“I have always been interested in the issues of representation. The very rare representation of some topics in our society, and the partial or limited representation of other cultures than ours. As Fred Ritchin says, more than anything today we need curators, people who are capable of selecting images and saying what is worth seeing or less. I try to do exactly this with my work: use selection to offer alternative or missing representations.”
– Alessia Glaviano
Maria Pia Bernardoni: Dear Alessia, we have been asked to share our impressions on African-Italian relations from an “image” point of view. In different ways and contexts, we both work with photography: me as a curator for international projects with the African Artists’ Foundation and the festival LagosPhoto, and you as a senior photo editor at Vogue Italia and L’Uomo Vogue, and web editor at Vogue.it. We both know how important images are, and the power they have to create a thought and make culture. When a body or a face is featured in a magazine like Vogue Italia, its appearance becomes something that will potentially be inspiring for the reader, so it is an important instrument to foster visibility and diversity.
Alessia Glaviano: I am convinced that fashion photography can be an instrument of cultural change. Fashion is not superficial, it is a language. How we dress is also a way of communicating who we are, our interface with the world. Fashion and fashion photography are inherently political.
It is true that I work mainly with fashion photography, but not exclusively. My research includes all types of photography. I have always thought of using my work with images to pass different messages, and I am very happy to have reached a very diverse public over the years, made of people who love fashion but also reportage and documentary photography. I am convinced that art is a tool for social change. Maybe the artwork—with the aesthetic revolution that only art can bear—is worth more than a political debate. Politicians can write laws but they cannot change the way we look at things. Art and fashion can do this. They have the power to depict life beyond prejudice and social labels.
© Justin French
MPB: All these years working on Africa while staying close to our country have taught me that there is a real need to change our imaginary, to replace the clichés and stereotypes of a poor and defenseless Africa by showing more and differently.
Your work gives you the fundamental role of selecting the images that your public will see. You have been one of the first to use social media and in doing so, your choices have always been very aware.
© Justin French
I have always been interested in the issues of representation: the very rare representation of some topics in our society, and the partial or limited representation of other cultures than ours. As Fred Ritchin says, what we need more than anything today are curators, people who are capable of selecting images and saying what is worth seeing or not.
I try to do exactly that with my work: use selection to offer alternative or missing representations.
Vogue Italia’s “Black Issue” was released in July 2008. Ten years have gone by and the situation has changed completely. A lot has been done to achieve a representation that is more inclusive of differences, capable of taking into account the unicity and complexity of all human beings. Internet users have positively relayed an always wider inclusivity project that has managed to influence even the most traditional brands and media, which in the end had to adapt in some way. Never mind if the reason for this adapting was fear of losing potential customers or followers, because the final result has nevertheless been the undermining of stereotypes, clichés and labels.
Today, we can see a melting pot of women from different nationalities, origins, and ethnicities on the catwalks. You can also see, next to the marvelous and sculptural silhouettes of models, real women. Being skinny, soft, round, tall or petite is now accepted: they smile, at ease with what would have been considered flaws to “fix”—surgically, or at least with Photoshop—not too long ago. Gender differences ceased to be the primary element to define identity and, above all, they are no longer something to hide or to change. Gender fluidity, different bodies, beauties, ethnic groups and origins are all part of a search that revolutionizes contemporary aesthetic standards and modifies our codes in terms of inclusivity, openness and dialogue.
The road ahead is still long; we are not there yet. There are still too few dark-skinned and non-occidental photographers published in magazines. When I think of the big names in fashion photography, there are mainly white males.
© Kristin-Lee Moolman
MPB: Until recently, in photo galleries or festivals, it was difficult to attract attention for a photographer who wasn’t part of the field’s traditionally active scene. Now, thanks to the Internet and the possibility to express oneself and to be visible on social networks, the panorama has changed completely. Platforms like Instagram or Everyday Africa have contributed in changing the dynamics and have opened the door to artists who would have remained invisible in traditional circuits.
AG: Absolutely, this has been one of the most positive effects of social media: to have created an open-minded and inclusive context. It has considerably enriched the panorama. And as you said, it is also very important to see numerous photo festivals and events on the African continent, such as LagosPhoto, Bamako, or Addis Foto Fest. It is crucial to tell the world about these great artists.
In my selection for PhotoVogue, and even on my personal Instagram account, I am always very attentive to guarantee the best visibility to all types of representations and visions. Both in terms of images and of the photographer’s geographical origin.
© Kristin-Lee Moolman
MPB: Regarding the work on communication and diffusion of knowledge that we have been doing with LagosPhoto these last years, one of our main goals has been to eliminate the comprehensive idea of Africa and raise the awareness on the fact that Africa is a very vast continent with countless nuances in culture.
AG : I agree. Everything is still linked to our superficial and anachronistic idea of the African continent. I also believe that there is a huge archive work to be done, which is fundamental to further demolish this vision. We need to tell a different past, not only focus on the new contemporary look of today’s photography.
Malick Sidibé or Jean Depara, for example, show us the existence of a photographic tradition and a vision that has been there for a while. The road has been opened much earlier and it would be important to rebuild the personal archives of the African bourgeoisie.
Can we really say that we stepped away from the clichés? When we select African artists, or those from the diaspora, don’t we choose what we believe we want to see, what we imagine should be the African vision? The important thing to focus on today is to recognize the complexity of Africa: we cannot and should not think that there is such a thing as “African esthetics.”
© Kyle Weeks
MPB: I totally agree. Ideally, we should go over the fact that a photographer comes from an African country and focus on the subject. What is his or her vision on universal topics like migration, climate change, gender issues? In order to change the way we see the African continent, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as the final judges on these visions. Since the very first edition of your festival, you have always had Azu Nwagbogu on your jury (founder of African Artists’ Foundation and LagosPhoto) and I see this as a very powerful political choice.
AG: We find ourselves in a moment of transition where, as I was saying, the curatorial aspect and the editing process become increasingly important. Therefore, the presence of African curators like Simon Njami or Azu Nwagbogu is essential. It is obviously not acceptable that we always are the only judges and the ones with an opinion about the world.
I believe we need more voices, especially in powerful positions in the art world and in fashion, key positions in the establishment too, not only for independent events. Because that is how things will change. That is how we will expand our vision and open up to absorb diverse demands or interpretations.
MPB: Which African or diaspora photographers have struck you lately, whose work do you find pertinent in the contemporary photographic language? What are you looking at these days?
© Nadine Ijewere
AG: I always look for vision in photography. Storytelling is not mandatory, but personal style is. The origin of the photographer does not play a role; I am looking for excellence and themes that have never been confronted before.
I choose from what strikes me in an aesthetic or an approach, but I try to be very careful not to base myself on what I expect to see from Africa. That would be a mistake.
Obviously, we all see things through our own culture, background, and “library of mental images,” but I try to remain informed and open to new visions.
MPB: This year will be the third edition of the PhotoVogue Festival, held in Milano from November 15th to November 18th. Being in charge, you always focus on very current themes: the power of women’s vision in the art field (The Female Gaze, 2016), the political value of fashion photography (Fashion & Politics, 2017), etc. Is there a particular theme this year?
© Nadine Ijewere
AG : Yes, this year, the festival is dedicated to valorizing diversity and inclusion. We live in an ever more interconnected world where—thanks mainly to social media—there is a growing awareness that “global” cannot and should not be translated from a cultural point of view: equalizing specificities and singularities towards occidental aesthetics and representations. We have to rehabilitate diversity and search for that treasure. That can only emerge from plurality, which is essential to oppose visual labeling and the thinning out of the thought.
In this moment in time where we see nationalism, extremism, and rejection of “others” through the construction of physical or mental walls getting stronger, there is an urgent need for a real representation of cultural peculiarities to fight against stereotypes that reinforce the formation of a moral hierarchy stating that whoever is different is inferior. In this simplistic dualism, diversity is no longer a quality or a possible source of betterment, but otherness.
Let us hope that Embracing Diversity, PhotoVogue Festival’s 2018 exhibition dedicated to discovering and valorizing diversity in all its forms—physical, gender, geographical or cultural—will contribute to inspire curiosity and the desire to welcome different cultures, favoring a better understanding of our contemporaneity.
© Ruth Ossai
In something we Africans got issue 5