Looking at Mattia Insolera’s scenes of harbor life on the Mediterranean, often with distant figures framed in deep space, you would not suspect he had spent time getting to know his human subjects. But that is the surprise in the Italian photographer’s process. For instance, the two men standing at the edge of a ship staring across the water at the photographer are seamen he had already spoken with. They are the only crew left on the Barika motor vessel, abandoned without payment in the Istanbul anchorage area. He had spent the night on board with them and in the morning asked to use their lifeboat to make the picture. He counted on the fact that the men, Yavuz Okumus and Taksim Karaosman, would be standing there, observing him intently, concerned about his maneuvers with the boat. In another photograph at the Italian port of Crotone, a man seen through the window of a building on the dock was also someone Insolera has befriended. He had tried to make photos of the man inside the room but he was stiff and self-conscious, so Insolera left his flash and went outside to make the picture. In the process, he changed the frame from a simple portrait to a cinematic scene. The migrant, waiting for his permit renewal to work on a ship, has become an icon of forlorn resignation. Insolera’s project 6th Continent (published earlier this year by Neverland Publications) is in color but has the feeling of black-and-white film noir. Between the ages of 18 and 20, he watched all the classics of that genre. His father was a lawyer, his grandfather a criminal judge, and he himself studied criminal law. In his eight-year project about the Mediterranean, he scrutinizes the dark aspects of industry beyond the tourist trade: abandoned ships, unpaid seamen, and waves of desperate immigration. It’s a disturbing vision of hard-working laborers up against global forces of greed and corruption in a place of myth and contested territories.
The first three years of the project were funded by the Catalan government – he lives in Barcelona – which connected him with the IT Federation, a global union of transport workers that gave Insolera a map of abandoned ships and helped him locate seamen who would talk about their plight. Unlike a photojournalist covering breaking news, Insolera sets a slower pace, trying to find common ground and empathy. When he starts photographing, he takes breaks, moving away from the subject, smoking a cigarette or making a phone call, quietly signaling that his method involves a process. He gives people time to forget about him and start behaving more naturally. When he made the photograph of Morteza and Mehdir, two young Afghan migrants climbing through a fence to sneak into the port of Patras, “the main hub connecting Greece to Italy and the rest of Europe,” according to the caption, he had already spent 10 days with them without making any photographs. Then he went to Spain and kept in touch through Facebook. Six weeks later he returned, and everything had changed. They wanted his help, asking him to document a friend who had been beaten by five members of the violent neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. One afternoon, Morteza and Mehdir asked him to follow them to where they tried to slip onboard the ferry to Italy, making two or three attempts a day. They were showing him, but they were also actually trying to get onboard. “You need to absorb a lot of information about the place and situation,” says Insolera, “but then you blend it inside yourself and sweat it out, express it in metaphorical terms.”