Paola Leonardi

Borders: sometimes invisible lines only depicted on paper, sometimes a towering built wall or a threatening and unkind sharp wire fence. We think of borders as these things which separate us into our continents, countries, counties, cities; but, what do these places really look like? How does the border affect the land, the families, cultures and traditions which surround it?

We’re excited to share the work of London-based photographer and lecturer at London’s Metropolitan University, Paola Leonardi.

Leonardi spoke to us about her work, photographs and experiences on the borderlands of Europe; those human-made lines that separate the land into sections along which she travelled lengthy distances — often by foot and relying completely on the hospitality of the people she met.

Read the full interview with Leonardi below:

I am originally from Italy and have been living in London for almost 20 years. I travelled quite a lot around the world before deciding to do a degree in fine art — afterwards focusing on photography in my Master’s studies. I started working with photography quite late; I was a mature student and was 28 when I graduated. I am 37 now.

Nowadays I focus on developing my personal projects while also working on commercial work, as well as being a lecturer in photography at London Metropolitan University in the UK.

I shoot film in my personal work — I mostly use a Hasselblad but sometimes I also shoot in large format (5×4). I am not fixated with gear. I use what suits my idea and the logistics of developing that idea.

I live and work in London but I do travel quite often, to visit my family as well as to other places to develop my photographic work.

What kind of photography are you interested in?

I am interested in a broad range of photography, from landscape and portraiture to commercial and fashion photography. I try to keep up-to-date with developments in all contemporary photography.

In relation to my personal work, I am interested in the work of photographers that conduct long term projects, for example Rob Hornstra. Hornstra has worked widely in the Caucasus area where I have also photographed, and to where I am planning to return to for future projects. His book The Sochi Project together with journalist Arnold van Bruggen is one of my favourites and I love the combination of images and text.

Talking about photobooks, I love Jon Tonks’ Empire — I admire how Tonks has reached far-flung places on a low budget, and his work presents such intriguing stories.

What’s your story?

My dad is an established photographer and architect, and growing up we had had a darkroom and a photography studio in the house. Although I grew up surrounded by artists, my dad didn’t teach me photography because when I was a rebellious teenager I decided to… study accountancy!

I became interested in the arts much later. As I mentioned before, I went travelling and then I went to university to study fine art as a mature student. I developed an interest in photography only in my final year of university, and I then went on to study photography on the Image & Communication Masters degree at Goldsmiths College in London.

Let’s talk about ‘Borderlands’.

My work is concerned with the representation of cultural identity — its shifts and states of transition. This project stems from my family history and personal interests, as well as my love for travelling and walking.

I decided to photograph along the land borders of the European Union as I am curious about the representation of cultural identity, an interest that originates from my family’s transnational influences.

I have family all over the world, but the biggest influence was my grandmother who had a rather interesting life story. In 1919, she was born a refugee in Switzerland, her family having fled Istria (present-day Slovenia) during World War 1. She later moved to Italy and supported the partisans in the fight against fascism during World War 2. She always had fierce temper and so many crazy stories to tell.

In this mix of the family lexicon — peculiar narratives and imprecise history — my grandmother was identified by the family as being Slavic or Germanic. Her bad temper and stern character became associated with this element of being from the other side of the border. She often expressed resentment for losing her “home territory” and her parents’ home which she had never seen.

One day I tried to track where her family could be from and visited the border between Italy and Slovenia. I became more and more interested in how people and communities relate to living near a border, looking at how they relate to the territories they inhabit and how these relationship are shaped by socio-political events.

Since 2012 I have photographed along the land borders that divide EU countries from their non-EU neighbours, following the boundaries traced on maps. I enjoy walking and soon discovered that walking along the borders was the only way to effectively get to know the people and the territory. I cover long distances on foot, often relying on the hospitality of the people and communities that I meet.

I do my best to speak with people and gather a sense of how their territory combines with a sense of culture and belonging. I write down the stories that I am told, as well as collecting notes and maps on my travels (which I would like to eventually publish together with my photographs).

I am passionate about the shifting nature of cultural identity; I feel that we are in an age of huge socio-political uncertainty.

Why are you photographing this project on film?

For this particular project I am shooting everything on an analogue Hasselblad, using my dad’s old Hasselblad 500cm. I love the square format and the camera is light enough to be carried around when travelling, especially as I often travel on foot or use local transport.

An important reason is that in certain border areas photography is seen with suspicion — especially in close proximity of the borders as it’s often the case that photography is completely banned. Shooting with a Hasselblad means that border guards usually won’t identify an analogue camera as a threat and let me photograph. I have been stopped only once.

People are also curious about the camera; young people don’t know what it is and the older generations remember these style of cameras from their youth, so it attracts positive attention and is often an ice breaker that engages my subjects in conversation.

Are there any moments you had during the making of the work which stick out?

Lots of good moments: I have made friends along the way and I have seen places that people rarely visit, I have swam in the Danube and slept in a field in Moldova. I have also had bad moments: missing a bus and getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, getting soaked by rain, my camera breaking down and ruining a bunch of rolls of film… working with film and travelling so much means that if one shot doesn’t come out exactly as I want it, there is no possibility of retaking it.

You said you mostly travelled by foot and relied on others’ hospitality; what was this like?

I have been very lucky and everyone I have met has been kind and supportive.

Before setting off I get a small text translated to the language of the country I am visiting, so I can explain what I am doing and clarify that I am an artist, not a journalist, and to ensure people happy for me to take their photo. I also learn few sentences in the local language and I can speak basic Russian, which comes in handy.

Being a curious person, I enjoy discovering parts of Europe which are “off road” and I enjoy listening to people’s family stories. Recently in Moldova I met an elderly lady who spoke perfect Italian! She took me on a trek along the border near her house, recalling in detail the precise day in which her and her grandfather saw the invading Nazi soldiers crossing the border. It was a fortuitous encounter as she was a huge source of information and stories.

Sometimes there were funny situations; in Eastern Europe people are very welcoming and usually offer me food and drink, but I have had to explain to a Polish grandmother that I am vegetarian and couldn’t eat sausages. She was very puzzled about this strange thing of being vegetarian!

There were frightening moments too, for example the Turkish army can be quite confrontational and they hold an aggressive stance toward neighbouring Greece. I walked along Cyprus’ buffer zone — Cyprus is legally part of the EU, but there is a de facto border since the Turkish invasion in 1974. From the Turkish side of the island, I have seen soldiers throwing rocks and performing other acts of intimidation.

What are you up to next?

Over the past year I have worked on a commission for the Anthropological research project EU Bordercare which researches maternity within the context of migration. Through this project I have travelled to various locations and I now have numerous negatives that need processing and scanning, so I am very busy with that.

On top of that, I am developing a portrait series in the UK working with the topic of nationalism, and I have also started a project photographing communities in the Caucasus mountains.

What are you recommending?

I am an avid reader of both fiction and more theoretical/academic texts.

Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost is an excellent book to take on a road trip. I also like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books based on his experiences on travelling long distances on foot in the 1930s through Europe.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a lighter read that I often carry with me. It offers the most valuable advice to anyone travelling alone through remote areas: don’t panic!

Finally, can you pinpoint one piece of art that has influenced you?

Discovering the work of the Spanish duo Bleda y Rosa completely changed the way I looked at photographs, and also made me want to photograph more.

This photographic duo may not be so widely known in the UK, but their work is excellent — in particular the series Campos de Battalla (“Battlefields”). This particular series inspired me to travel and look at the geography of a place as well as the history and socio-political events and their impact.

With beautifully crafted and serene landscape images, they manage to encompass the perception of memory contained in a geographical place. You can feel the weight and importance of history through a single landscape photograph.

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