tender interaction between a mother and child and it is clear your subjects were unaware they were being photographed. What’s the story behind this simple lovely picture and how important is it to you to take certain pictures discreetly so as not to alter what you observe?

A: One of the cornerstones of my street photography is precisely that unawareness on the part of the subjects. Only in this way can I record the scene with the utmost spontaneity, as it appears, suddenly, in front of my eyes. Nothing has to change because of my presence. If it did it would not be the same thing; it would not be what I want to tell. In this case, I was impressed by the intense and thoughtful gaze of the mother sitting with her baby.

Q: The very antithesis of the mother and child picture is this image where it is clear that both the clown with the funny glasses and curly wig, and the bystander behind him are looking directly into the camera and well aware of your presence. I think it’s a compelling and effective visual statement, but how do you feel about altering the reality of what you observe by your presence if that was the case? Do you ever ask peoples’ permission to take their photographs or do consider that people on the street are simply fair game?

A: As I said, I almost always shoot subjects who are unaware of the camera and also explained why, so I never ask for permission. This time I made an exception to my rule because this clown was making that menacing expression around to other people and just turned to me when I was shooting. So it seems he was conscious I was taking my photo. And the other subject was unaware too, because he turned his head hearing the verses uttered ​​by the clown. So, in this case I believe I also caught something spontaneous. And it is the juxtaposition of the two subjects that seemed interesting to me and justified the selecting the photo for inclusion in the portfolio.

Q: Your vignette of the interaction between two middle-aged women conversing on the street is amusing because the talker is so clearly animated and gesturing with her hands while the listener appears stolid and passive. Do you agree, and was this just a fortuitous grab shot or did you perceive this distinct difference in body language before you took the picture?

A: This is a typical case that illustrates how photography is not always the bearer of the truth as it happens. In fact, what caught my attention was the older lady, who was wearing just one glove. That day was very hot, and her attire was rather unusual for that season. In addition, the expression and hand gesture completed the scene. The other woman was instead, a simple passer-by who accidentally entered the frame. There was no relationship between the two, but it was otherwise impossible to photograph the first woman alone, because it was a very busy street, and if I had waited until there was no one in front of her, I would have missed the opportunity.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next few years, and do you plan to publish any additional books on cites other than Rome, or subjects other than street photography going forward?

A: I have many projects in mind, but I do not know if I can achieve them, because they often require sponsorship, and that is very difficult to get here in Italy. I’m not skilled in public relations and I can only hope to succeed only in accordance with my qualities as a photographer and not because I am a friend of the right people. Currently, I have reduced my commitment to street photography, because my interest is shifting towards social reportage. In this case too, the human being is at the center of my interests, but my focus now, is on the deepening the personal story aspect.

Thank you for your time, Donato!

- Leica Internet Team

Learn more about Donato on his website.