Meet the Leica Meet: Guiseppe de Santis, Beyond the Palio

This interview is part of a series in which Olaf Willoughby talks with Leica Meet members about their photographic projects, their stories, goals and learnings along the way. Here Olaf interviews Guiseppe di Santis, who applies the principles of street photography to the Palio, a medieval horse race in Siena.

Q:  Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to hear of the Leica Meet?

A: I’m Giuseppe De Santis, an amateur photographer from Italy. I fell in love with photography around 2004. Since then I have been trying to find my path in this fascinating world. Then I discovered street photography and reportage. It was love at first … click! When I started street photography I took a big step into the amazing world of Leica. During my research about Leica and how to use its products, I read about The Leica Meet in The British Journal of Photography. I decided to join straight away because it was what I was looking for; a team where you can exchange knowledge and photos, but where everything must be related to Leica. Thanks to them my photography is growing quickly and I can sense new qualities in my work!

Q: Can you give me an overview of your project? What is its title and main theme?

A: A brief look into the Palio di Siena’s atmosphere. The Palio is an Italian tradition tied to the town of Siena in Tuscany. It is a horse race which has remained unchanged since 1656. Originally the race was on the 2nd of July but since 1701 the event takes place on the 16th of August. The horses run three laps around the magnificent city square, Piazza del Campo, which is overlooked by the beautiful Municipio (city hall).

The race is simple in its essence. It happens very rapidly, three minutes and it is over. But the Palio means so much more. It is embedded in the life of the city. In Italian we say Siena is, la città del Palio, “the city of the Palio”.

You can easily see the race on TV and probably get a much better view from your sofa, but what you cannot understand is the excitement, anticipation, and build up of emotion in the days before the race. The people live the Palio all year long. Children of the same contrada (neighbourhood) grow up together, parties are organized all year as the Contradaioli (citizens of the same neighbourhood) celebrate the festivities. Sometimes they help each other out. Sometimes, they obstruct the other contrada. Occasionally they play pranks on their rivals. As the time of the Palio approaches, each neighbourhood is separated from the others by flags; the competition rises and the bond between the people and their horses grows.

Q: And how does this spirit of the competition develop as a story throughout the project?

A: The project is a journey through the Palio, from the beginning to the final victory, when the horse returns to its normal life. I want to show the intense relationship between people and horses — a bond that seems to be indissoluble — and how those days are full of adrenaline.

I arrived in Siena a year and a half ago, and I fell immediately in love with this small medieval town where time seems to have stopped flowing ten centuries ago. In the days of the Palio, Siena is full of people and even more photographers. You could say that the Palio has been shot in every possible way. What I noticed is that almost all photographers try to get sharp motionless images of the race. On the contrary, I used a street photography approach to immortalize this event.

I see this body of work as a reportage that is about more than the race; I wanted to show the viewer the relationship between Siena and the horse. Three days before the event, horses are paired with a contrada. Each contrada treats the horse with the highest respect — it is the guest of honour at every Palio related event. Indeed, a contrada can win the race even if the jockey tumbles as long as the horse crosses the finish line first.

Q: What photographic choices have you made; colour palette, composition, use of flash, etc.

A: I firmly wanted to focus the viewer attention on the selected scene avoiding any other distraction. In order to do that the choices I made were to go with black-and-white and to single out a particular moment to be shot.

Considering that most parts of the Palio are very chaotic and fast, I used it mainly with pre-zoned focus. You don’t have a lot of time to think during the race. You need to know what you want beforehand. It is an unusual challenge!

To give a sense of the emotion of the horses and the audience and to bring the viewer into the atmosphere I tried to use unusual camera angles and unusual cropping for this portfolio.

Taking a look at the photos, to highlight the people’s respect for the horse I preferred to stay low and put the horse into the foreground. I chose the same method for the photo of the horse jumping (photo 6 in the gallery), but in this case I wanted to show the prettiness of the horse that seems to fly on the track while coincidentally getting a natural frame for the people in the background. The photo above on the left is cropped to describe the connection between the horse and the person, neither of which have their own head, and therefore their own identity anymore. The photo on the right draws attention to how man and horse are wearing the same clothes.

Q: What’s your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?

A: While choosing the final shots I just kept thinking, “What will make people breathe the atmosphere I lived?” A big motivation is the positive reaction this body of work has received from people in Siena — and this is a city where photographing the Palio is far from noteworthy!

Q: Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?

A: Siena! Only if you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste what Siena is during the days of the Palio can you understand what I mean.

Q: Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your findings?

A: There is no room for setbacks here. You have five days and you have to get as much done as you possibly can. It is a great learning discipline and I feel more confident now about tackling difficult projects.

Q: Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?

A: No. This was all about having fun!!!

Q: What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?

A: Leica M-E with Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 ASPH. I needed lightweight, shooting speed, and quality and Leica meets those requirements on every single point. Recently, I changed the M-E for the Monochrom and I swapped the Summicron 35 mm f/2 with the Elmarit 28 mm f/2.8 and Summicron 50 mm f/2 “Wetzlar”.

I think the Leica M-E is a good choice/starting point to join the Leica world, but as I prefer black-and-white I am more satisfied with the Monochrom. It is the best camera that I have ever had: the absence of noise is amazing and the look of my images is now, at least in my opinion, full of character! It goes without saying that the black-and-white process is far more natural compared to the conversion of a coloured original. I don’t miss colour at all but just in case I still have an M6 too.

As for the lenses, there was nothing wrong with the 35 mm, I just needed a bit more air. What really shocks me is that I’m using a 50 mm lens from 1969 and the quality is still magnificent. This is an outstanding testament to Leica quality.

Thank you for your time, Guiseppe!

- Leica Internet Team

See more of Guiseppe’s work on his website and on Flickr

Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 2,000 members. In June, Olaf will be co-teaching a creative photography workshop with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College in Rockport. If you have an intriguing project or body of work, completed or in progress, that we might feature contact Olaf at: olafwilloughby@gmail.com and www.olafwilloughby.com.