Giulia Iacolutti was born in 1985 in Cattolica, on the Adriatic Sea, and is now featured at the PAC – Museum of Contemporary Art in Milan in an exhibition curated by Giulia Zorzi and dedicated to one of her most intense projects: Casa Azul.
We reached her by phone as she was grappling with her 2022 calendar, which fortunately is quickly being populated with engagements and projects.
What brought you to the world of photography, and art in general?
I have always been attracted to photography. At first I took photos because I was afraid I would lose my way at crucial moments in my life, but mainly I wanted to share them with people who did not live with me. This was true especially when I was at the university and was gone for a while on the Erasmus Program. Being far away, I wanted to share my experience on Facebook with my friends who weren’t there with me.
I have to say that I have always been predisposed to art generally. For fifteen years I studied ballet. After spending my early childhood in Rimini, I moved with my family to Udine. After graduating from the local arts liceo, I enrolled in the Economics of Art program in Venice. During my time at the university I had an internship in New York, where I was to organize events for a local fashion designer. But when I arrived in the United States, the designer told me that she didn’t have enough money in the budget [for an event organizer] and so I offered to work as a photographer! And so I began by photographing her collection. Back in Italy, after completing my 5-year degree, it became increasingly clear that I was not going to be a financial consultant for contemporary art. So I decided to combine my passion for dance with photography and I enrolled in the Academy’s photography course.
What year was that?
It was 2012.
What did the Academy teach you?
It helped me develop a certain mindset. First and foremost, it taught me invisibility and humility. One of the first lessons we had was how to be as invisible as possible, discreet, starting with our clothing, strictly black. A stage photographer must not be seen, and above all must not disturb the audience in any way. This is a lesson that I continue to apply in my personal projects. Another is concentration and limiting the number of shots; I photograph using a ten-shot roll of film. The Academy taught me to study the subject before moving on to the photography. I still remember the lessons with maestro Sartorelli, who taught us to be thoroughly familiar with the plot of the opera we would be photographing so that we would be ready to catch the most effective and meaningful narrative gesture. He taught us to study and analyze the setting. This also applies to my current projects, which combine different idioms.
Indeed, your artistic quest is very broad. Photography is one of many idioms you use. What happened after you finished the program at the Academy?
I have to say that the bond with the Academy was very strong and afterwards I worked on various projects with the School. And I developed an increasing interest in social issues. I started working with Riccardo Vannuccini, a theatre director who is strongly engaged in the question of immigration and art director for the Compagnia Artestudio. Vannuccini has worked a lot in the Middle East, in refugee camps in Syria, and I photographed some of his performances staged with the guests of CARA (Centro di Accoglienza per Richiedenti Asilo – Reception Center for Asylum Seekers) in Gradisca d’Isonzo.
We have stayed in touch ever since.
I recognized my need to shift my stage photography more and more towards political and social content rather than aesthetic and documentary aspects. So I applied to an international volunteer program in Mexico City, where they were looking for a photographer/videomaker with competencies in organizing cultural events. I was chosen and departed in May 2014. In Mexico I mainly did photojournalism. I worked with a “narrative journalism” magazine, one of those magazines where a writer is commissioned to do an article that will be accompanied by some serious photos, with a well defined budget that allows a certain degree of quality. I traveled a lot with this magazine in the United States and Mexico. But it wasn’t enough.
I felt a need to be the voice behind those images, not just someone who does the photo job. Those images had become my narrative instrument. And so I started working with museums and galleries to do exhibition projects addressing social themes and actively engaging the viewers. For example, in Vivos, a work about desaparecidos (Mexico is sadly known as a very dangerous country for those who report abuses of power and corruption), I gave people photos of people who had disappeared, asking them to put them up on the walls of the city, photograph them, and post them on Instagram with a particular hashtag to create a public movement around this issue.
Then I took things further and now seek co-authorship in my projects. It’s not the viewers interacting with the work, it’s the very subject of the work that interacts. This is what happens in my “relational art workshops”, where the final objective is a process of social integration and inclusion through art and photography. Photography is increasingly a means that is “re-signified and discomposed”. For example, I recently worked with psychiatric patients on collage and cutouts. The final work is theirs. I become a sort of guide. I am now working on urban regeneration with a female and feminist perspective; I work with elderly women to re-experience with them their experience of living in urban spaces. They embroider and we talk. I am there to spark a dialogue that they then develop.
You’ve had powerful, intense experiences
Yes, it’s true. We tend to seek the exotic, to venture far afield, to third-world countries, because we think we will find powerful emotions there. And we certainly will: working with desaparecidos or transsexual women in prison stirs up some pretty strong emotions. But if you turn the same eye to your own life, your own experience, you realize that even your neighbor carries a strong emotion. For example, I am now working in my own region with people with disabilities, psychiatric problems, and the feelings are every bit as powerful. It’s a transition that tends to happen in photography: you go photograph something exotic—which is good because you train your gaze—but when you come back you have to keep that gaze alive and grasp the exotic in your own home. Powerful experiences are not per force far removed from your ordinary self, they are also in you, in your own family. What is essential is to feel empathy with what is around you.
Listening to you I cannot help returning to the beginning of our conversation, when you talked about your early approach to photography and your need to share. When it comes down to it, your quest still leaves room for this need because, through photography, you are able to rescue these stories from indifference, you turn your gaze to them, your point of view.
That’s true. A point of view that I nevertheless always consider privileged. I have a means that legitimates and justifies my getting close to a day-to-day reality that people rarely approach.
This everyday reality, these people, how do they respond to this gaze of yours? As you were saying before, the Academy taught you how to be discreet. But empathy is considerable in some cases. How do you handle all this?
With respect, sharing, tolerance, listening, and a great deal of what I call “horizontality”. In my work, it’s not me who’s giving something to others, but others who give something to me; they teach me that life can be approached through models that are completely different from what I grew up with and what I apply in my own life. I have had very powerful experiences with people who have disabilities. I worked with a girl who can only move her eyes and one finger. She lives like that and she taught me that it is possible to live like that. When I approach the people who will be the protagonists of my projects, I always come in “horizontally”, with my ears open, [never above them nor below them]. I never bring my camera to the first encounter because first you have to establish a rapport based on a look, a smile. I contextualize. Yes, that’s something I learned in Mexico and also from journalists. Contextualizing means understanding who it is you have in front of you and knowing what you can say to break down barriers. I remember, for example, when I was collaborating with a journalist who worked with migrant women. As soon as we entered the houses of these people, she immediately commented positively, warmly on things in the room, she immediately established empathy and broke the ice. And she was completely sincere. The first thing you have to do is make human contact, initiate a relationship. And then you tell each other your stories.
Let’s talk about your exhibition, Casa Azul, which is at PAC Milano until February 13.
Casa Azul is a social-visual project that tells the stories of five transsexual women locked up in a men’s prison in Mexico City. The title refers to the blue clothing that they have to wear because they are in a male prison. If they were in a women’s prison they would be wearing beige. Ironizing their condition, these women told me that they lived in the blue house as a metaphor for their condition as women born into a man’s body, using the stereotypical colors of that gender. And so I got the idea to title the project Casa Azul, a project that I constructed with Cloé Constant, a French sociologist who lives in Mexico City and was doing a doctorate at the time on transition processes. At that point I decided not to think about the “perfect definition” that I was seeking in my medium-format photos on color film, but to convert them into cyanotypes, an old printing method that uses a ferric emulsion on paper. When the chemicals are exposed to the sun in contact with the negative they produce images with a typical blue color.
The exhibition juxtaposes about forty cyanotypes with pinkish images that are nothing other than photos of healthy prostate cells taken under the microscope. Via the stereotypical colors of the genders, this brings out the conflict in between being a man in a man’s prison but feeling like a woman inside (hence the pink). These photos are from a biology lab in England. The researchers had a microscope that took high quality photos. When they found healthy cells, they sent me the images.
And I stress the fact that I asked for photos of healthy cells; I did not want to associate transition with the idea of disease. By studying and interacting with the biologists, I discovered that when they are looking for signs of disease in cells, they inject a pink stain, and that’s how I got the idea to juxtapose these images with those of the women in Casa Azul. And so I set out precisely to create a parallel with the biological sciences.
The women in Casa Azul are blue on the outside but pink on the inside. And then within these photos I tried to get some evocative shots. Among them is an image where the cells look like a fetus, a theme I long discussed with the [female] protagonists of the project. The real meaning of the project is not just to give a voice to five life experiences, but rather to seek to inspire the viewers to think about what prison really is. For example, one of them, Frida, said she felt much freer in prison than she did out in society. So what is the real prison in the end? Is it prison as an institution or is it the body we are born into, or, again, the society that does nothing but limit our freedom of expression by discriminating against us?
Did you learn their whole stories? Did you find out, for example, what crimes they committed?
I met with them a total of ten times, five of them with the camera. About two hours each time, twice a week. They were very generous with me and really opened up. Realize that we are talking about people who had committed serious crimes and were serving heaving sentences, around twenty years. America (one of the women) was eventually found innocent and left prison after serving more than ten years. The Casa Azul project is also a book and all the interviews I did with them are in it. They are composed of three sections: “before prison”, “the crime”, and “prison”. America’s also has a fourth section: “liberation”. I do not judge what they did. I was interested in their stories as people, as human beings. I wanted to understand their strength in wanting to fight for an identity in the hostile environment of a prison, a place where the ability to survive is an expression of virility. They, on the other hand, putting on mascara every day, shaving, doing their hair, continue to affirm a way of feeling that is no longer sustained by the hormone therapy they did before ending up in prison. These are all identity-preserving resistance tactics and this is what intrigued me and something I admired, because at that time I was dealing with my own identity as a privileged white woman who lived in Mexico to do photo reportage. I questioned my roots; these women represented a huge example for me.
A few of your photos have made it into the Donata Pizzi Collection of big names in Italian women’s photography. What did that mean to you?
It was really gratifying. It is a great honor to be included in this collection, especially because it contains works by photographers who are highly politically and socially engaged. We are talking about masters of photography. Donata Pizzi herself is an expression of this commitment in that she invests in women photographers, women who are often not found on the art market. I am happy that she has believed in my work and I especially like to think that this collection will put women’s photography in the history books.
So tell me about your upcoming projects.
I am working on a project dedicated to feel-good hormones, one that is going from photography to being more a performance, with people who have Parkinson’s disease or some physical disability. We did a performance last December 11 at the PAC for Contemporary Art Day (Dopamina. Studio visivo sugli ormoni dell’amore) and we’re getting ready to repeat it in Friuli. I am very glad we have the opportunity to do it again because some of the protagonists are from Fruili and were not able to take part at the PAC. That’s what I like about my work: being able to create experiences. I have the fortune of being able to travel and bring people together in artistic or museum contexts, and the idea of sharing this with people who may have difficulty leaving their homes is part of the work of art itself and an integral part of my commitment.
I believe it is really important for me to erase the boundary between art and life by sharing experiences that challenge normative behaviors. Hence the need to practice a participatory art that works only when I myself am the first one to reach out to the other.
Then I am working on an editorial project dedicated to soccer. We should be on the home stretch now. Publication is a very important moment for me because it means that the work has found a conclusion.
I also continue to teach and tell stories via images, one of the things I love most. Here too the relationship is still horizontal because it is a matter of sharing experiences and normalizing them. To make that possible, all you need is a bit of determination, effort, and sincerity.
Let’s get back to dance, to your love and passion for this art. What does photographing dance mean for you?
Something that I keep repeating to myself is the first thing that Maurizio Buscarino said in his first lesson: “The stage is like life. We are born out of the darkness, from our mother’s womb, we come into the light, the stage lights go on, we live on a stage and then we return to the darkness of death.” This sentence has always been one of the great teachings I received at the Academy. When I am photographing a performance, I always try to keep in mind that I am photographing life. Dance is the highest expression of the body and of being. My 18-month-old girl expresses herself through dance and movement. For me, dance is precisely an expression of life and it is artistic expression that stirs up emotions, moves me to tears.
How difficult is it to watch a performance as a spectator and not be able to photograph it? Do you ever get the desire to go back and photograph a performance after having watched it?
They are certainly two different ways of taking it in. When it is through the camera I am not moved to tears because it is all filtered through this machine and I am more focused on certain, more technical, aspects. Without the camera I am more emotionally engaged. Of course, when you are lucky enough to be able to watch the rehearsals and then see the actually performance that same evening you are able to grasp it in its entirety. But yes, sometimes you get the urge to photograph what you’ve seen as a spectator! I must say I miss the smells of the theatre.
But ballet always gets me stirred up, it’s an ancestral thing. For example, in Mexico people communicate, live, spend their free time dancing, at all ages. They get together in a house and dance, 15-year-old kids and the elderly. I don’t think this happens anymore in Italy. It used to in the small towns, the town festivals; now people are inhibited against letting themselves go, because you are able to let go when you dance.
Your spirituality is very strong. What sort of influence did your stay in Latin America, where there is a strong sense of spirituality, have on you? I am thinking, for example, of the special relationship that the Mexican people have with their deceased.
When I left for Mexico, after having spent time in Mali, my parents asked me what in the world I was looking for in those places. I answered that I was simply looking for patterns of life that are different from our own, not because I was rejecting them, but because I wanted to be acquainted with others. At the time I was thinking that if I were to have children one day I would really want to teach them that there are also other ways to live. I sought all these experiences partly to break down taboos, to find freedom, freedom of the body, freedom to accept death as an integral part of life. This was something I had not addressed. Well, actually—to be quite honest—when I was still in Milan I was thinking about a project I would have called La morte ti fa bella [literally “death becomes you” but also the Italian title of the movie Death Becomes Her – translator’s note]. I wanted to take pictures of the deceased in the funeral parlor but was never allowed! At any rate, when all is said and done I believe that everything leads back to listening to other people, accepting diversity, variety, which has to be seen as a great wealth.
What advice would you give to young people who want to embark on a career like yours?
First and foremost, to be curious. When I was at the Academy I never missed an exhibition or a conference. I took notes. It was a constant quest that went beyond what I was being taught. I would recommend making this sort of thing your daily fare. And also to be humble. I am afraid that we are losing this gift. We are people who communicate with images, an approach that is on a par with other means of expression. Horizontality, listening, and empathy are all strengths. A photo fails to be sincere if the photographer doesn’t experience it on the human and empathetic level and succeed in conveying that. For me, this facilitates my work.
Technique is fundamental, but if it is not joined with the ability to go beyond, that technique remains sterile. Earlier you said that dance moves you to tears and I am glad you used this term. Moving means putting into motion, and it is fitting that your images, which freeze movement, are actually able to stir up very intense emotions, to put them into movement, so to speak.
Thank you for that! During a conference titled “Photography and Activism”, Giulia Zorzi, curator of the exhibition at the PAC, said that she sees dance in my photos. I think this movement derives from my quest for gesture, which goes beyond the frozen movement, establishing a common thread connecting ballet, stage photography, and what I am doing now.