In memory of this tragic day we want to publish an excerpt from the book "The Hands of the City" by Claudia Pajewski
Photography as the Art of Recognition by Maria Giovanna Musso
Maybe because it was built on a “chart of a dream” – using the expression dear to Yourcenar’s Hadrian (1951) – or maybe because that very dream has obliged the city to a repeatedly challenge nature and adversity. Whatever the reason, L’Aquila has in its cultural genome a vocation towards independence and a “city spirit” that only historical cities have. Its troubled history has also been shaped by its long familiarity with earthquakes, which have damaged it many times over the centuries. Its capacity to rise again has been repeatedly put to test and its resilience has earned it the inscription IMMOTA MANET, which frames the black Swabia eagle and the gold crown in its coat of arms (added in 17th century). Today its centuries-old determination to rise again in this hostile, still trembling, area of the Apennines, appears unchanged. The 2009 earthquake revealed the different facets of a calamity that compounded the physical damage to humans and to the artistic heritage to the socio-systemic vulnerability inherent to the cultural, institutional and political domains (Salvatore, 2012). Immediately after the earthquake, the city not only had to come to grips with the damage caused by the earthquake, but also with the initial ineffectiveness of the institutions, the media’s foolhardiness, the cynicism of speculators, the media profiteering, corruption, delays and the “window-dressing” of the first interventions. L’Aquila reacted with dignity, creativity and with a certain degree of resilience, albeit with a certain amount of resignation, fuzziness and distrust that seem to have dampened the push towards innovation and social change (Lettere, 2012; Salvatore, 2012). Immediately after the earthquake, in addition to the traditional volunteering work, civic associations mushroomed and artists and activists were mobilized around cultural projects and a new conception of the city, which have contributed to give new momentum to reconstruction efforts over the last few years. Today the city is yet again threatened by another earthquake: between 2016 and 2017, thousands of earthquakes (some of which of a magnitude greater than 4.5) have shaken the centre of Italy, destroying other pearls of our cultural and artistic heritage, Amatrice being one of them. Seismologists talk of a “long” earthquake, a phenomenon that highlights how it is not the Earth that must change its laws. It is human societies that have to, as they are aware of the social, political and organizational lack of reflection when faced with catastrophes, despite the fact that science and technology offer previously unthinkable measures and solutions.
From a technical and scientific point of view, an earthquake is a controllable albeit unpredictable event (Crespellani, 2012). From a social and political perspective however, it remains ungovernable and full of pitfalls. There is an enormous deficit in the capacity to prevent and rebuild and there is an enormous lag between the timing and the logics of the subsystems involved: the Earth counts its hydrogeological adjustment in ages; historical civilizations are created and develop in millennia; cities are built and transformed in centuries or at least decades; the political system’s speed of understanding problems can be measured in legislatures (at the best of times); technology only knows procedures, devices and systems. Human beings instead do not react according to protocols (Quarantelli, 1993): they live where they should not, they build in the wrong places and do not follow the instructions of experts. Moreover, it seems they live only one life, made of memories and projects, and that every moment of each new day is what makes the difference. There is no algorithm that can harmonize such complexity. However, prevalence is still given to a technical-administrative approach (Ligi, 2009; Benadusi, 2015), leaving out elements of social vulnerability, which amplify, if not trigger, the already serious repercussions of such disasters. Today L’Aquila is split in two: centre and outskirts, surrender and resistance, fear and hope, both from a social and an urbanistic point of view. Its outskirts, which weren’t very attractive to begin with (mostly built illegally in the ‘60s), now include stretches of the New Town, rational and even decent structures but extraneous, with no services nor life. Together with the new shopping malls (which grew from one to eight after the earthquake) they aim to become the “new” model of life, based on consumerism and solitude. L’Aquila has become a hypothetical city. Its skyline has changed. Its sky, which used to be a blue disk sinuously rimmed with mountains, is now filled with the arms of cranes, metal vultures hovering over the remains of a wounded city, in an artificial and gloomy space. They scour and confine the airspace as if they wanted to divide the sky into abusive and slightly bizarre geometries.
But they are also the instrument and the symbol of a renewed Promethean approach necessary for its reconstruction. And, in their own way, they instill hope. The city centre, still very much uninhabited, is an open construction site, the biggest in Europe, immersed in an immense cloud of dust and the din of bulldozers, backhoes and jackhammers. The “red zone”, in particular, is a big hole producing dust and noise where they are excavating a “smart-tunnel”, the technological pride of the future city while historical buildings are restored to their former splendour and houses are gradually given back to their owners. It’s been a few years since the reconstruction started, pushed forward by the Barca plan. The recovery of the artwork is in the hands of restauration specialists, mostly women. Instead, roads and buildings are in the hands of a quiet, hardworking and “invisible” army: a foreign legion of sorts, hired by firms through a contracting system that starts with the General Contractor and moves down to smaller specialized firms. The system is such that, as you climb down the scale, rules relax and wages fall. It is a full-fledged “trafficking” of workers, especially immigrants, who work in the city for eleven hours a day and fade into nothing in the evening. Some are commuters, others reside in apartments or hotels, and some of them live in containers, sometimes controlled by watchmen. Here they sleep in dozens, one on top of the other in only a few square meters, with a shared bathroom, which is often outdoors. Builders’ trade unions have recently witnessed an increase in membership as well as in legal disputes. The CGIL of L’Aquila alone files 400-500 individual labour disputes per year at the request of workers who would like to see their legitimately earned wages paid. Some have threatened to commit suicide by jumping off cranes in order to have their rights recognised. The problem is that companies are often unable to cope with both the administrative delays and the difficulties caused by the crisis. L’Aquila, in addition to being the city with the largest number of immigrants in proportion to the population (IDOS Immigration Statistics Dossier, 2015), is also the first multicultural experiment in Italy. ANCE (the National Association of Buildings Contractors) estimates that 5,000 regular immigrants were present in L’Aquila before the earthquake, with another 3,000 who arrived during the reconstruction phase. Out of these, at least 1,000 are foreigners. Up to 2011, Romanians and Albanians were the majority. The new arrivals are mainly Tunisians and Moroccans who tend to replace Eastern Europeans as cheap labour. Some have been living at L’Aquila (second city in Abruzzo, after Teramo, in terms of number of foreign residents) for a long time, and many have lost their homes and jobs with the earthquake. Many more came after it, attracted as if by osmosis by the certainty of a job as well as by some kind of inner calling for disaster and, apparently, by a wish of reparation.
The interviews conducted by Claudia Pajewski, and reported in this text, reveal the will and pride of being able to “give a hand” in rebuilding the city so that L’Aquila can “be reborn more beautiful than before”. Dorin, a Moldovan worker, says: “Working here in L’Aquila means doing it for a reason. You know that these people will one day be able to go back to the comfort of their homes. All the people working here feel the same way. I would like to know that there are a lot of people making sacrifices, working in the heat, the cold and the rain to enable me to go home.” Others may have a more disenchanted attitude. But some seem an unconscious embodiment of “wounded healers”. One thing is certain: these people, exiles from long-battered lands, who flee from wars, poverty and criminal organizations, and carry with them a baggage full of tragedies and hopes sufficient to turn the world upside-down, are full of life and projects for the future. Claudia Pajewski’s photographic eye settled here, on the faces and hands of this invisible army, on this sky infested with cranes, on this post-apocalyptic atmosphere. And it has also settled on the night that still engulfs this wounded city, on its offended beauty, on the rubble and the fragments of life mixed with the ruins of these “others” who have come to rebuild it. Pajewski is an artist who has always been interested in bodies: not their aesthetic perfection but their diversity, their language, what makes them interesting. She has long been interested in the world of queers. In L’Aquila she photographed the bodies of male workers and female art restorers, wrapped in shapeless jumpsuits splattered with paint, their faces mixed in the stream of light and dust. She captured them in their moments of pause, with happiness and sadness filling their world-absorbing eyes. With lucid pietas she depicted the body of the wounded city – heaps of rubble, enormous cages and clouds of dust, cordons and scaffolding – over which one’s look glides, dragged down into large fields of black and white, or loses itself on the details of desolation. The contrast between the breath of metal and stone, the bandaged beauty of friezes and facades, together with the light coming from the faces of this hurt but hopeful humanity, is one of the most moving features of her work. The artist began photographing L’Aquila during its reconstruction. There are no dead nor the desperation of survivors in these photos. Claudia Pajewski experienced the tragedy of this earthquake. She knows a disaster has many faces and so do its followers: voyeurs, people looking for fame, cynical businessmen. She knows the dismay of the victims, their pain, the loss of all their belongings, the impossibility to speak, to do and plan, at least for a while. She chose not to make a profession out of it. Rather than indulging in the loss, resignation and victimization, she chose the road of artistic and political activism.
In the face of certain catastrophes, it is sometimes better not to look back, so as not to turn into a statue of salt, like Lot’s wife. It took time to photograph what remained of this wounded city. Pajewski did it when everyone else – the mass media, the curious, the politicians and the jackals – had finally left. I can imagine this young woman, wandering alone with her camera amongst bulldozers and rubble, in a kind of secular pilgrimage, a painful flânerie, looking for a promise of life and future for her city. She found this promise among the dust and the shadows, in the faces of the exiles overturning its stones, in the imperfect bodies she photographed, without running the alluring risk that not only the exiles, but also those who portray them, can incur, i.e. falling “on the trivial side of virtue” (Brodsky, 1988). She chose her subjects not according to an aesthetic or ideological criterion, but on the basis of a gradient of empathy, the possibility of an encounter, the relevance of a silent and unconventional dialogue. The humanity portrayed is dirty, covered in dust. It reveals the presence of alien cultures, heaps of meat and soul endowed with acuteness and sensitivity, but also of mistrust, hostility, and extraneous codes. One of the photos, which is not part of this collection, portrays three workers contemplating their surroundings during a pause. When they see the young woman photographing them, they mount their harassment machine. They are immersed in a three-quarter light which enhances their happy and amused expression. The man in the centre of the group makes an obscene, explicit gesture. The other two open up in a smile of complicity, turned towards their friend who is the hero of the moment: that gesture represents them all and delights them. The feeling is unanimous. She remains unperturbed and shoots anyway, just when the posture of the three men reveals the ancient alchemy of the pack. The main point here does not lie so much in the vulgar gesture, but in the smile of the three men, their bodies bent in a cheerful complicity, uniting them as a group. In more general terms there is always a “what and a how” to keep in mind when talking about photography. Some photos go down in history mainly because what they portray is representative of the category to which it belongs and to some extent represents the Zeitgeist. Sometimes it happens by chance, when a photographer is in the right place at the right time. The most recent example is that of Burhan Ozbilici who won the 2017 World Press Photo with a picture depicting an Islamic terrorist in the act of killing the Russian ambassador in Turkey. Here, the what is an event that the good photographer did not shirk from testifying. This scheme also extends to many images depicting the poor and the outcasts, and which form part of the history of photography as they are representative of an era. Great examples of this category of photos are Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife, by Walker Evans (1936), portraying the face of a woman which later became the icon of poverty following the Great Depression. Or the famous Lunch atop a Skyscraper, by Charles C. Ebbets (1932), which captures eleven workers sitting on the beam of a skyscraper in Manhattan.
With reference to the what, Pajewski’s photography can also be included in the trends that span from photojournalism to social photography, in which subjectivity becomes less important than the actual fact and the “truth” that need to be testified. But if we look at how she photographs, then her work distances itself from this approach, both in the logic and in the result of her pursuit. As to the how, there is a photography that focuses on objects (even when these are human beings) and one that focuses on subjects.Pajewski’s photos belong to the second genre. In the first case, the act of photographing is associated to “capturing” the image, seeking to seize the prey (Sontag, 1978). Even Cartier-Bresson who, according to John Berger, had a maternal love for reality, used to say: “The only thing I am interested in when photographing is to get a clean shot.” Aiming at something, shooting a photo, capturing an image, are all expressions of the photographic lexicon (Wenders, 1993). Another factor is the intention to document, especially in photojournalism and social photography, which usually requires the photographer to have a distant, almost scientific look, almost through the entomologist’s microscope, even if the ultimate goal is to report. In Pajewski’s case, she is not seeking a photographic “truth”, like the first photojournalists used to pursue. The testimonial character of her work comes from the desire to “share an emotional glance with the community”, and is linked to the value of an experience, the sense of an encounter and of the recognition that makes up the what in her project. She neither steals nor captures elements of reality, pursued as if she were hunting game. Instead, there are traces of a dialogue which begins with a look and continues with words collected through real-life experiences, and carries on beyond, along a path towards knowledge and discovery. As Ferrarotti (1974) would say, there is “a human participation in the human”, in sharing and discovering the difficulty of connecting with one’s internal and external alterity. For Claudia Pajewski the camera, despite being a tool, is an instrument of her instinct even before being a technical device. It is a means that allows both a real and abstract relationship with life. The use of photography is what enables her to pierce the veil of reality, bypassing the words and the system of social mediation, allowing her to penetrate the matter of things, the flesh of the world. From this point of view, Claudia Pajewski follows in the tracks of those artistic photographers such as Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Moyra Peralta, Sebastião Salgado, for whom photography is an encounter and the camera an instrument through which to listen to the polyphony of the world.
This encounter is not between the photographing subject and the photographed object but between subjects who, through photography, enter into a particular form of communication, a special intimacy, without which the work would not exist. In portraits in particular, it is clear that “a human coming together” is in play – as she herself reveals – which is only possible if “the fear of the other, the one outside and the one within, is overcome”. Photography is in fact also a battle quickly and silently setting in motion worlds, beliefs, expectations, emotions, and desires, that photographers and subjects often don’t even know they have (this is what also makes up the optical subconscious). The act of photographing thus becomes the precursor of experience in its most intimate and deepest meaning and, at the same time, a fleeting and momentary shelter from solitude. The act of photographing pierces the veil separating the photographer from the subject. In the exact moment the that the image materializes in the viewer and is perceived by the eye of the photographer, a catharsis occurs, the separating veil is pierced and the encounter is celebrated, which lasts for a moment but contains eternity. Pajewski’s look draws the subject out of the shadows and summons it to appear, setting out the conditions for a relationship that begins with photography but that leads beyond. But above all else, it looks twice (as is in the etymology of the French term for look, régard), meaning a movement that “is not exhausted instantly, as it entails an enduring impulse, an obstinate persistence” (Starobinsky, 1975). The result is a special way of seeing, born not from a random and extemporaneous encounter with the reality of being here, with the Dasein, a state prepared well in advance, with a discipline that Pajewski defines as Zen, and that I would define as a “big Yes “, a Yes given to life, to everything that exists, in all its forms. A Yes that is also given to provoke a No in the person looking at the images, but without necessarily tarnishing the look, or taking sides ex ante. In Pajewski’s work on L’Aquila, something similar to what happens to faces and bodies also happens to the city, through the suffering of the reconstruction that appears in an unprecedented light in these shots. Her pictures show the plastered and scaffolded face of L’Aquila, revealing the tension, the tragic resistance, the uncertainty enclosed within cordons and obstinacy. They show the phantasmagorical scaffolding, which is at times presented as a spectacular metaphor of the ephemeral replacing the structural. They reveal the contradiction between the temporary and the permanent, between the scaffolding grid and the load-bearing structures. The façades of historic buildings, mummified in steel or wooden traps, forced to undergo cosmetic surgery, seem to suffocate as they aspire to recover their own beauty, even if disfigured. They seem to want to resist, with all their might, not only to collapsing, but also to the scaffolding, their “new” beauty, aggressive and cheap, and this game in which the ephemeral becomes structural.
Finally, the same look can be found in the life stories of the photographed subjects at the end of the text. They were collected by Pajewski during their lunch breaks. These are essential, intense stories with a strong “visual” imprint: they are the extension and the completion of what was already captured at the moment of the shoot, but could not be fully told. Words here are not intended to be pedagogical. They simply enable you to reach the place where images stop, to continue the encounter from the place the image was taken, at the instant of the shot, to the time of life, its past and its future. The relationship between the word and the image is one of necessity, not of redundancy: they are both endowed with the same precision, the same dignity, the same bodily and visual hallmark. The formal analogy between photographs and life stories is due to the fact that they are the result of the same modus operandi, they have the same pace, the same “cut”. They are brief, short-lived spurts of light in an otherwise submerged reality. The uniqueness of the look that connotes them is what allows the words and the images to take shape and materialize. The text of these small stories seems to be etched with the same light that vibrates in the chiaroscuro of the photographs. Images and words come “to light”, prompted by the same look that brings them out of the shadow and that gives form and consistency to an otherwise invisible matter. Words are born to the story like images are born to photography, extracting from chaos and noise the fragments of life and beauty which, without this look, would never have seen the light.