There are few countries in the world which elicit such a profound and long-lasting impression as Italy. It follows that many look back on their time there as an important part of their journey to self-discovery–whether or not that was their original intention. Existential questions tend to arise in such glorious, life-affirming surroundings; silly things like big careers, future plans and responsibilities seem to slip rather alarmingly to the back of our minds, replaced with frantic schemes on how to achieve la dolce vita full-time.
But for some, to visit Italy is to embark on a far deeper, more personal journey of piecing together their own family history and uncovering a lost and fragmented heritage.
Much as us enamoured visitors might struggle to comprehend it, the past few centuries have seen Italians emigrate by the millions and put down roots all over the world. Whether for work, love, education, curiosity or one of the thousand reasons in between, Italians have settled everywhere and been rather busy, it seems, producing future generations in the process…
The Berlin-based, South Africa-born photographer Luca Vincenzo isn’t alone in boasting an Italian name, physical features, parents and grandparents, while having little knowledge of the culture he comes from. This idiosyncrasy was exactly what led him on his first journey to Italy, all the way to southern Puglia where his grandmother grew up and later returned to.
“I am of it, but not from it. I might appear the part, and my name fits the context, but I grew up at the bottom of Africa. As far as family trees go, I know nothing beyond my grandparents on both sides, so exploring Italy is my attempt to try and peer into the past and find a connection with my history.”
Growing up on the other side of the world meant that quick trips to Italy to visit family were out of the question, and it wasn’t until he was an adult that he made his first journey there, alone. Spurred on by the desire to go straight to the roots of his ancestry, Vincenzo bypassed the big cities, famous sites and iconic locations entirely, instead heading straight for Conversano, a tiny town in Puglia.
“The only images I’d really seen of Italy before were a handful of black-and-white photographs of my grandparents in their youth. They portrayed a classically romantic vision of Italy. One showed them and some of their friends in their twenties, hanging out outdoors, looking incredibly chic. It gave me an inescapable romantic feeling.”
Vincenzo didn’t visit Italy with the intention of photographing it, but as so many of us do, he got swept up in the country’s romantic beauty and couldn’t help snapping away. His camera became his way of understanding the country, the culture and the people with whom he so desperately sought connection. Luckily, it’s in Italy’s nature to open her heart, let you in and embrace you wholeheartedly.
“I was blown away by people’s generosity and openness in Puglia, and I experienced it in so many different ways. I often hitchhike to get around, for example. I stand on the side of the road, towel around my neck, camera bag over my shoulder, thumb up and smiling. I’d gather nuggets of information from my grandmother and go off exploring the places she mentioned. And while everyone seemed quite surprised at first, they took me in and shared snippets of their lives. I love the rolling of the dice and the people I get to meet that way. I get so many anecdotes about their lives, history and places, and of course, recommendations for all the best local spots for pasta and pizza.”
It’s quite astounding, particularly when you consider that Vincenzo doesn’t speak Italian. But his desire to discover, learn and explore clearly shone through–with a little help from Google Translate too. For the photographs in his Puglia series are not those of a tourist or someone on the outskirts who documents only the superficial beauty of the place. They are photographs of someone who threw himself into this new world head-first and got so much more out of it in return.
His photographs of Puglia’s landscapes and nature are, unsurprisingly, stunning. Hazy, dreamy, reminiscent of slow, sweet summers, his photos are evocative enough to frame and look upon when the good times start to feel just a little bit too far away. To me, however, it’s his photographs of people that are particularly poignant.
Vincenzo’s lens is intimate: he captures moments of locals’ lives that may seem normal to those who have enjoyed endless summers in Italy, but which actually make up the very core of Italian existence in a small coastal town in the south. These small, beautiful moments go a long way in helping him understand the world he comes from.
There are the old men who meet at the same bench every day. The group of friends playing the card game Briscola in a local bar. The teenagers sunning themselves on a slither of rock, their make-shift beach for the day. The couple on an early evening passeggiata. The lone man and his dog at the beach, delighted at having just caught a crab (which they will promptly throw back into the water). The old lady dressed in a breezy, floral vestaglia estiva, watching the world go by from her terrazzo.
“I love to photograph the older generations: there is great wisdom to be had in conversations with them. And as soon as I introduce myself and my intentions, their curiosity is piqued and they let me in. There was a couple I photographed near a town called Cozze, who were on their evening stroll. After speaking with them, I learned they had the same surname as my mother when she was born. It wasn’t much, but it was a special moment for me, even if just for the imagination. It’s the people that make a place interesting and give it life and character.”
Luca Vincenzo’s Puglia photographs are, of course, highly personal, with a deep significance that many of us will never quite be able to grasp. But what lies behind them is something that is universal: the desire to capture the magic of a place or a moment in time and hold on to it forever.
Italy may have felt foreign to Vincenzo at first, but thanks to his journeys through it–both physically and emotionally–he is a part of it now. Once Italy gets its claws in you, it will never let you go.
Photography by Luca Vincenzo