Researched by Roberta Pastore
Antonio Femia was born in the deep south of Europe in 1973. After graduating in architecture, he moved to Rome where he has practiced the profession until 2014, when the passion for travel and storytelling led him to leave for a tour of (almost) the world that lasted years, along with his girlfriend. He tells about his travels on European travel magazines and on his blog www.totolemoto.it.
Going back in time, how was your passion for photography born and how did you get into the world of Street Photography?
I believe it depends on a certain propensity towards image, the same that led me to study and practice architecture, a discipline that somehow starts from the same assumptions to arrive at almost opposite results: they both require knowledge of things and men, an understanding of the worlds in which one operates. But then architecture leads to the vision of something that does not yet exist, while photography describes something already existing. Undoubtedly street photography entered by force in my shots during the first travel in the East, but it was something I needed to remember. For a long time, photography was my strictly personal notebook for jotting down faces and situations.
Was it easy to capture life while it is happening, in the places you visited during your travels?
It was easier at the beginning when I was shooting for me and disclosure of what it came out was not expected. I would also add that recklessness and unpretentiousness help luck. In any case I always felt a little embarrassed when freezing moments of people’s lives. I think in a sense that “the cholitas”, Andean women with colourful dresses, are right when they refuse to be photographed. They still believe that when you take their picture, you steal their soul. More than once I told them, “I wish! I would be really a great photographer if I did. ” In contrast, there are countries like Pakistan where almost no one pays any attention to someone wielding a camera in his face, making everything much easier. All this to say that, beyond the technicalities and the equipment, photography is made of space and time: framing and defining moment. The rest comes later.
What is the element that you try to grasp when you’re in a city or a small town?
I do not always succeed, but when it happens I feel really satisfied. The purpose of my trips is to try to understand a little more of this great and miserable thing that it is humanity, that everywhere has the same root but changes depending on local cultures and their mix with globalizing elements. The very mutual relationship of influence between humans and their habitats fascinates me, a relationship that can be harmonious or hostile but in which, in any case, humanity change an ecosystem to make it a landscape, a natural or urban one. And this in turn affects the characters and human types. One of the things that fascinates me the most of the various cultures is popular devotion, a motor that drags the lives of those who have nothing and that is used by those who have everything to justify their actions.
How do you combine photography and therefore the need to document on the go with the experience of a motorcycle trip, often in solitary?
Travel Reportage is a rather aleatory term and in the end, in hindsight, meaningless. You have to put together landscape photography, architecture, portraits, street photography by applying the modus operandi of the journalistic reportage, the real and serious one. The problem is that the latter requires rather dilated dwell times, that when traveling are often not available for various reasons. One must therefore be quick to grasp the topical elements to tell a place and its culture, with the imminent risk of reproducing stereotypes that misrepresent the reality of things. And by stereotypes, I mean both postcard-like images or any dramatic images of any discomfort: the substance of things is often in the middle and to find it, one needs time. Then there are the technical difficulties related to the medium and the type of client. Apart from the awkwardness of the dedicated technical clothing, the difficulty is when you have to make shots for the publishing industry. The magazines for which I produce my shots, as well as the sponsors, need a certain number of shots with the motorbike running in the environment, something that all things considered, it is correct in the economy of a story. It is a small punishment but a very challenging one, especially when you are travelling alone. In this case, one needs to put up the tripod, set an adequate depth of field and go up and down the street like an idiot. The situation improves considerably when the travellers are a couple: usually for these shots I become the “model” for my wife Alessandra, starting from the frame that we studied together, she moves on the field in search of something more compelling and personal. Her contribution to the reportage was also very instrumental in shots with human subjects since, as a woman and a rather cheeky one, she could interact freely with other women encountered in Islamic countries or in India and gain access to places prohibited to me, as the home kitchens that in those countries are strictly the preserve of women. To be there in two also makes easier to tell the interactions created with the locals with spontaneity.
Although it may be difficult to choose, of which shot and of what situations do you keep the strongest memory?
There’s a picture I am very fond of, portraying a couple in their shop in La Higuera, the tiny village where Ernesto Guevara was killed. I was during the celebrations for the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe, with a cumbia band playing in a continuous loop, while everyone drank, incessantly chewing coca leaves to mitigate the effects of alcohol. No one was able to help me solve the problem I had on the bike, turning my stay in some kind of imprisonment, made even more difficult by discrimination I suffered as a “gringo”. The only place open to eat something was the “bodeguita” of this couple, where the woman served me the only dish available: a corn soup with inside the head of a hen, darkly turned grey by the cooking process. The man tried to talk to me, but he was too drunk to hold a sensible conversation unlike his wife that, clear headed and active, was putting aside the proceeds of the day. I took the photo after paying for my meal, taking advantage of the confidence between us. And I really like it because I think it sums up in some way the lives of those people: he tries to be the landlord but is only a facade figure, as stated by his habitual alcoholic lost gaze, while it is his wife that runs the show every day.
What happens when you’re looking for specific framing, or alternatively do you take photos with an image already in mind?
That’s not always the case. One of the problems of documenting a journey is that often one has to shoot in dark conditions or with other disturbing elements in the scene. My ethics and practice force me to take things as they come, without mystification, and to exploit the difficulties to bring out a usable document. Like everyone, I wait for something to happen trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Even when I am taking a willing portrait, I avoid to have the subjects take a different pose from the one I found them in. Most of the time I can come up with what I had in mind, some other times I definitely can’t, and I think I should commit myself more. For this reason, I consider an important thing to know the capacity and technical boundaries of one’s equipment, its exposure latitude, the manageability of the resulting digital files, the aberrations and artefacts produced by the lenses.
Do you usually know immediately that you had found the right shot or do you realize that when you review the pictures taken?
Most of the time I am aware of what I did and that I have a series of good shots with at least a couple better than others. However, sometimes I happened to find photos I had completely forgotten and that instead deserve much more attention. A couple of months ago I was browsing through the photos I have taken in India to send some of them to a magazine and I found several that I had discarded two years earlier. One in particular, a child who turns to look at a girl who comes out of the alley, discreetly moved me: I caught a moment when something beautiful happened, but I had removed that. I did not realize even later, when I chose what to send to the editorial staff of the magazine. It’s not an exceptional shot, but the joy of discovery accompanied me for two days. And these kinds of things are good for the spirit.
What do you think is the secret to capture the true essence of the road?
Living it from within and abandon it before boredom. Stay into it for a bit, change the observation point by studying the light during the day, talk to those who live it and then move on the scene trying to be invisible while shooting or, conversely, cause a reaction in the subjects. And then leave at the climax, because habit is the enemy of wonder. And to photograph something, you must be at least a little bit surprised.
As for your works, which are the ones that marked your real entrance in the world of photography?
I never had big ambitions in relation to photography, as I said before it was for “personal use” only. I was forced to take it seriously when I started publishing the stories of my travels in magazines, for which the photos are not a just simple accompaniment of the text but the elements that captures the reader’s attention.
My training as an architect helped me move in accordance with the instructions of a client, accepting the necessary criticisms and suggestions of those who put together a magazine, without feeling offended by the inevitable initial rejections. The journey of a year through three continents, reported on the pages of the magazine “Motociclismo”, was the training ground where I studied the procedure, almost an artisanship, of putting together the pieces of a story made of words and images: for more than a year, every day it was time to take shots, choose, post-produce, write. All things that I have continued to do after my return to Italy, starting collaborations with “Overland” magazine for England and “Road Trip” magazine for France. After about four years from the first publication, good part of my time is dedicated to editing and writing about past trips and planning future reportages. Nevertheless, I do not think I could be defined as a photographer: I have a lot to learn, and one of the biggest problems I have is precisely how to put together a story that is not a travel story.
How do you manage the use of color and b / n in your photos?
I seldom use b / n: with the exception of some experiments, from the beginning I have never dwelt into this technique. I have no bias with respect to monochrome, but I believe it presents some important challenges: you have to be concise and to create a palette of greys that do not make you miss the lack of colour. Perhaps I am colour photographer because the world is colourful and I would feel like I am losing something. Certainly, the democratization of digital technology has made this an obvious choice: if I had been born twenty years earlier I would definitely have photographed in BN for economic reasons.
What kind of cameras do you use and what equipment do you take on your travels?
Reduced weights and compact size are essential on the road, at least as much as discretion is for street photography. For this reason, I have been long using good compact cameras. In the long ride I mentioned earlier, the main camera was a Fuji X20 that I loved for the sensor and bright lens but it was pretty damn delicate. As a matter of fact, it died finally in Peru before the end of the trip. I used it for planned shots, for street and architecture, or in difficult light conditions, but it was really bad for videos. I also used a “tough” camera, the Lumix FT-5, small and versatile enough despite not being capable to shot in raw format. It is perfect in dusty environments and in the rain and in general for shooting video or taking pictures from the bike, as it is armoured. Mounted on a selfie stick it was ideal for shooting ourselves while moving thanks to the moderate wide angle lens: my wife was in charge of it, and at one point she looked like a circus acrobat for the strange things she did with that stick. The FT-5 is still an integral part of my photo kit. When I was on my own, I also used a GoPro for photos and videos, avoiding the super boring POV shots. After the Fuji died I switched over definitely to the mirrorless systems that I consider the cornerstone for travellers. I am a happy owner of a Sony A7 that I use with an essential kit of Nikon manual lenses: 24mm f2.8 AIS, 50mm f1.8 D and a heavy 70/210 f4 / 5.6. Even the tripod must be a robust but compact one and I found a good solution in the Velbon aluminium UT series that when folded measures 30 cm. No flash, no additional lights. I feel the lack of a 35mm lens.
What determines the success or failure of a photo?
The sentiment, no doubt. It is said that for journalism one must keep the proper distance. On one hand that it is true, on the other hand I think not getting involved with what you shoot means you are losing its essence. Perhaps the rule of the right distance applies if you report press agencies or shoot for a catalogue. But if you tell a story empathy is important, you have to insert yourself into it even if you have to go to hell. It is not a job for everyone. And since I do not rely exclusively on images to tell stories I would like to add that some photos turn out well when you do not take them. I speak of all those situations where a camera would undermine the empathy created with the subject, or when you looking for the good shot prevents you from living in the moment. In those cases, I prefer to live the situation as much as possible to report it later with words.
Do you plan a photo before the realization or are your images the result of a reflection during the post-production phase?
Post-production is an important moment, a key part of the work that serves to highlight the message picked up while shooting. In addition to correcting the physical limits of the sensors and lens aberrations, it is the moment where feelings unfold. It’s like the sound for a musician. To reason about the pictures you are going to take before shooting is a necessary practice that can give excellent results, but the technology does not help in this regard and I decided to impose myself a discipline, perhaps also forced by the equipment: using completely manuals lenses obliges you to reason, before shooting, about the depth of field and about which is the real subject of the photo, without leaving the choice to the camera between its dozens of AF points.
To compensate for the absence of autofocus in all those situations where shutter speed and correct exposure are required, I use criteria that everybody knew until the ’80s, as the hyperfocal, the rule of 16 or the rule of the reciprocal of the focal length to avoid micro-blurring. In essence, despite having the latest powerful camera, I take shots as it was done in the ’70s and I must say I do not feel the lack of automation. Besides good photography does not really need any of that: Capa did not have the autofocus or the program mode during the landings in Normandy.
Is there any specific photographer that inspired you?
From the point of view of photography in the strict sense, I really appreciate the work of David Alan Harvey and the use of colour in Alex Webb work. To a “sacred monster”, quite criticized lately, I talking about McCurry, I recognize the undoubted merit of having created a trend, like he was some kind of rock-star. Generally speaking, the real inspiration comes from Salgado and Koudelka: more than for their work, which I consider among the most powerful of all, both of them feel closer due to their personal history and the choices they made when it was time to figure out what to do with their lives.
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