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Fabio Ponzio’s photographic odyssey in search of Eastern Europe

Posted on 20 May 2020

Fabio Ponzio’s photographs capture difficult years in Central and Eastern Europe, before and after the fall of the Berlin wall. Here he shares his experiences of photographing history and, perhaps more urgently, everyday lives.

Image: © Fabio Ponzio, Romania, 1992

You write in your book that every time you looked at a map, you were drawn to central and eastern Europe. After your first trip to Istanbul in 1987, you went on to spend over two decades travelling through the region. What was it that first drew you to these territories and made you return so many times? 

Crossing the imaginary border with Eastern Europe meant entering a world completely different from that of Western Europe. The East appeared to me as a place where History seemed to have stopped. Little by little a strong desire arose in me to know the life of the people who lived in these territories, which was however on the cusp of drastic change. I had great admiration for their suffering and resilience in facing daily difficulties and consequently felt compelled to give memory to them and to their courage. I idealized these people until they became archetypes.

Image: © Fabio Ponzio, Albania, 1991

Many of your photographs document intimate moments in the lives of individuals and communities. How were you able to gain access to such personal moments?

I have always identified with the individuals I had the fate to meet during my travels in the East. I never felt different from the people I photographed but rather I saw in them myself. They always understood that it was important for me to provide remembrance of their lives. Because of this, I was always perceived with trust and empathy. The people of the East have always welcomed me in their lives and in their homes with brotherhood. I will always remember the surprised look of a peasant couple living in the mountains of Bukovina when they opened the door to me when I knocked during a snowstorm one night. They hadn’t seen me for years, yet they didn’t hesitate for a moment to welcome me, to feed me, to give me a roof under which to spend the night.

Image: © Fabio Ponzio, Romania, 1992

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, you were able to travel through countries where movement had previously been restricted. Can you talk to us about what you took with you on your journey? What were the practical things that you needed as a photographer?

In 1993 during one of my longest trips, I arrived in Crimea with an old clapped-out Citroën but I made most of my trips with a Volkswagen which I loaded with a tent, a stove and a sleeping bag. I always had a supply of Campbell’s soups with me and I bought bread and vodka along the way. In winter I always wore snow chains and I never forgot to put oil in the engine of my car that would resist freezing even with temperatures of minus twenty degrees. I would also carry two spare tires in case luck wasn’t on my side. To photograph I brought a Leica, three Nikons and a hundred rolls of films. I slept where I could, sometimes in the home of people that I met along the road, otherwise in the woods or in front of a monastery waiting for a pilgrimage to begin. Once, in Vukovar, during the Yugoslav wars, I slept in the boot of my Volkswagen. The best moments were when I would make tea and listen to the sound of the rain on the roof of my car, waiting for a good light to return.

You shoot exclusively in black and white. What does black and white have that colour lacks?

I think it is possible to take very intense and deep photographs with colour but, in my case, I think that black and white are the two colors that allow you to more clearly trace the symbolic aspect of a deeper reality. Black is central in the image; time hides in its folds; in its unexplored areas the mystery is hidden.

Image: © Fabio Ponzio, Romania, 1992

East of Nowhere contains an extraordinary body of photography of everyday lives in the region. Is there a particular photograph that stands out to you?   

I worked a lot on the photographic sequence of East of Nowhere and tried to integrate the eighty photographs as if they were frames of a film. Within this sequence there are critical photographs that mark crucial passages in the book. One of these is undoubtedly the closing photograph, depicting two young girls standing in front of a painted cloth representing a mountain panorama having their photo taken by a local portrait photographer. It was probably the first photograph of themselves that they would own.

The road seen in the painted canvas behind them could represent the memory of a journey that took place in the past, but it could also represent the beginning of a new journey and futurity. They don’t look at me, but elsewhere. We don’t know whether they are looking to the past or to the future, and in this way it speaks to the uncertainty of the present. Time is suspended.

Related books

East of Nowhere

Fabio Ponzio, Herta Müller