Nicolò is the creator of the widely acclaimed and hugely popular Hidden Islam, and also runs his own independent publishing house, Rorhof. RRB stocks both the signed First Edition of Hidden Islam and the newly pressed Third Edition. NB - You may have heard that RRB Photobooks is now publishing and distributing (we do talk about it rather a lot these days). The Third Edition of Hidden Islam is the first title we have chosen to distribute. If you would like to make a trade enquiry, you can find out more at www.rrbpublishing.com
With the festival taking place next weekend (very limited number of tickets still available here!), we are very much looking forward to Nicolò's talk, "Book Follows Photo" (Friday, 5pm) where he will talk about the basic principles applied at Rorhof in the process of making of a photobook. Until then, enjoy this interview...
Can you tell us briefly about how you came to photography.
I remember playing around a lot with my father’s cameras as a kid. When I turned 18 I started travelling a great deal and it was natural for me to take more pictures. I later studied Chinese at University and spent different periods in China, either working or studying. It was there that I created my first projects and realised that through photography I could connect and express my various interests.
You are interested in how minority communities create sustainable environments for themselves. How did you arrive at this being a central part of your practice as a photographer?
I come from South Tyrol, an autonomous province in the Alps of northern Italy, near the Austrian border. The majority of people speak German. There is a lot of attention towards minority communities, and the debate about cultural identities is omnipresent. I grew up bilingual, speaking Italian at home and German everywhere else. I guess, with that kind of background, it brings someone automatically to develop a certain sensibility towards issues connected to minorities and their environments.
And how did you develop making photobooks?
As a child I wanted to become an artist, a painter to be precise. Later I started to become passionate about books, but not visual ones. I used to write during my high school years and at the same time I was designing and painting a lot. Once I picked up photography, creating photobooks became a natural thing to do. I can keep a conceptual approach, the work can be widely distributed and I can raise and document sociological and political issues but bypass verbal languages and cultural boundaries.
Before we talk about your photobook Hidden Islam, which drew huge amounts of attention, can you give us an overview of how politics influences the different regions in Italy?
Italy is still struggling to homogenise the economy and the development in the south and in the north - though this is common in other european countries too. I think that a heterogeneity comes along with many positives side-effects too. But one negative side-effect is that a fractionalized economy is often used as a political argument to create more boundaries and divisions. The ‘Lega Nord’ for example, a political party characterised by a very aggressive attitude and use of language, uses such arguments to yearn for an independent north called Padania. An extremely intolerant position against immigration is one of the main topics in their agenda. One of the reasons why I decided to focus ‘Hidden Islam’ in the north-east of Italy, the strong-hold of the Lega Nord, is precisely to point out the contradictions and the consequences that come along with such an attitude.
And also how religion is expressed?
Religious freedom is sanctified by the Italian constitution. Generally speaking, there are no problems in expressing religion in Italy. Buddhists, Hindus, Sikh, Protestants, and many other confessions profess peacefully their faith. But when it comes to Islam, and the collective expression of it, some problems start to rise. The main one is the fact that, despite being the second religious community in the country, Islam has not yet been officially recognised by the state (contrary to what I mentioned before). Juridically speaking, no mosque could be called as such. One consequence of this is that the way relationships between institutional actors and islamic communities are handled, varies a lot depending on the political party in power. To avoid this exact situation is why modern societies have established a constitution, in order to have certain principles and rights standing above political games.
The biggest mosque in Europe is in Rome and there are more than a million Muslims in Italy. Tell us about the way the majority practice Muslim faith in this country.
The Islamic community in Italy is mainly composed of immigrants from a multitude of different countries, ranging from north Africa, up to the Balkans and all the way to the Middle east. Usually a large Islamic centre is used by all communities so that their common language becomes Italian. They choose someone to head it and the board includes representatives of all communities. When the cultural centres are rather small, the members of it are mainly from one community only. This can be particularly noticed with the Bangladeshi and the Balkan communities.
Explain what the term “Cultural Centre” means in Italy.
A Cultural Centre equals a Cultural Association, which is simply a group of people with a joint interest or purpose. An association is a relatively easy body to establish and gives a certain juridical solidity. Without the possibility to found mosques in Italy, many Islamic communities establish Islamic Cultural Associations. Sometimes they house a praying room, also called musalla in Arabic. Other times they are mosques in all its assertions, aside from the juridical. They can not be officially defined as places of worship. Besides worshipping, Islamic Cultural Centres are also used to teach the Quran, Arabic or Italian, to gather during festivities, as facilities to help immigrants in finding a job, or to deal with any kind of bureaucratic stuff.
So, now can you tell us a bit about how you came to make Hidden Islam.
Before Hidden Islam I worked on a project on Xinjiang in China, an autonomous region home to the muslim minority of the Uighurs. My project dealt with their relationship with Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group, and their increasing oppression by the government post 9/11. Out of this I created the book Oasis Hotel, which tells the story of the people living along the Cross Desert Highway, a road built to foster the search and extrapolation of oil in the region. During the shooting process of this project I became more and more aware of my interest to go back home and start working on a long term project regarding where I come from. At that time I was completing a residency at Fabrica, Benetton’s research centre in Treviso. Because of my former project I was recommended to start working on Islam in Italy and so I did. In those years the local muslim community of Treviso was facing hard times, mainly because of the former major. This became the primary reason to start documenting Hidden Islam.
It seems a very logical work, very organised, with eight categories Warehouse, Shop, Supermarket, Apartment, Stadium, Gym, Garage and Disco. Was this something you decided from the start?
In the first year I held a presentation of the project at the Bevilacqua La Masa foundation in Venice, the follow-up residency I did after Fabrica. Angela Vettese, an influential art critic and former president of the foundation, suggested that I was actually creating a map, something I had not realised before. That was the moment where I decided to categorise them as precisely as I could.
The form of the book follows a simple approach – outside black and white images of the buildings on diagonals, with gatefolds revealing colour images inside of men at prayer. Was this always your intention or did it evolve slowly? What were the ideas behind this methodology?
From early on I started using two different approaches, one which was showing the places in use, and another one aimed to document the interior and exterior of the buildings. It took a while to create the final book and combine the two bodies of work, but in the last year it simply clicked. The idea was to create a book with an intrinsic documentary value for sociological purposes, without missing a narrative approach. The final outcome is a book that contains a hidden book.
It took you five years to make this book, building relationships slowly over time. What was the most difficult part of the process?
It is inevitable that such a project takes several years to complete. So I think sticking to it for five years was the hardest thing to do. I am especially grateful to Martin Parr, who kept pushing me to work on it.
Did you get a sense of how communities where temporary mosques were located felt about multi-purpose buildings?
With the exceptions of the stadiums, which are rented only during the months of Ramadan, all the other buildings are not multi-purpose buildings, but are rented or acquired by the Islamic communities and house prayer rooms or mosques throughout the year.
In documenting Hidden Islam, you have mostly presented men at prayer. Can you tell us what conversations you had about recording how Muslim women practice their faith in Italy? Did it come up as you went along with the project?
There are a few photographs in the book that also show women at prayer. Immigration in Italy is a relatively recent thing, and still mainly male driven. The number of women is increasing rapidly though. Usually, if the place is big enough, it also houses a prayer room for women. This is one of the main reasons why the construction of mosques should be supported rather than stopped. A bigger and more official space definitely helps integration of men and women.
The images of prayer show people always in the kneeling position, and in so doing keeps identity hidden. I wonder – how do you feel about the point that maybe this keeps identity anonymous, neutral, and in so doing perpetuates the sense of other?
In Islam it is not welcomed to stand in front of the Imam and to face the people praying. Besides, anonymity was also an important aspect to the project because I didn’t want to interfere in the communities, their locations and their relationships.
The interior shots show different situations, not just people praying while kneeling. The book starts with the muezzin, followed by the ablution and then the praying scenes, alternated with architectural shots and other situations. I wanted to depict a community, a religious one to be precise, one I am not part of, and to show the contradictions that result from certain policies and prejudices. To show a collective religious experience that crosses boundaries was my aim. It’s about declaring the freedom of religion in a constitution and not allowing that to be executed.
How has it been received in the communities it documents?
Until now I have not received critiques. I am still presenting the book in different cities, usually combining the talks with either representatives of the communities, or sociologists. This is an important part of the project: promoting it in order to have a framework in which a debate can rise and the topic be discussed.
You worked on the design along with Walter Hutton. Tell us a bit about how you arrived at the simple gatefold inside/outside feature of the work, and the black and white / colour contrasts.
I mentioned it in a question before. The book was designed by me but Walter Hutton helped typesetting the introduction, double-checking everything, as well as a lot of text editing over the years.
The work is published by Rorhof, which is your own publishing company. How hard was it to get Hidden Islam off the ground? Can you tell us how you managed it?
I tried to propose the project to a few publishers, but none of them were keen in publishing it. I guess this was also because the project had yet to be completed. Only at the point when I decided to self-publish it, the project evolved and became what it is now. Without picking it up myself, from a design perspective as well as from a distributional one, it would not have been the same.
Hidden Islam has had a huge amount of press and won several awards. Why do you think it caught the imagination so strongly?
Islam is one of the main focuses of the media and has been for over a decade. Although my book focuses on a very specific geographical area, it depicts many aspects relevant to Islam globally.
Hidden Islam– 479 Comments is the conceptual follow-up to Hidden Islam, collating reader-generated comments to an article that appeared in The Guardian about your work. What led you to expand the work with a photobook without pictures?
While creating the final book I decided to avoid including the maps of each of the Islamic makeshift places of worship, in order to have a photobook, whose content is predominantly communicated through photography. Once the article on The Guardianappeared with all those comments, it just made perfect sense to publish them on paper, in order to have another picture of the topic, even if it was not photographical in a strict sense.
Hidden Islam – 479 Comments is punctuated with maps, documenting the sites of worship. It seems like this is an alternation between emotional reactions (of those who contributed online), with technical accuracy (of the mosque locations). What was the purpose of pairing these two different points of view – the emotional onlooker with the rational fact?
Hidden Islam – 479 Comments follows the exact same purpose of the original book, also conceptually. Combining a methodological approach in order to have a sociological document, with another perspective, in this case the debate within society. By printing the maps I intended to locate these places and to state their existence. While the discussion on the web is reprinted in order to make it available also for future generations.
You remained absent in these comments. Why?
The comments were not written by me, I simply republished them the way they were written on the web. The review came out shortly after the book was published and I suppose almost all commentators did not have the chance to see the book. I see my absence in the comments as a very positive aspect of Hidden Islam – 479 Comments, exactly because it offers a discussion that concerns immigration and Islam, and not my work. (Read more about Hidden Islam – 479 Comments)
Hidden Islam is now on it’s third print run. How do you feel about the success of this work?
I always intended to publish this book in a wider edition, because of the aim to divulge the issues that are connected to it. So I am very glad that the book is managing to do so. But I also see it as a book that will not be republished again and again, because it is connected to a specific time in history.
The ‘hidden’ part of your work can be read in many different ways…I wonder what you feel it refers to? What is the most hidden part?
I guess it is still hidden to me too. Biography: After studying Languages and economical and juridical institutions of East Asia at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice (Chinese and Korean), Nicoló Degiorgis moved to Hong Kong to work for a trading company and later to Beijing to continue his studies at Capital Normal University. He interned at Magnum Photos in Paris for six months and was awarded a 2008/09 Fabrica fellowship, Benetton’s communication research centre in Treviso (I). In 2009 he became a researcher on immigration issues at the University of Trieste and was granted a one year artist-residency in Venice at the art foundation Bevilacqua La Masa. In the same year he joined photo agency Contrasto and engaged in an intense period of editorial assignments for major international magazines, documenting various events, from art biennales to the Arab Spring. He runs the independent publishing house Rorhof, co-curates the gallery space foto-forum (Bolzano) and teaches photography inside a prison and at the Faculty of Arts and Design of the University of Bolzano.