Photojournalist Sergio Ramazzotti tells Swide about his job and the responsibilities involved.
Founder of Parallelo Zero, one of the biggest photojournalism agencies in Italy and Europe, Sergio Ramazzotti has travelled around the world documenting war zones and conflicts of all sorts. He tells Swide about his job and the responsibilities involved.How did everything start?
I started at 21, and was lucky enough to have teachers who thought me things I would have used all my life. Carlo Silva, for example, encouraged me a lot both writing and photographing. I have always had passion for travel and curiosity towards the cultural biodiversity of the world that always surprises me. I wanted to be committed to social initiatives, I felt I had the mission of being a storyteller, to give voice to social injustices or to the people who were suffering one way or another, which is the majority on the planet, actually.
Herat, Afghanistan. Women in the waiting room of a pediatric hospital built by the Italian-led provincial reconstruction team. An Afghan soldier stands guard. © Sergio Ramazzotti/Parallelozero
At what point did you know you had made it in this field?
Never. I have always known I wanted to do it, but today still I am not yet there, at least not where I want to be. The will to search and investigate is as vivid as when I started but you can always do better, I am never satisfied with what I do, but yes, I guess I can say I make a living out of it, so it is my job.
You are a photojournalist. Which came first, writing or photographing? And which one is more important to you?
Both. At elementary school I would add drawings to my essays because I didn’t have a camera yet (but I proceeded to steal one to my Dad not much later). You know, by writing you try to be as photographic, as visual as you can be so to engage people and to make them feel present even if they weren’t there, and with photography you try to be as didascalic and impacting as you can so that your photo can communicate everything without needing words.
Sergio Ramazzotti, war zone.
You have written many reportage - novels: is that a way to report what you see in a different way or is it to detach yourself from what you experienced?
Neither and both, in the sense that – as you correctly said – mine are reportage-novels, which means these stories, the one I tell, are actually all happened one way or another and they are just recounted in a novel form. At the same time it is not to detach or to escape that I write about this but it is more to metabolize, a sort of catharsis, and at the same time the will to share with others, that pervades everything that I do, because when you are a privileged witness of facts that most people can’t see (and therefore witnessing dynamics you would not understand otherwise) but that they are already considered part of history, you feel it’s your duty to recount them.
Buchanan, Liberia. Bath time for a toddler. © Sergio Ramazzotti/Parallelozero
You almost never recounted or represented Italy, why? How would you do it if you got the chance?
Well, I have never been asked to professionally…they always commissioned my areas of expertise, but I would depict it as I do with all the other places I visit: not through monuments, or the landscapes but through the people who live there. I would love to discover more, even from my native place, the region of Marche.
How much do you get involved in what you see? Is it difficult to be detached from it, do you find it fair?
You should not be involved emotionally because you are a witness and you need to keep objectivity as your first aim, especially in war conflict. But of course we are humans and it does not go this way. But you do develop a sort of cynicism that is necessary for surviving (just like an ER doctor would do), an auto-defence mechanism. You also need to be very conscious of your limits. You are a witness, but you are alone.
Bala Baluk, Afghanistan. Soldiers specialized in detecting explosive devices blow up a IED found along the road. © Sergio Ramazzotti/Parallelozero
What is your creative process? How do you find a story, how do you develop it before it exists?
Talking to people reading local newspapers. You would not imagine what can come up. Sure, you need to search for them. One time I was in the centre of Kabul and my fix indicated a synagogue. I said “Wait a minute… a synagogue in Kabul?”. I ended up interviewing and photographing all day this Jewish guy who had always been there and turned out to be the last Jewish in Afghanistan, who saw everything, the war, the Taliban…It goes like that many times, it’s serendipity.
Did you ever find yourself in a circumstance in which you preferred not to take a picture?
It has happened many, many times. And most I followed my gut because at the end of the day it’s your conscience you have to deal with every day, you have to look at yourself in the mirror and think if what you are doing still makes you feel better or worse. When I did shoot a photo I wasn’t convinced of, it haunted me, it still does, and I still ask myself if I would feel better today not having shot that photo. The line between witnessing a situation and making it meat for vultures is very fine.
Kirk Kouk, Southern Sudan, 2000. A boy and a militiaman with the SPLA revolutionary army. © Sergio Ramazzotti/Parallelozero
What do you think about the digital world?
All the best: I sold all my manual photographic equipment 5, maybe 7 years ago. I don’t see anything bad in it, the quality is astonishing and saves a lot of time. Photography is made of your soul, of the patience you put in it, of the aesthetic you have internalised and you try unconsciously to reproduce every time you take a picture. Sure, we don’t look for perfection: the dream of every photojournalist is to shoot a picture that is so amazing, so engaging and overwhelming that makes you forget about the technical imperfection in it. This desire is legit and sometimes satisfied. But what I don’t like of digital is this relentless chase for the “immediate” even if the news is incorrect as long as it’s shared fast. This brings terrible consequences. Someone said that the world won’t need journalists anymore to bring news because it will be the news that will come to us. I strongly disagree. We need to be on the ground to find out correct facts and stories, we can’t just wait till they jump on us. We need to go find them because certainly the guy in Kabul – as willing as he might be to let you know the truth – will never be able to give it to you from a dusty local Internet café.
ParalleloZero organises photojournalism workshops with a team of professors composed by high-profile professionals.
Interview by: Elisa della Barba