This Collaborative Photo Project Captures Our Need to Connect during the Pandemic
Giorgio Barrera, Firenze, Piazza Santa Croce, 2020. Courtesy of Giorgio Barrera.
In a nearly empty piazza in Florence, Italy, two people stand apart. They stare at each other, but their faces are partially concealed by a scarf and a mask. This composition is assumed again and again in Giorgio Barrera’s collaborative photography series “In Light of (You),” but the environments and people change: A pair meets on the painted cement of a parking lot or a verdant green hillside soccer field; they face each other on the coarse sand of a gloomy coastline or in front of an apartment complex in the waning light. Small against the landscape, the duos often meet with few, if any, other people in sight.
What was once uneasy about images like these—empty streets, mouths covered, the quietness of absence—is now all too familiar. As photographers have set out during the course of the pandemic to show the new normal, they have often returned with similar images, a point that a photo editor friend of Barrera’s made early in the spring as the COVID-19 crisis overwhelmed Europe.
Claudia Pozzoli, Albaredo per San Marco, Valtellina, 2020. Courtesy of Giorgio Barrera.
“[She] was telling me that the photographs they were publishing were all the same,” Barrera said from his home in Florence. Barrera—who, in addition to being a photographer, is an educator at CFP BAUER in Milan and is intrigued by visual typologies, like the serial industrial photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher or the parking lots of Ed Ruscha—began mulling over the conversation.
Despite nearly everything in the world having been photographed, the goal for photographers is to make distinctive images. Photojournalists are sent out to capture the same world events and to come back with something original. Yet “so many people react in the same way” to a given situation, Barrera said. They unintentionally “form a stereotyped language.”
Marco Dapino, Piazza Cordusio, Milano, 2020. Courtesy of Giorgio Barrera.
Andrea Iran, Modica, Duomo di San Pietro, 2020. Courtesy of Giorgio Barrera.
He woke up one morning with a single image occupying his brain: two people facing each other, separated by distance but joined by the encounter. What if he asked other photographers to shoot the same image, to build upon the same premise but have the camera change hands?
“We speak with images now all the time; we have sort of a standardized language that we use,” he explained. “But I think that for these specific situations [like the pandemic], we should try to find a translation of what’s going on—not only representation.”
At the time, Italians were under strict lockdown. As a photographer, Barrera had leniency on when he could venture outside, but his subjects were limited to getting essentials at the grocery store or pharmacy. He began the project on his own, coordinating with subjects he knew, and began fine-tuning the “recipe” that he eventually shared with photographers—first with his peers in Florence and around Italy, then beyond to photographers in countries including France, Germany, and Iran. (He’s also interested, he said, in making the recipe public on social media, inviting anyone with a camera to join the project.)
Marco Cappelletti, Venezia, Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, 2020. Courtesy of Giorgio Barrera.
Like a dish, the instructions can be interpreted differently, producing an endless number of variations still centered around the same concept. To make the image, the ingredients Barrera lists are “a camera (preferably full-frame), a tripod if necessary, natural or available light, a location, two people, masks, telephones to speak.” He also provides recommendations for scheduling and shooting, as well as tips on where the photographer should stand and how the figures should appear in the frame.
Seen together, one begins to notice the nuance of each encounter beyond the immediate similarities. In Antoine Séguin’s photograph in Square Fougères Sud, Paris, the two figures are echoed by the twin buildings behind them. In Qazale Amidi’s image in front of Iran’s Qazvin Central Mosque, the pair is divided by a subtle line behind them: the wet bricks of the mosque’s exterior wall. Some encounters are practical, two souls seemingly meeting by chance on the street. In others, strangeness abounds: Marco Cappelletti, from Venice, places his figures standing on a boat; Carmen Cardillo, from Catania, has the two face off in an intimate side street. From there, vague narratives unfurl.
Carmen Cardillo, Torre Archirafi, Riposto, Catania, 2020. Courtesy of Giorgio Barrera.
“If you just see a few, you don’t get the importance of the meeting and the necessity of speaking face to face,” Barrera said.
The collected images may form a typology rooted in the circumstances of the pandemic, but Barrera hopes their meaning will last beyond social distancing.
The gesture of “two people that face [each other] is very human,” he said. “That’s what I like the most about the project…the simplicity of these two people meeting.”
Qazale Amidi, Iran, Qazvin Central Mosque, 2020. Courtesy of Giorgio Barrera.
The concept of two people simply facing each other has been especially utilized by Marina Abramović, whom Barrera cites as an influence. In The Artist is Present (2010), the performance artist sat at a table at the Museum of Modern Art for nearly three months, eight hours a day, allowing museumgoers to sit across from her and sit silently. The crowds of people who came to do so surprised her. “It was [a] complete surprise…this enormous need of humans to actually have contact,” she has said.
It’s an exigency made more palpable by the pandemic. “[There’s] this tension between them. Everybody has lived this situation: preserving this distance to be safe,” Barrera said.
But he also believes “In Light of (You)” speaks to universal, humanistic ideas. “We are very individualistic…but we can grow [more] if we speak to each other,” he said. For the project, he writes, “[It’s] to look each other in the mirror, to communicate even if from a distance, but above all to try to meet, in the end to understand each other.”