Chiara Bardelli Nonino, 2014
Upon meeting Giulia Marchi, the first impression you get is that of a tranquil, petite, shy and perhaps a little vulnerable girl. Then you start talking to her and you discover that, in order to shoot a picture that she cared much about at Al-Azhar Islamic University in Egypt, she was reported (despite the two and a half months spent working on obtaining an authorization), stopped and detained by the police as she refused to sign their report. You discover that she graduated in East Asian Languages from Venice University but felt that the moment had come to “stop receiving notions through an education system that, despite its fundamental underlying freedom, is still the result of some social structures that I wanted to get rid of – such as the principle according to which, in a woman’s education, priority is given to safety rather than a less traditional more adventurous approach”. And so she left first for France, then Benin where she was in charge of cultural and society matters for a local paper when, moving from an article to the next, she decided to start taking pictures of her interviewees.
Can you tell us more about your decision to make the transition from journalism to photography?
Following the degree in East Asian Languages I decided to move to France to study for a while and I realized that journalism was the profession that was most in line with my personality. Rather than choosing a journalism school in Italy, I contacted all the newspaper offices of French-speaking countries in Africa which led to my trip to Benin. Given that I was interviewing lots of different people as part of my job, I started taking portrait pictures with a compact camera, more as a way of documenting my work rather than anything else. Partly inspired by Beninese artists’ use of colour (especially Dominique Zinkpè), I started to pay increasingly more and more attention to the composition, the light and the shapes: everything was leading me to photography. So, after taking a short course at Contrasto, I contacted Charles Fréger with whom I collaborated on part of the Wilder Mann project and it was truly inspirational: observing how he shot pictures, what he looked for and how he approached people was of fundamental importance. After about a year in Europe, I left for Egypt.
Tell us about Musilin (Call Her Fatimah), your project on the Muslim Chinese community. How did it start and what attracted your interest to this story?
I was in Egypt in 2012 and photography was – especially at the beginning – a tool to discover the country. Getting in touch with the Chinese community is something that comes natural to me when I’m abroad; I had done it in Benin, and did it once again in Egypt. The most difficult aspect at the beginning is to gain access to the community which, in my case, I gained through the encounter with Ding Lan, a 22-year old girl who had moved to Cairo to better study her religion, Islam. I felt immediately interested in her story as it combined many different elements: Islam’s cultural diversity, that fact that being a Muslim woman, she was part of a minority in China and, being Chinese, she was part of a different minority group in Egypt, plus the fact that hers was a female point of view which is, both visually and culturally, a very distinctive one in both these two cultures.
Do you ever feel that your wanting to describe such a different culture could somehow be seen as obtrusion on your behalf? Have you ever been in a situation in which you wondered whether you should stop taking pictures?
I used to wonder that all the time: there is a whole series of things about being a woman in Islam that cannot be shown. But I believe that if your approach to people is transparent, if you learn to be committed and involved on a personal level by talking about yourself first, then you get the same enthusiasm and reactions from other people; they too open up and the exchange is reciprocal. After all, this is one of the first things that attracted me to photography: it’s a tool that allows you to come closer to people and was an instrument to tear down my own personal limits first and to open up to the world.
How do you shoot: do you have an intuitive approach or do you tend to "build" your photographs?
It’s an odd process: it reminds me of when in Being John Malkovich after falling inside the tunnel, you come out and see the world through that little eye with the difference that, in this case, you are in your own head and look at reality through the camera. I think the process is intuitive yet absolutely voluntary. You look for and create a photograph but, at the same time, it’s as if your visual background projected itself inside your mind and you were absolutely aware of what is happening outside and of the images that follow one another at such high speed in your mind.
In what way did your East Asian studies influence you?
They have undoubtedly contributed hugely to the shaping of my inner world: besides European literature and cinema, Asian culture – from Korean cinema to Chinese literature – has had a huge impact on me. In the background, there is always the search for a certain dimension of silence that I, too, seek to capture in my photographs. And I believe it also influenced the way I assemble stories, striving to evoke a narration rather than build an obvious one. That is perhaps the reason why I moved from written journalism to images: photographs have the ability to epitomize something specific and universal at the same time; a way to go beyond the limits of the spoken language that perfectly matches what I’m trying to convey.
What advice would you give to a young person who’d like to become photojournalist?
I’d say that you need to be ready to make a lot of sacrifices and that this is a profession that requires working mostly alone. You need to constantly change perspective and not allow your own culture to dominate. And, if I saw in such individual the same urgency to search and research that I have, I’d tell him that photography, more than anything else, has been – and continues to be – the perfect tool through which to dismantle a whole series of codes which – willingly or unwillingly – I have assimilated. It is constant effort, constant evolution that it is still occurring right now as I speak.
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