15 August 2018
15 August 2018 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo
Through the use of religious biblical mythology, Italian photographer, Michele Palazzi frames and questions the European Union’s contemporary challenges, using the region of southern Portugal as his backdrop.
In ancient times, Finisterrae was believed to be the end of the known world. This is what Italian photographer Michele Palazzi compares to Southern Portugal or, more precisely, the region that in the ancient Roman era was known as Lusitania, in his series of the same name. Through the use of the biblical story, The Book of Daniel (Old Testament), he looks to document the people and the landscapes of this forgotten region, addressing and questioning the contemporary realities that frame the European Union today.
Finisterrae is a long-term project that looks at the Southern European crisis framed within a biblical story. Why did you decide to use religious mythology to address this contemporary issue?
While I was in Portugal I decided to interpret the reality of the economic crisis through an allegorical approach. The idea of a glorious distant past that has been lost helped me to represent the abandonment and the sense of nostalgia I felt in the countryside of Portugal. Throughout the project, religion symbolises the spirituality and ancient rituals that have been carried across the generations.
Why do you find Southern Portugal to be representative of the end of the world?
When I talk about the end of the world I mean the end of the history and roots of the country: the loss of rituals perpetrated for centuries over the course of just a few decades. This unstoppable phenomenon tends to quickly change the conscience of the population and reshape the landscape.
What is your connection to the region? How long have you spent in the area? Are there any particular insights that you would like to share with us?
I had the opportunity to spend six months in Alentejo thanks to the Independent Air residency program. This period allowed me to conduct research and to reflect upon the project. The economic crisis and the abandonment of the region in general led me to deal with this theme with a documentary-fiction approach, without falling under a plain representation of reality.
The photographs stand between a painterly and documentary nature - was this a conscious decision?
I believe in the interconnection of visual arts. Photography is a very young artistic tool: to be used consciously it needs to refer to other more mature visual arts, like painting. Caravaggio, for example, used to find his models among common people, then gave them a role within a biblical and mythological context. In my project, I’ve been strongly inspired by this approach.
You have chosen a selection of written fragments from The Book of Daniel (Old Testament) to accompany your photographs. On what basis did you select these texts?
While I was studying Portuguese history, I read a text by Antonio Vieira, a Portuguese theologist of the 17th century, who declared that Portugal is pre-destinated to become the Fifth Empire: the empire of God mentioned in the Book of Daniel. This interpretation represented for me the strong hope for a glorious future that was present in that historical period. In Finisterrae, I try to overlap the dream of glory in the past with a dystopian present. The paragraph I took from the book contains keywords that could offer a second layer of interpretation to the images.
You focus on the people who remain and leave Lusitania in Southern Portugal. Are you framing their stories together or do you find that those who move away represent a different story within your context?
In this project, I have portrayed people in their actual roles, but their characteristics and contexts are altered to make them become actors and inhabitants of this allegoric and fictional world.
Michele Palazzi is an Italian documentary photographer currently working and living in Rome. Palazzi has received several awards for his work, including the First Prize in the Daily Life Stories category of the World Press Photo in 2015. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.