Interview Alessandra Meniconzi
by Kristel Schneider
‘ …I am attempting to document the remaining indigenous people who are still living as they have had for thousands of years…’
I got acquainted with Alessandra’s work through her photo series “Nenets, the last nomads of Artic Siberia”. Taken by the pureness of the images I wanted to see more of what she did and started following her work. Alessandra is a photographer of indigenous people and traditional cultures. She prefers rough faraway places, mountainous sites and deserts. A closer look at her portfolio will make you feel the love and passion she has for her subjects in the way she captures the real beauty and pureness of these places and their inhabitants.
1 Q: Can you introduce yourself in a few lines, explain your background and how you got introduced to (nature) photography?
A: I was born in the south of Switzerland and I graduated from the College of Arts as a graphic designer. After working several years in different companies I took a 4- month trip to the Indian Himalayas. I first used the camera to document my trip around Asia just to show the images to my family and close friends. At that time it never crossed my mind to be a photographer, it just happened some years later. My career was launched when I submitted photos of people of some Chinese minorities to a magazine. Today my work centers on the ancient heritage, customs, spirituality, and daily life of indigenous people who are strongly connected to nature and whose traditional cultures are at risk of vanishing. Photography, for me, is still a strong passion, it is my life and I never I consider it as a job even if today I sell my images.
2 Q: What originally triggered your interest in indigenous people and traditional cultures?
A: What motivates me the most the interaction between wild places and ancient cultures, as well as a fascination with native people who subsist in isolated regions of the world, and a profound respect for them. I strive to portray the lives of indigenous people with authenticity, insight and sensitivity. The more encounters with the multitude cultures and traditions, the more I realize that we are losing our cultural richness through globalization. Sometimes, I regret that nowadays most people, magazines, and even the news mostly focus on the fragility of nature and wildlife. We should not forget that our planet is inhabited by an incredible kaleidoscope of ethnic groups, each with their own social and cultural traditions that have to be preserved. They all belong to the patrimony of mankind as a whole !
3 Q: By looking at the destinations you photographed you must put a lot of time in preparing your trips. Can you explain how you proceed and if you plan to do this all alone again?
A: I choose my locations according to my personal interest. My favorite places are a mix of wild places and minority people who keep the cultural and social traditions strong. The remote corners of Asia are still my favorite places to travel, as well as how you can approach them with photography. I avoid the places where all the tourists go ; I always look for more remote locations. Even for popular subjects, I try to find an unusual way to photograph them. If I go for a special assignment or for my private project I prefer to travel just with a close friend . That way I am more flexible and the photographic results are much better.
Over my trips I have also hitch-hiked, traveled on public buses and trains. I rent a car when there is no other way to reach the destination I want. By traveling on a mountain bike, I have learned not to haste and to cultivate the spirit of adaptation; but especially to be careful and to pick up what there is around for me. I don’t like to travel with big tour groups: you have to follow a guide and you are not free to go or stay wherever you like. And what if you have a lot of photographs to shoot of the same subject at the same place? Moreover, I don’t like to be driven by someone.
Before the internet it was more difficult to plan a trip, to have fast contact with local people abroad or to see what a place looked like. Today thanks to the internet things have been easier than ever. However I love both ways to plan a trip. Both have their pros and their cons.
With the internet the images of the place that you want to visit are valuable pieces of advice. These images can give you an idea of the location you want to visit. But it is important to read books or articles about your destination and study the itinerary on a map. Depending on the destination, I search for a specialized travel agency to organize a tour for a small group or just for one person. I send them my itinerary and sometimes I ask for suggestions. This works very well. I like to be surprised by the place I travel to and sometimes the journey changes from the original plan. Often when you travel you discover new places and you add these locations to the long list of your future travels!
4 Q: When I look at your images two words come to my mind: pureness and light. You have a way of capturing people in a very innocent and pure way and combine this with beautiful nature details and light. Some scenes can be prepared and anticipated, but a lot of them are the result, I think, of being at the right place at the right time. How long do you generally stay on one location and do you go back to the same place?
A: I try to spend time with them and learn about their social customs and traditions. We need to discover one other. If you respect and understand people of different cultures, it is much easier to capture their essence. I will never insist on taking a picture of someone who doesn’t give me the permission. I am a guest in their land, so respect is my first priority. I don’t like to just take pictures of a place or people that will be seen an “icon” or just because they are nice. If I work like that I feel that I give just the surface of the subject whom I photographed. My intention is to go beyond the surface. I have learned to go back to some places, meet the same people again, wait until the light is the best, experiment with different lenses, vantage points and different techniques.
It is not easy to make people feel comfortable in front of big lenses and professional cameras but it is possible. There is not a secret technique to take pictures with comfortable subjects; the time that you spent with them beforehand is the important and essential thing to do. What is important too is to learn about social custom and traditions. When you work in intimate situations with people, you need time to discover one another. When I meet new people, I like to explain my intentions, sometimes I need an interpreter (I will prefer someone who lives in the same place with the same culture – better someone local, friend or relative that speak a little bit of English). Other times I draw what I would like to shoot. But it is mainly with a smile or a friendly gesture that I am able to explain my photographic intention. The first thing that I have learned is to read their reaction and understand if they like to be my “model” for a while. If you respect and understand people (of every culture) it is easier to capture the essence and the feelings of the subject. I will never insist for a picture of someone who doesn’t give me the permission or refuse to be photographed.
Photography is another way to express your personality. When you press the shutter release of the camera your feelings and the way you see the world materialize. The camera is not the issue; the true factor is who stands behind it. To take photos is a kind of meditation: I need to have a free mind to find a good place and the time to concentrate. At home l always review my images closely, I am very critical with my work. And I try to learn from my mistakes and I wonder how I will make better pictures the next time I do.
5Q What are your photography goals, destinations for 2014 and what would you like to achieve ?
A: For more than a decade I have worked extensively in remote areas of Asia, documenting minority people and their traditional cultures. More recently, I have expanded my efforts to encompass Arctic and sub-Arctic regions that are being threatened by climate change, development, and resource extraction.
In the Far North, I focus on indigenous arctic people, their daily lives and customs, their relationships with nature, and their struggle to preserve their ancient cultures and maintain their ethnic identities in the face of climate change and the pressures of the modern world. Drawn to the harsh beauty and isolation of the Arctic, and concerned about the transformation occurring there due to rising temperatures and modernization, I am attempting to document the remaining indigenous people who are still living as they have had for thousands of years. I am attempting to preserve a compelling visual record of their vanishing ancestral traditions. When I work in the Arctic I feel that I make real contact with the power of nature. And by interacting closely with the native people there, I’m able to learn about and document their unique way of life in connection to the rhythms of nature. I’m trying to create images of these people and their cultures before they disappear.
6Q Share with us one of your favorite personal photographs? And tell the story behind it?
For a week, I went on excursions around the most panoramic locations of the Ailao Mountains in China. At the highest point of the mountain, a spectacular natural amphitheater appeared before my eyes. With the moving of the clouds and the rising of the sun, an extraordinary atmosphere that almost feels magical, I was captured by the splendor of the unusual scenery. The wind hit me with its gusts without a break. Taking photographs with the tripod became an almost impossible task. The day appeared to be misleadingly sunny; in the blink of an eye thick fog transformed into thick clouds filled with rain, which quickly blackened the sky. The sky in this area is nearly always cloudy and for over six months a year the entire region is wrapped in thick fog. I was able to take this image when, for a very short moment, blue sky reflected into the water below.
7Q: Do you have any exhibitions or other events coming up?
A: On 25 January I had a Slideshow in Italy. I presented my journeys to Arctic Siberia with the Nenets people.
In spring I have another exhibition but not the date and location is not decide yet. I will let you know.
Before the interview Alexandra had a look at Kristel’s website (www.kristelschneiderphotography.com) and picked out two images that really popped out for her and she explains why:
Winter is the most magical time of the year to shoot.
This image from the tree (tree gallery) is pretty meditative and give me a sense of calm and silence.
I can call this image; Winter of Solitude !
I like the pictures of flowers (plant and mushroom gallery). They express the delicacy and beauty. My favorite is this one from the Spring snowflakes.
The soft wash of the foreground has a strong emotional response for the focus flower as subject.
It is a nice and vibrant artistic interpretation.