One day, Matteo Di Giovanni started driving from Milan to North Cape. Having recently gone through a car crash and a leg amputation, which jeopardised his job as a photographer, this trip provided him with a narrative to transform his mindset and his photographic work. ‘I Wish the World was Even’ published by Artphilein Editions is (in part) his travel diary, told through photographs.
Giulia Zorzi explains on the book’s prologue:
“In his story, people never appear. Obviously he met many (…). But in the almost four years that separate this book from the physical journey (…) he edited the work several times and people gradually disappeared.”
Instead of people, Matteo Di Giovanni’s photography dives into the landscape, where the human presence is only perceived by the remains it leaves behind. These places are desolate but also, as the book’s pages move along, quiet and serene.
The photographs are merged with short clauses that, like an internal voice, entice and push the traveller to keep going.
Why did he set out on this trip in the first place? What books inspired his journey? Wayfarer Books has talked to Matteo Di Giovanni to find out.
The text at some point reads “How far do you think you can go?” and oozes of a feeling of internal fights. How much would you say this is a book about overcoming fear?
MATTEO DI GIOVANNI: That’s a really tricky question! I strongly think that “How far do you think you can go” is a very universal question. It’s not just about distance, but it’s about everything in life. It could be re-formulated as “where do you really want to go (in your life)?” and many other declinations.
It’s a kind of existential question, I would say. Not everybody asks it, cause we’re often afraid to ask ourselves what we can/want to achieve.
Life is one, regardless our religious beliefs.
In my specific case, it is even important due to my new physical situation, which radically changed in one day. After that day, I felt forced to cope with “another self”, which is different, and you have to understand what these changes are. It’s like a re-starting point with a bunch of variables available. And, for sure, it’s a scary situation, as you don’t really know how your limitations will impact your everyday life.
You learn it day by day, like a child learns how to do basic things such as walking, grabbing things, going up and down the stairs, jumping, carrying stuff, etc. We give them for granted until something happens. At that point they still remain basic, but you have to learn them again. And some of them are not doable anymore.
Fear is part of the human condition. We all have fears, and they are different for everyone, but they are there and we’d better try to deal with them instead of hiding them away.
By saying that, yes, this is a book about overcoming fears, or – better said – about coping with new fears. But not only that. At the same time it is a book dealing with other human conditions, such as passion, uncertainty, motivation…
WB: It’s perhaps romantic to think of someone on the road, alone, testing himself and finding himself. Is this how you lived the experience at the time? In other words, what were the main reasons you took this road trip?
MDG: Perhaps “romantic” is the right word. I cannot say it is not romantic to be on the road, especially if you have in mind these American photographers, who have made extremely complex bodies of work during their road-trips.
Although, it can be stressful and tiring, ultimately it is a luxury being able to be on the road for two months.
I started the journey with another person, but then I decided to end it by myself, as I was feeling he was not understanding the meaning of it all. This was causing so much tension and stress, which was not helpful for what I had in mind. From that point of view, it was a disaster. If I had the chance to do it again, I would go by myself from the beginning, no doubts.
Paradoxically, the reasons why I set out has nothing to do with photography. I will try to be as straightforward as possible on this.
When I finished my rehab, I wanted to go back to photography because, for me, it’s not just a job: it’s a way of reading the world, a way of dealing with my life, a way of trying to understand other people; it is so many things at once.
Of course, I met people that had gone through similar things (I lost a limb in the accident) and the models I had were completely not-understandable to me.
Regardless what they did before their accident, they had to prove that they were better than before. Everything was a challenge and they had to be better than everybody in doing things.
As you may imagine, for many people the most challenging thing in life is sport! So I met people that wanted to run, cycle, climb, walk up the mountains… but very few of them had these passions before. That was very weird to me. I have got nothing against sports, but they represent just a tiny bit in normal people’s lives. Therefore, I did not really care about this competing life-style.
I was becoming aware that the most difficult thing for a disabled person, specially for those who have gone through leg amputations, was so simple: it is everyday life. Walking, going from a place to another, carrying weight, going up and down the stairs, moving into a big city with buses, tubes, trams, people all around… That is the real challenge for me, because there are no rules: you have to go out and deal somehow with your surroundings, which are often chaotic.
On top of that, there is photography. I was a photojournalist and I wanted to go back to do my job, not go climbing, running, etc. So I wanted to see if and how I would be able to do that again. And, if I could, I wanted to know what limitations I would encounter.
That was the reason of the road trip and why I chose to go up North when the winter was coming.
WB: Did any books inspire you (photobooks or other)?
MDG: I define myself a photobook lover. I have almost 1.000 photobooks at home and could not live without them. I also read a lot: novels, essays, article, news…
It’s not easy to say what really inspired me, but for sure I could give you a few titles, which triggered my idea. They have also been crucial in the finalization of the book.
The first one I would put in the list is ‘The Lonely Ones’ by Gus Powell, who had the pleasure to meet in person in 2016. The lyrical editing of that book was so important for me: I understood that a line of words can be so powerful if put together with a photograph (or a sequence of photographs).
Secondly, there’s Gerry Johansson’s work. His series may appear all the same, but they reveal so much about the world and the photographer’s eye.
Thirdly, in my opinion, in this moment, no work can be done without studying Alec Soth’s work: from ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ to ‘I know how Furiously your Heart Is Beating’ (his last book).
Last but not least, Georges Perec and his concept of space. So enlightening!
WB: The landscapes in your book are barren and lonely, and they become a language in themselves. The only human presence it’s the photographer behind the camera and the objects left by unknown people. Would you like to make a comment on why did everyone disappear from your photographs?
MDG: The book got published 3 and a half years after having taken the photographs. That is quite a lot. It also means that the editing phase took so long, mainly for two reasons.
The first reason it took so long is because it was a really personal project and – as you can imagine – sometimes I did not have the mental strength to work on the photographs. One more thing to be considered is that it is not easy at all to find a publisher for such a delicate subject matter.
The second reason was more about the language. I did not set out to tell a story about Northern Europe or other things, so I needed a twist, a path to follow to make it work the way I wanted. There was my story behind it, but who cares about a photographer who had an accident?
I needed a proper switch and it finally came when I was forced for about 40 days at home after the last surgery, which happened a couple of years ago.
I started putting together pieces of my travel notes with the images, creating sequences. At that point, I understood that the people I had met were not important in the narrative I was following.
What became clear was that the main point was the relationship between me and the space.
As a mentioned above, I needed to understand what kind of photography I could keep doing and how. The first step of doing that is understanding how you can move within the space that surrounds you. As you pointed out, there are human presences in the photographs, but “real” people never appear.
I tried many things until I put together a handmade dummy, which I started showing around.
From there, everything became easier, as we decided to work on a piece that was more lyrical than logical.
WB: You had been working as a photojournalist in Bosnia before an accident put your photo career at risk. Then, you made this book. How has your photography evolved through this process?
MTG: It has changed completely.
First of all the process: it has slowed down a lot and I restarted working with large format cameras, which make you follow a very structured approach. I kind of take advantage of my need to move slowly by shooting less and more carefully.
I seldom make assignments, unless they come from something I have in mind. I only work on my ideas, which now are more related to the human conditions in contemporary society and I use metaphors to work on them. Thus, I have evolved from photojournalism to documentary/art photography.
My current project is about the Delta region of the longest Italian river, which I use as a metaphor to deal with the idea of uncertainty. People there live under the sea level and their condition is always at risk. That is what happens to everyone of us. We try to get certainties by planning every single detail of our life but, unfortunately, it does not always work.
WB: Anything else you want to add!
MDG: One thing that I think is important to note is that, through the process, I realised the need to have a recognizable style and way of working is very important. I am pretty sure that this book, even though it comes from a very dramatic event, has helped me to find it.
My approach has changed in a way that now I find working on ideas much easier than before.