Mimi Mollica / Terra Nostra
July 2017 Interviewed by Claire Holland
Mimi Mollica (b. 1975) is an award-winning Sicilian photographer who lives in London. He is known for his longterm projects that deal with social issues and have themes relating to identity, environment and migration. In 2009, Mollica returned to his roots to document the suffocating, decades-long stranglehold that the Sicilian Mafia has held over the island he once called home. Seven years in the making, Terra Nostra – which translates as “our land” – is a highly personal, subtly nuanced meditation on his homeland. Mollica photographed his country’s architecture, people and landscape in an effort to convey Sicily’s problematic entanglement with “Cosa Nostra” while along the way being reminded of the complex feelings that compelled him to move away twenty years ago. Below, Claire Holland spoke with Mollica about the background to this body of work.
Claire Holland: We first met in 2009 when I asked you to shoot for the FT Weekend Magazine what became the first part of Terra Nostra. What struck me most was your overwhelming passion for the project. Why was it so important to you?
Mimi Mollica: I remember very well when we discussed the idea of the project, and then when you commissioned me to go to Sicily and start working on it. I felt trusted, and that my idea was somehow validated because I was no longer the only person betting on it. This gave me the strength to believe in the project and helped keep me going for the next seven years. When I was faced with the opportunity of telling my own story about the legacy of the Mafia in Sicily, I felt I needed to apply my own particular visual poetry, which was a pretty overwhelming prospect. I knew I needed to finely balance my own visual account with a testimony to the imprint that Cosa Nostra has left on the island. It was also a personal journey back to a land I felt unwillingly detached from. The project became a personal mission, in which I could hope to articulate my many feelings, doubts and thoughts about a land that fascinates me but at the same time I am profoundly haunted by.
CH: Could you tell us about your childhood growing up in Sicily?
MM: I grew up in a well-off family. My father was a civil lawyer and my mother a professor of Philosophy of Right at the Jurisprudence University of Palermo. Although I come from a privileged background, I was taught important values from my law-abiding parents, who were very down-to-earth, and politically came from a left wing standpoint. The eighties where pretty intense. Italy was just emerging from having successfully defeated political terrorism, but in Sicily we were still in the midst of a second war on the Mafia – a time that was photographed eloquently by master photographer, Letizia Battaglia. I remember that every day somebody was killed by the Mafia: policemen, judges, prosecutors, civil servants, mafiosi and local business people. It was open warfare, and it was felt at all levels. Still, because my parents were comfortable financially, I remember that we were able to distract ourselves with peaceful holidays at the seaside and excursions in the mountains, and, generally speaking, living a good life.
This dichotomy translated into what I would define as an “interrupted paradise”, where a normal, happy childhood was contextualised within violent surroundings filled with misery and bloodshed. Petty crime was also an issue, while the striking poverty in some parts of Palermo was truly overwhelming. Living in Sicily at that time taught me to be aware and conscious of who I could safely mingle with…and who I could not!
CH: In one of our early meetings, you commented that much of the layperson’s understanding of the Mafia comes from Hollywood movies. Could you tell us about your personal experience?
MM: I only really became conscious of the entertainment aspect of the Mafia when I moved to London when I was 20 years old. Before that, I knew only what my parents told me and read what journalists reported on the Mafia’s activities. There were a few Italian movies and TV series about the phenomenon, but nothing that was glamourising the Mafia like The Godfather, Goodfellas and other similar productions, which I didn’t see until many years later. When I arrived in London my Sicilian identity often provoked a curious reaction from people I met in various different situations. I saw fascination in their eyes, and I was often asked, “Are you from the Mafia?!”. I though such naivety could only suggest that people didn’t really know much about Cosa Nostra, so, instead of getting upset, I would explain that the Mafia was not about cigars and striped suits, and it wasn’t flashy and glamorous, but rather was a cowardly, secret association of parasitic criminals, who preyed on the weak. People were not always convinced and often I was treated with a strange reverence, and as though I needed to be kept close in a friendly manner…
CH: To what extent was the making of Terra Nostra a journey of self-discovery?
MM: To every degree really. The way I see (and live) photography is to acquire as much of an understanding of an issue as I can and try to immerse myself in the project. I write, I draw, and I dream about the photographs I’ve taken during the day, and about the ones I’d like to take the following day. I follow leads instinctively, and I’m always prepared to take sharp changes in direction in order to follow my intuition. I’m not a great planner, so this reflects the way I am not only as a photographer but as a person, too! Terra Nostra has allowed me to reconnect with my native Sicily and to ponder on some of the most important aspects of my native country. In many ways this has challenged me also on a personal level, but I embraced the change and tried to allow this to reflect on my photographic style, too.
CH: Did you find yourself changing over the course of the project?
MM: In seven years I changed quite a lot, and I think these personal changes impacted heavily on the photographic approach to the subject. I think I became a better photographer by reducing my own ego and leaving more room for the unexpected. Also, I have learned to expect less and listen more. The complexity and length of this project made me ponder more and more at each stage of the production of Terra Nostra, and so my final choices are the result of a long and intense dialogue with myself. I had moments of crisis and at times I felt discouraged. I came to dead ends and at times lost faith in the whole thing, but because I saw it as a game of chess with myself, and I never gave up.
CH: What kept you going?
MM: The best analogy is when you’re waiting for a bus that never comes. The longer you wait the more you’ll stay there thinking that you can’t leave then, because you’ve already waited long enough and the bus must be likely to come along any minute. I kept on going until I finally unlocked something and Terra Nostra gained momentum and then it felt right to carry on.
CH: How have things changed in Sicily since you first left?
MM: Sicily has changed a great deal since I left in the mid-nineties. If you want to visit a nice relaxing beach, nowadays you will only need to consult a TripAdvisor review, book a cheap Ryanair flight, get your flashy AirBnb and off you go for a long weekend to Sicily. This technological change meant drastic changes also for the local economy and culture. A new generation of hard working entrepreneurs have started promoting Sicilian products and places, have accessed European funds to open tourist resorts, invest in renewable energy or plant indigenous crops in the hope of a renewed interest for native Sicilian produce. Sicilians are now more dynamic than ever and have found the lost love for a land they see now as an opportunity rather than a burden. Still, in this new setting the Mafia have also found a new, cleaner identity. Cosa Nostra invests in real estate in Sicily and abroad and it’s more and more difficult to stigmatise the Mafia and imagine Mafiosi wearing a flat cap and carrying a shotgun, because they too have embraced change and now blend in with this new era of Sicilian entrepreneurship.
CH: As an exile, how did you approach making images in Sicily; did you arrive as a photographer or as a member of the community with a camera?
MM: Outsider or not I always see the camera in front of me as both a bridge that connects me to and a barrier that separates me from the subject. I like to make my intentions clear from the beginning, so I won’t have to worry about revealing my identity as an observer further down the line. I wouldn’t want to do it otherwise. My feeling is that it is paramount for a photographer to be able to stand in the mid-ground; close enough to your subject so as to observe certain features and dynamics, but distant enough to maintain a healthy perspective that allows you to articulate your point of view.
CH: The Mafia is very much an implicit presence in these works. You have spoken about Mafia deals being carried out in the shadows, and the works certainly reflect that – some have an almost claustrophobic atmosphere and chiaroscuro plays an important role. Were you sure from the outset that you’d shoot on black and white film?
MM: I had visualised the story in black and white from the very beginning and never questioned that much at all. The choice of black and white or colour to me is like a musician choosing his instrument. I can’t tell you why I chose the monochromatic path for Terra Nostra, but for me it was a natural choice.
CH: Could you elaborate on how you work in a street setting? What sort of techniques do you use to get the best result?
MM: I shot Terra Nostra with an old Hasselblad 500CM, a bulky camera that I fell in love with and that I use with flawless ease. I bring along an external light meter, pack myself up with film and a notebook and explore the streets and places where I intend to photograph. Every now and then I measure the light, make sure the right settings are corresponding on the camera so that I am always ready to shoot instinctively. Sometimes as I walk through a street I see something and I shoot the best photograph I can as quickly as I can in order not to lose that magic moment. Other times I see an angle, a shadow, or something that is worthwhile observing for a longer period, pick my spot, and I stand like a hunter waiting for something to unfold before the camera. I observe the dynamic between people, or how the light effects the surroundings and try to acquire a deeper feeling for a place. This helps me eventually to blend in and over time become less noticeable, despite the size of my camera.
CH: How did you know when the project was finished?
MM: When I had the opportunity to publish the book I started to look at the material I’d gathered during seven years of work and started to think about what I felt was still missing. Once I’d identified what was lacking, I embarked on the final quest. Although I kept an open mind, I knew that I was close to reaching conclusion. Once I decided it was time to work on the production of the book, I needed to call it a day. But the way I see it, a project never really naturally finishes. I set a limit, imposed a deadline, in order to be able to move on to new projects.
CH: How was it going over seven years of work and choosing what to include in the book? Did you design the sequencing of the images alone or in collaboration with anyone?
MM: You need to be able to relinquish control of the whole thing and start relying on colleagues, friends, peers and, crucially, the editor of the book. Dewi Lewis has helped me a huge deal in sculpting the decisive shape of the story. I knew what I wanted to say and where I wanted to go with my work, but it was Dewi who adjusted the visual grammar for the book. I also make no secret of finding great resources amongst my friends who helped me in choosing key images, or coming up with better alternatives; the ones that could help build a rhythm and discarding others that felt redundant. Johanna Neurath, Matt Stuart, Hélène Binet, Tim Clark, James Reeve, Dominick Tyler, Robin Maddock, Pal Hansen, Muir Vidler, Polly Braden, David Campany and many more photographers and editors have helped me along the way. You can’t really do this on your own. Well, you could, but then you would never know if you could have done better otherwise! Ultimately, while editing a project you need to be prepared to sacrifice images that you may have become very attached to, and realise that the project will benefit from a more concise and eloquent sequence of pertinent images that work together well, that will ultimately serve to get your message across more successfully.
CH: How was the crowdfunding experience?
MM: I was truly frightened by exposing myself, and my practice, to the possibility that it could turn out to a total failure. I am also a pretty insecure person, so I really had to force myself to do this, and tell myself that if I didn’t take this step I could let down the whole project. When, at the beginning, Dewi suggested starting a crowdfunding campaign as a means to raise funds for the production of the book, I must confess that I felt slightly discouraged, and unworthy of an investment from his end. But then I realised that the publishing world has its own challenges and there was no harm in starting what I tried to elegantly describe as a “pre-sale” campaign. Dewi also helped me see the positive marketing aspects of a crowdfunding campaign and he gave me a few very helpful tips. I thoroughly researched past examples of campaigns that worked well and the ones that didn’t, and I tried to learn from both in order to build on my strength and try to minimise the risks. The resulting campaign was a great success. I raised the funds in 48 hours, and almost doubled the initial target of £9500. The story was featured in the press, and the snowball effect was truly a delightful to behold! In the end I was able to provide the funds for a book with improved features – and I had a fantastic time throughout.
CH: What is your ambition with Terra Nostra?
MM: Since the very beginning Terra Nostra’s aim was to offer a perspective and to raise awareness of how pervasive and destructive the Mafia is in Sicily. I wanted to show a disenchanted portrait of a place affected by widespread corruption and social injustice. When I started the project I was aware of how ambitious this endeavour could have been but I felt the urge to make my point and translate into images the things, the places and the people that could help illustrate my point. I focused on the receiving ends of the Mafia system, not on the winners, nor I had the intention of photographing members or affiliated to Cosa Nostra. I wanted to show who and what is affected by such oppressive and obscene power, hence the name Terra Nostra. In some ways it is a plea to us Sicilians to wake up and reclaim what has been taken away from us, and look objectively at the effect Cosa Nostra has had upon us.
CH: Which other photographers do you admire?
MM: So many that it’s difficult to make a concise list. But definitely André Kertesz, William Eggleston, Hélène Binet, Ed van der Elsken, Marc Asnin, Ernesto Bazan, Vivian Sassen, Martin Parr, Paul Graham, Max Pam, Alex Webb, Eugene Richards, Martin Bogren, Giacomo Brunelli and quite a few more….
CH: Who are your heroes outside photography?
MM: Late philosopher and sociologist Zigmund Bauman because he understood the drama of our times, and because he understood my work Terra Nostra before anyone else; Attorney General of Palermo Tribunal, Roberto Scarpinato because of his thorough and deep understanding of the corrupt state and its obscene dynamics and because his book Il Ritorno Del Principe was the primary inspiration for Terra Nostra; songwriters John Lennon, Jim Croce, Bob Marley and Nina Simone, because of their amazing contribution to human history through their political songwriting; my mother, due to her unwavering position on human rights and equality, and for having been always my guide; Federico Fellini because he taught me the poetry of the everyday; Monica Vitti for her sheer all-Italiano beauty; and the zillions of doctors who have put my shoulder back in from my chronic shoulder dislocation!
CH: What are you working on next?
MM: I am finalising a project on East London that I started in 2015, and will soon start a new adventure in Sicily where I will explore youth, aesthetics and storytelling – I can’t say any more than that at present!
Terra Nostra, by Mimi Mollica, was published by Dewi Lewis, February 2017.