With 25 thousand square meters and more than 150 million travellers each year, Termini train station in Rome is the biggest station in Italy and the fifth biggest in Europe.
It is not a must-see place, if we want to be predictable and cite good old Marc Augè; it is the half-way house of the Boot, if we want to be patriotic and in line with current ideology; “Termini Station but from here it all begins” if we want to find solace in the play of words between Calvino and Queneau… Either way, the Station and its inhabitants have attracted Niccolò like a moth to a flame for over a decade, and they still do. And like every project that develops, they will eventually attract large members of the public who like us will be drawn to this rather large volume of portraits and will be asking themselves: why?
From a social perspective, this precious research by Niccolò Berretta is a ground zero documentary that describes the changes of a station and in doing so, summarises the changes of a period and its society. From an anthropological point of view, to fathom the type of the people who, for some reason or another, find themselves at the train station and are willing to be photographed to become part of such a visionary project, tells us a lot about the human nature, and also about ourselves. From a purely aesthetic point of view, well, it was time we had an Italian Sartorialist. He even has the skills to penetrate an international and varied audience that has nothing to envy fashion week’s audience. An audience that comes and goes indistinctively, with people that are so distant and yet so close to each other, each there for a different reason that brings them all there, with the same objective of going somewhere.
First question: why has Niccolò Berretta, photographer of the 1983 class year, spent countless hours photographing people near the Station for over ten years, and still does?
Next question: why have we from Drago, and in particular the visionary Paulo von Vacano, decided to make a book on this project and spend months paginating and editing and cataloguing over 500 images, instead of buying a ticket to Borneo and admire its wonderful nature?
The first one is easy to answer, or at least we think so: we forced Niccolò to answer some questions during these strange days of worldwide quarantine, seeing that he is bound to have time…
For the second one you will have to wait a little bit longer, and Paulo will explain us why as soon as possible.
When did you decide to photograph Termini station?
The first photo I took at the station was on the 26th October 2009, at 16:37. The photo shows a man sleeping rough between a post and a rose bush. At the time I was only 23 and I was a bit confused about life. I needed something that I could get into. I spoke about it with my friend Gabriele Silli and we started walking the streets of Rome in search of the perfect spot. After a few hours and a few beers, we finally understood that the best place where countless people pass by every day is the Station. At the time I was studying at the DAMS (Department of Arts Music and Performances of the University Roma Tre), and I remember that in a photography module I became star struck by the photographic research done by August Sander, and particularly by his series titled “People of the 20th Century”, in which he catalogues German society through a series of portraits. This is how I came to photograph the people that represent the fabric of society. But to be successful I needed a territory, a space to familiarize myself with, a battlefield. That place could only be the urinal that is Termini.
What made you carry on for all these years?
In December 2009 I started volunteering at the Caritas charity in Rome. I would not be able to tell you exactly for how long I did it for, but in that period I collected a large number of audio recordings“stolen”in between tables of the canteen amongst other places. The conversations have been edited to become monologues; stories told by the people that go to this structure for the most vulnerable. Even though it was only one day a week, this period was a turning point in my artistic direction. The same stories that initially seemed just classic desperate stories, stirred in me an enormous wave of emotions. So the first few years went by like this, collecting portraits and stories. Once I had a chance to review the results I felt that I had to carry on, and since then I have never stopped. I have to admit that at the time I was penniless and the world of photography seemed far away, but the coverage by the magazine Vice Italy helped me a lot, and gave me reassurance that I was going in the right direction. This happened thanks to my friend Giulio Squillacciotti who has been one of the first fans of the project, and who asked me to do my first interview on “Termini”.
Which aspect of the project do you find most intriguing?
Termini is an insane place, where multiple realities co-exist. I am fascinated for example when I see a drunk and injured homeless person, and right next to him an elegantly dressed man, running past him indifferently, going to catch his train. I am fascinated by the idea that Termini is a home for some people – a bit of a shitty one considering that at some point the gates shut for the night. I like to stop in one place to observe all these little ants, running in every direction, without reflecting on the kind of private lives they lead.
Is there any particular episode that you want to tell us about?
During these ten years so many things have happened that with time, they almost seem mundane. Fights, filthy, smelly beggars camping out, a naked man that wanted to get into the Caritas, bag-snatching, transgender working the streets and then going inside the stairways of some building to give a blowjob to their clients, gigolos chatting away waiting for new clients, strange money changes headed by some dirty scrounger, big groups of young gypsies that attempt to help foreigners to buy train tickets in exchange for some coins. This is Termini’s poetry, tons of shit stirred together. On one occasion I was contacted by Lorenzo Mapelli from Vice Italy to contribute to the article “One night in Termini”. You can read the article in their online publications… that night everything happened. Another evening, when I was drinking my 12th Peroni beer, I stopped a Tunisian guy to take a photo of him with a disposable camera. While I was taking the photo, one of his accomplices managed to slip my father’s Nikon F2 from under my arm and run away. So a chase started on Via Marsala until amidst shouts, the guy stopped and gave me back my camera. On that same night a guy tried to punch me while his friend was holding him back. Without a doubt it can be a hostile and dangerous environment, but with time you accept the risks and live with them. I spent one, and only one, New Years Eve in Termini, and it was delirious, a total shambles.
What are the most common reactions amongst your subjects?
During these 10 years I have archived around 550 portraits, but every time I went out I asked on average 10-15 people, which means that I must have asked at least 5000 people. Not everybody wants to have their photo taken, and I can understand why. Of these 5000 people at least 1000 have told me to fuck off, and given that 5000 is a conservative estimate, the fuck-offs must have been a lot more! Some personalities are easier to intercept, others are almost impossible. These are the people that are out of their mind, often homeless, the ones that talk to themselves. I see them going round for hours repeating the same obsessive gestures. In any case, the difficulty of the subject has never been a barrier, trying to convince the craziest ones became some sort of challenge every time I went out. The weather and the time of day can really determine the success of a photo.
What is it that strikes you the most of your creation?
I like the idea of creating a series of images that altogether tell the story of something much bigger than an individual’s story. I cannot stand investigative documentaries that aim to find a pity story by digging into people’s sad past. You could have a field day in Termini if that is what you were after. When I did the audio archives, I never took photos of the people I recorded, because their voice did not need a face, their stories could have been told by anyone. What does strike me after all this time, is that every time I go back to Termini I have the same feeling: finding myself in the middle of a river of people, concentrating to find the characters that look interesting, letting the other ones go like. Spending an afternoon in Termini with a couple of beers following people is like playing a game.
Your research undoubtedly has social, cultural, customs and anthropological value. What was your intention when you first started out?
Like I said before, the work by August Sander really influenced me. Also the research done by Diane Arbus on the streets of New York influenced me a lot; her way of finding herself in absurd situations, with people at the fringes of society but that for her were the most interesting thing ever. The reason why I kept this project going over the years is a mix of these elements. I would also like to leave a testimony to Rome, a catalogue of data that is made up of not only the faces and customs of people, but also of the layers of information that are in the photos. The adverts, the renovations, the shops, the public transport, the statue of pope John Paul II, the changing rules of the station, are all elements that tell the story of Rome and our times. The original intention of the project was to be able to compare the photos taken during this decade with some time in the future, and this is the intention with which I will carry on documenting.
Is there a dominant character in your subjects that captures your attention more than others? What do they have in common?
The characters that I prefer are the mediocre types, the shabby ones, the lower middle class… the Homer Simpson kind. People that go round with a void look, and that when I stop them to ask if I can take a photo, they look at me as if to say: “if you want to, go ahead, it doesn’t make any difference to me…”. At the same time I am quite taken by the eccentrics, the ones that dress in the most striking ways, with bright colours. I have stopped people in the past for their shoes or a tight vest, or a man that appeared to be going nowhere with a big bunch of coloured ballons. I think the common element in most of my subjects is madness.
Do you think you will carry on with your unique research?
A silly thing that I always say is that Termini will die with me. Of course, time goes by, and I have other projects that take up my time. This research is still going ahead, at a slower pace than before and there will of course be some portraits taken in 2020 and the following years. Going forward, I would like to also take photos in the stations of other cities in the world, as a way to expand this photographic research.