Interview with Laura Salvinelli, Social and War Photographer, internationally famous, who talks about her difficult and exciting profession, her art, and tells us great stories about some of her pictures.
(All photos published by courtesy of Laura Salvinelli)
Laura Salvinelli is an artist, a photographer of international fame specialized in “Social Photography”, but she’s also nice and special: an empathetic, caring, supportive, animal activist, sincere person. Laura seems to have stepped out of a Klimt painting: she’s tall, skinny, blue eyes, red hair, ethereal skin. Her beautiful home is simple and charming, full of photos and special objects she brought back from the most remote places in the world.
Question: you started your photographer career in film and music and you’ve been working in show business for twenty years. Then you stopped taking Keanu Reeves pictures and began photographing girls in a juvenile hall in Kenya. It’s a very unconventional path: how did you get to?
Laura Salvinelli: I always followed my dreams. When I was a child I wanted to prove that dreams are real. I used to dream about holding an object in my hands, expecting to recover it when I woke up, but, of course, the object always vanished. When I was 21 I started photographing professionally, and I’ve been so lucky to become the assistant of a great master, Peppe D’Arvia; in the darkroom, I could see the image appear in the basin, and the transition from one dimension to the next had a meaning for me: the object wouldn’t vanish anymore. The dream was real.
For many years I’ve been doing portraits of actors, musicians, politicians because I’m a portraitist, but, little by little, I noticed that pictures I made to my clients were so much beautiful, to me, as more as they were far from standardization and, especially, far from merchandising of the feminine body. After almost twenty years, I was taking some pictures of a German actress when a friend called, telling me to turn on the TV. It was the eleventh of September 2001, and watching those terrible images I decided it was time to use my professional abilities doing something different, something useful, something real. After some months I went to Afghanistan, the foreign country where I worked the most, a place I love.
Question: In your blog, I read a sentence, about your work: “the invisible beauty of the weak”. What does it mean for you?
Laura Salvinelli: It’s a sense that belongs to the heart. Perhaps I can feel it because I’m a woman, while male reporters have a little more exploitive eye. I always go, by instinct, towards what is weak, because it means recognizing our fragile part, something that everybody has but just a few people want to know. Weakness belongs to everybody, just like light and shadow, and finding one’s fragility helps you to get in touch with the weak of other people: that’s where you get the real beauty, generally twisted with pain.
Question: Is there any photo, among the many you shoot, that you love more? A reportage that belongs to you more than others?
Laura Salvinelli: I love a photo I made in Afghanistan, during a reportage about Buzkashi. Buzkashi was born as a war competition and now is a very violent sport, maybe the most violent sport all over the world. There are many horsemen, all fighting to catch a goat carcass and send it to a limited zone. They all move at very high speed, they can whip the other horses, the other horsemen and there are no rules. The game inside the game is that the public must stay close to the action, without moving, until all horses race in and the crowd starts running away, chased by horses. I was dressed as a man because women are not allowed and I was trying to stay in the middle of the field, close to horses. I’m never afraid when I’m close to animals, either in dangerous situations. That day there was a beautiful, smooth light and suddenly, watching a horse with its head back, I had a memory: in my dad’s studio there was a very big Guernica poster, and that horse’s head reminded me a part of Guernica painting, something I had inside, something meaning “home” to me. So, while a dozen horses were galloping towards me, I didn’t make a move and I just focus and shoot. It was a kind of miracle: I was a meter far from the action, I couldn’t get closer because focus didn’t allow me to do it, but I held out my hand and I touched the white horse. All the Afghans looked at me astonished!
That picture “Buzkashi/Guernica” was a portrait in action. Talking about “classic” portraits, I love “Girls behind the bars” a reportage I made about girls in a juvenile hall in Kenya. All those girls were street kids, jailed for vagrancy, forced to prostitute themselves. To get permission to enter the prison I had to organize a Photojournalism course, so I could spend three weeks together with those girls. Little by little I knew everything about them and they were so used to see me that I became invisible. Becoming invisible is the dream of every reporter, because, in every situation, as soon as you take out your photo equipment everything starts to change. My “invisibility” allowed me to shoot nice and natural photos, and the one I love more is a picture where a girl is sitting on a chair, reading “Oliver Twist”, a book which tells the same story of all those girls behind the bars: the kid left in the street alone, who falls in the hands of petty crime.
Question: you chose to tell the poor and weak part of the world. What if you decide to tell the other part of the world, the rich, opulent, capitalistic part: what kind of pictures would you take?
Laura Salvinelli: I would never take pictures of politicians because I don’t want to promote and empower them. I have a strong aesthetic streak and I know beauty is a kind of weapon and it needs to be controlled. For example, in war zones, I’ve always refused to work for military forces, because I didn’t want to empower their image. Also, working for military forces means you have no control over what you can photograph or what you can’t. The last war which reporters could follow and take pictures was the Viet-Nam war.
Question: If you are empathetic, working with suffering people can make you feel pretty bad. War makes me think of a beautiful movie “The hurt locker” by Kathryn Bigelow, where the bomb disposal man was able to deal with bombs and face death lightly, with pleasure, but far from the war, he felt sad and depressed. His hurt locker was adrenaline addiction and in the United States people like him are called “adrenaline-junkies”. What’s your hurt locker, if you have it?
Laura Salvinelli: in that movie, the war addiction mechanism was shown truly and accurately. When I went to Lebanon on behalf of the International Red Cross I’ve been working under fire. I was supposed to stay one month but I spent there just ten days, and ten days under fire were enough to turn me in addicted because in that kind of situations you feel so alive as you never felt before and adrenaline addiction is something belonging to everybody who is working in war and emergency zones: soldiers, reporters, doctors, nurses.
About working with suffering people, I use my inner images, a sort of self-analysis to keep breathing. And, feeling needed, useful is essential. The second time I went to Afghanistan I had to work in a hospital, in the large burn unit. Some women set themselves on fire, it was a tunnel of horrors: women burned on the 80% of their body surface, without anesthesia, and I thought I couldn’t afford it. But I understood those women were rebels. They set themselves on fire in rebellion, because they didn’t want to live depressed and unresponsive as most of the Afghan women. One of them, just before dying, waved her hand to me and when I got close to her, she said, in Afghan “Photo”. At that moment I started working because their stories needed to be told.
Question: Home of the Elephants? I didn’t understand if those elephants were happy or not.
Laura Salvinelli: Elephants are wild animals and they’re not born to live in captivity, where they hardly breed and adult males sometimes go mad. In Kerala, there was the biggest Indian temple devoted to Ganesh and the elephants lived free, never caged, well-fed, washed by their keepers in a pond, and well cared for.
The first time I went there I was alone and I stayed for ten days. A lot of Indian tourists came just a few minutes to take some pictures and went away. One day the elephant keepers wanted to go to a cricket match, and suddenly they all surrounded me, saying, in their funny English: “Madam, you watch many times, now you can do everything, we go to see cricket”. They cut coconut and gave me those two rough coconut shells, pointing at a giant elephant, a male 41 years old, saying: “You know-how, he does everything”. It was almost sunset and I found myself alone with the giant elephant and the two shells I had to use to scratch him, doing a sort of scrub to him. He entered the pond, lying down and flipping himself with his big belly up and his eyes shut. I started going closer, slowly, all wet in the dirty water and when he understood that I was completely unable, he started touching and smelling me by his trunk. The crazy thing is, while elephant skin is so thick and tough, the trunk is smooth and wet and it was a wonderful contact. I said myself “Let’s try it” and I started scratching him with the coconut shells and, when I was tired and took a break, he opened his eye looking at me like a very huge cat… After a while I was wet, sitting on his big neck doing things like opening his mouth, counting his teeth, raising his ears and I felt an unlimited love. If he wasn’t that big I would have tried to take him home, probably…
Question: How’s the state of Photography?
Laura Salvinelli: In decline, because it’s a medium that sometimes can look obsolete and because it’s closely connected to Publishing, to newspapers: Publishing business is falling and brings down Photography with it. The good thing is Photography entered the world of Art, finally. Now photographers are considered an artist and there are many shows around the world: we couldn’t access Museum, before, but now we can and this is a very good new.
Just before Covid pandemia, Laura was working on a show about birth in Afghanistan, sponsored by an important association and realized together with another reportage made for Emergency. The show was supposed to be opened in May 2020, but the outbreak and lockdown stopped it. Now Laura is working on other projects and reportage and she’s a very positive and optimistic woman. In her site www.laurasalvinelli.com you can find all her awesome photos, reportage, books, co-operations, and shows made in her life and the photos are in high definition. Do a favor to yourself: go and visit it.