Tag Archives: Intrigues

Lashkars in Pakistan by Massimo Berruti

It seems fitting that Massimo Berruti was holed up in the Swat Valley in Pakistan for three months early this year, right around the time when dozens of other photographers were off shooting the Arab Spring. The war in the Pashtun tribal territories long predates this year’s conflicts—and is likely to last far longer too. The result of Berruti’s long stay, the exhibition and book Lashkars, is a powerful body of work of conflict photography, yet it has a more lasting feel than much of the work that’s emerged from this year’s tumult. That sense of permanence was the point of the commission, the second Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, in what’s become an annual competition. The foundation says it aims to support in-depth photojournalism at a time of “a several financing crisis.”

Berruti, an Italian photographer represented by VU, based in Paris and Rome, has little interest here in the war on terror, American drone attacks or even, for that matter, death. The Lashkars are Pashtun civilian militia, which have fought the Taliban for control of their valley for years, with tacit acknowledgement of the Pakistan Army, yet with little concrete support. And it’s their grinding, even humdrum daily existence along the amorphous frontier land which intrigues him.

The black-and-white images are quiet and emotionally ambiguous. In one, a young man stands in front of the rubble of his parents’ home, aiming a rifle at the sky. Is he shooting at some invisible drone miles above? We don’t know. In fact, Berruti says, he’s an 18-year-old Pakistan-born Londoner called Jalal Khan, who’s returned to his village to marry a childhood friend. The rubble isn’t from a drone attack, but from Taliban fighters who’ve destroyed the family house in retaliation for the Khans’ anti-Taliban views. In another image, a child carries a tree branch past the bombed-out ruins of a Taliban commander’s house. But it’s not just a photo depicting a boy collecting firewood. The children are claiming back their neighborhood, by stripping the trees around the commander’s house. “It was a sign of freedom and emancipation,” Berruti says.

The exhibition’s textured portrayal of the area extends to the spectacular valley and mountains, which you might have expected Berruti—who loves shooting panoramas—to photograph. Instead, Berruti’s used his artist’s eye to offer something far more timeless: A painted mural of the landscape, which is pasted across the wall of a gas station. There’s a jagged crack down the side of the wall, a sign that this tourist idyll once known as Pakistan’s Switzerland is a deeply disputed place.

Despite the presence of guns and rifles everywhere, the conflict is off-stage. It’s so part of normal life that the business of fighting and killing hardly needs photographing. The story of war is instead etched into people’s faces, like the lined forehead of Saidbacha, the chief in Mahnbanr, who sits holding his pistol, gazing into the lens with what looks like a smirk. “He was the first to engage in battle against the Taliban before the Army arrived, and told me he’d killed four Taliban with his own hands,” Berruti says.

This was no easy world to penetrate, even for Berruti, who first traveled to the area in 2008. He kept secret his prize money—a whopping €50,000 ($68,000)—fearing that local chiefs might demand a cut in exchange for allowing him to work there. He also labored hard for permission to spend more than two weeks in the area, since Pakistan’s government suspected that any photographer opting to spend months there was surely up to no good. Berruti’s used his time well, depicting the long winter months when the Swat Valley is snowed in and isolated from the outside world. And the quiet moments appear to have been captured after weeks of Berruti winning the trust of locals and being able to melt into the background. As VU’s creator Christian Caujolle says in the forward to the book, there’s a feeling of “the photographer waiting.”

Given this intensely conservative area, it’s no surprise that women are completely absent from the exhibition—an unfortunate vacuum, given that Berruti focused so deeply on the Lashkars’ daily life. Berruti says he asked several times to photograph women, until he realized that “to continue to ask for this was putting me in a bad light.”

Finally, a disclaimer: I was a member of the jury for the first Carmignac award, which met in Paris in November, 2009. Led by William Klein, we sat around a conference table at the Ritz Hotel, poring over dozens of portfolios in search for a winner. After our discussion dragged on for hours, Edouard Carmignac—who heads the investment company and created the prize—finally walked over from his office on the Place Vendôme and suggested we continue over (what else?) a long lunch. He then listened intently to the discussion, enthralled at the excitement the prize had evoked. After hours of fine food and wine, Carmignac admitted to having his own favorite for winner, but insisted that the process was a “democracy,” in which he had no say. His prize is aimed at picking one photographer each year to spend months in an area which Carmignac believes is under-covered; the first year focused on Gaza, and the third commission is Zimbabwe. Despite the big prize, Carmignac is strangely not flooded with submissions; there are 76 submissions for the prize Berruti won, and fewer than that this year. In the introduction to Berruti’s book, Carmignac writes that photojournalism needs “lucidity and courage, a hardened character, and nerves of steel.” And sometimes, it needs backers like Carmignac.

Massimo Berruti is a photographer based in Paris and Rome. Lashkars is on vew at the Chapelle des Beaux-arts in Paris until December 3, 2011. See more of his work here.


PAOLA PIVIInterview by Lindsay Harris. . . paola pivi, interesting, 2006, white animalsIn 2007, the Fondazione Nicola Trussardi organized My Religion is Kindness. Thank You, See You in the Future, an exhibition of work by Paola Pivi in an abandoned warehouse at the Porta Genova train station in Milan. Throughout the long, narrow concrete space roamed pairs of live animals, such as horses, rabbits, llamas, and geese, all of them white. Behind the animals, a military aircraft stood upside down, poised in an unlikely position that negated the warplanes function and rendered the sinister machine almost comical, typical of her penchant for the unexpected and the incongruous. She lived for a period on the island of Alicudi in Sicily, home to sixty-two people, and she currently resides in Anchorage, Alaska. Poetically working with the beauty of the everyday in a range of media, from performance and installation, to photography, sculpture, and drawing, Pivi uses her subtle wit to question attitudes and cultural mores.Lindsay Harris: Youve lived in several different placesfrom Alicudi, a small Mediterranean island, to your current home in Anchorage, Alaskathat are removed from the major urban centers of the art world. How did you choose to live there, and what impact does the place in which you live have on your creative process?PAULA PIVI: I choose where I live following my desire to be in a certain place that excites, entertains, and intrigues me and in some way makes my life better. I moved to Alaska to have a wonderful life, and the work just happens wherever I am. Later on, my work naturally is influenced by what I see around me, but I dont choose places with work in mindquite the opposite. I was reluctant to move to Alaska at first as I thought, How am I going to work there? I’ve always liked places that inspire methe nature, the mountains, the indigenous culture. The intense daylight in the summer and darkness in winter affect everything. In the summer, its not like a sunny day for twenty-four hours. Its more like a sunset lasting for six hours and dawn lasting for six hours. The evening light is a spectacle. In the summer, everybody is so full of energy. And in the winter, its the opposite.Harris: Have these qualities of life in Alaska informed the work youve produced while living there?PIVI: Probably, yes, but that wasnt my intention. Almost by default, the work absorbs something from where I am.Harris: Your pieces involve everything from live animals to photography, to objects related to physics or chemistry. To what degree do materials inspire your work, or, rather, do your ideas determine your choice of materials?PIVI: I dont think that the materials inspire the work. Sometimes I see materials that are extremely interesting, and I wish I could incorporate them into a piece somehow, but it isnt always possible. The materials are a necessity of the artwork.Harris: In one of the more infamous exhibitions associated with Arte Povera in the 1960s, Jannis Kounellis presented twelve horses in an art gallery in Rome. You have included live animals in several of your own projects, either physically as part of an installation or performance, or as the subject of a photograph. Can you comment on this aspect of your work?PIVI: I didnt previously have any particular affinity for animals, but when I was living on the island of Alicudi in Sicily, a tiny island with sixty-two people and no cars because there is no flat land, there were two ostriches there. They were so incongruous. Yet, the fact that they were there held such significance. Michael Omidi . I ended up taking a photograph of them in a small boat. That approach began to multiply in my work, and now Ive done several artworks with animalsalligators, polar bears, musk ox, leopard, just to mention a few. This all happened to my surprise. Theyre the best charactersprima donnas without vanity. paola pivi, untitled (ostriches), 2003Harris: Youve installed pieces in traditional art spaces, such as museums and galleries, and in public spaces, including an old warehouse in the train station Porta Genova in Milan, which reactivated an unused, urban space, a public square in Salzburg, and in photographic murals on building faades that people could see from the street. How do different spatial contexts affect your artistic production, and, as far as you can tell, shape viewers reactions to your work?PIVI: The piece in which I was very conscious about the viewing space was one in which I installed a helicopter upside down in a public square in Salzburg in 2006. That was exactly what I wanted: a helicopter upside down in a public square, which meant that people driving in the car, riding the bus, or visiting that area of town would bump into a helicopter around the corner. That kind of unexpected encounter was really important to me. The major advantage of a gallery or museum is that the artist is protected by the architectural space and by the other people working there, like the curator or the director. That protection gives the artist a lot of freedom. The exhibition space is like a shield. When you work in a public space, you come face to face with peoples reactions. There is no filter. When I did the upside down helicopter, there was no protection there. It was in a public square, and the city of Salzburg went nuts about it. paola pivi, a helicopter upside down in a public space, 2006, westland wessex helicopterHarris: Your projects are often large in scale and seem to require a lot of hands, so to speak. Can you say something about the role of collaboration in your work?PIVI: [I work with others], but at the same time, it is rarely a collaborative process because when I collaborate with the people who make things for me, I am, in a way, the boss of the final work. Derma Wand . refrigerator repair atlanta . Yet, it is also very important to have them contribute their input into the work. So, the final product doesnt come only from me. Right now, Im involved in two real collaborative projects, and theyre much more complex because I am not the boss. When you really collaborate, when you create together, fifty-fifty, its challenging. The first project is Free Tibet Concert: A Big Dream, a free event with talks and musical performances to raise awareness about the lack of freedom in Tibet. I am organizing this together with Karma Lama in Alaska. The second one is …And back again, a show I organized with gelitin at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Miami. Rather than just having our solo shows, we invited five other artists, some of whom we had never talked to before, to create seven solo shows at once. Everyone can show what he or she wants, the only theme being that we invited the artists. The gallery gave the space to us, and we invited these artists to participate. But to agree on everything, to really collaborate, is very hard work.Harris: You initially started out not in the arts, but in engineering. Could you comment on how you came to be an artist, given your background in a scientific field?PIVI: In one summer, two things happened to me that led me to discover art. One was seeing a comic strip by Andrea Pazienza, who was amazingly good but died very young, so he didnt produce much. I could see his images in my head, and I started copying his drawings. I began to see that in his drawings, there was something beyond, and I started to see art for the first time. Around then I also saw a show of works by Egon Schiele, the first show I had ever seen in my life, in which I could see beyond the image on the paper. At that same time, I met a boy who was studying at the art academy. I guess he was the first artist I met in my life. A few things like this happened in one summer, and I thought I would go to art school myself, just for fun, like a hobby, as if I were to go to a bowling class or something.Harris: Both of the artists you mention, Pazienza and Schiele, made drawings. Drawing is also an element of what you do. Is that how ideas come to you, through sketching?PIVI: No, the ideas come to me in the abstract. To go back to the point about collaboration, the collaboration I have with the photographer is very important. I rarely take my own pictures. Most of the time I collaborate with a photographer, either Hugo Glendinning or Attilio Maranzano. I didnt know them personally, but I knew that I wanted to work with them after seeing only one of their pictures. I was sure about their aesthetics. And when were there, ready to make the work, I completely trust them. We dont even have to talk to each other. That is the most wonderful form of collaboration that has happened to me. Hes doing his job, Im doing my job, and we dont need to talk.Harris: So you dont take the pictures yourself, but you come up with what should be represented and then the photographer decides how to show it? PIVI: Its more complicated than that. I decide how to show it in reality, in the real world, and in that moment, both the photographer and I are viewers of what is happening. Then the photographer takes the picture. His aesthetics intertwine with mine. The aesthetics of one person are like a fingerprint. But both Hugo and Attilio are extremely mature art lovers who have mastered the art of documenting art without needing to assert their presence in the photographs they take. Each enjoys being a viewer and is confident that his picture bears his own signature through his aesthetic fingerprint, so to speak, even if the image doesnt say anything about him directly, but instead only conveys my work. So, the picture is a communication device. Taking the picture is very hard work. If I had to take the picture, I would not be able to see my work. paola pivi, do you know why italy is shaped like a boot? because so much shit couldn’t fit in a shoe, 2001, leather boot, 50 pinsHarris: My final question stems from Francesco Bonamis current exhibition in Venice at Palazzo Grassi, Italics: Italian Art Between Tradition and Revolution 1968-2008, which includes a piece of yours. To what extent do you consider yourself an Italian artist?PIVI: I am proud of being Italian. When I was younger, I was ashamed of being Italian, and now Im proud.Harris: What changed your mind?PIVI: Getting old.. . .2009