A Conversation with Francesco Merlini

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Francesco Merlini

Francesco Merlini is a co-winner of the 2015 Conscientious Portfolio Competition with his project Farang. I spoke with the artist about his background, motivations, and work.

Jörg Colberg: Can you talk about your background? Who are you as a photographer, what are your main interests and/or motivations?

Francesco Merlini: While studying product design at the university I started to take pictures of friends, road trips, drunken strangers at parties and this kind of stuff. Later, five years ago, I started to work at the photojournalism agency Prospekt that now represents me. I entered the agency as an assistant scanning negatives and doing post-production. Later I started to realize small reportages and news pictures for Italian and international magazines, and I started to think that I could have become a photographer. This experience has been very important to me, because I understood that photography is not about taking good single pictures, but it’s about ideas, projects, and narrations.

In the meantime, while doing more photojournalistic series, I started to keep a visual diary of my life, and I was charmed by how photography was enabling me to find something that maybe I had already found, but that was hidden inside me. The photographic quest started to assume another meaning, another value that gives life to a journey of discovery that sees its arrival in myself.

Every day I see so many interesting photographic projects, and sometimes it seems to me that everything has already been photographed. In order not to be overwhelmed, I look for input and paths to follow outside of photography or at least outside of the “official” photographic networks. I really want to produce series that are still able to stupefy and intrigue viewers. In order to do this I continue to on one side produce reportage works with a very strong personal language and a strong bond with photojournalism. On the other side I started to experiment with mixing fiction and reality in order to get something new to me, a playground where you don’t understand what is real and what is not.

JC: Can you introduce Farang? In your statement, you speak of epiphanies – I’m curious to learn more about that!

FM: These pictures were taken in Italy, France, Turkey, Thailand, and Kosovo over a time span of three years. What connects the pictures of this series is that as the title suggests after years of pictures in a “comfort zone,” of people and places I feel comfortable with, almost all the pictures of Farang were taken in circumstances that were alien to me. What happened in front of my eyes and my emotional and visual interior mold together to create a personal interpretation and narration of things, places and people, transforming something that is extraneous to me into something that speaks of me. The flash of the camera has consecrated these small revelations that I call epiphanies, impressing the shroud that lies on the subjects whose truth I’ve discarded. To me these images are relics of something invisible.

JC: I’m also curious of your description of the images as “tarot cards.” What kind of fortune do they tell?

FM: Well, the process of discovery, the process of unveiling someone’s fortunes or misfortunes in tarots reading is not far from my idea of photography. But there is more than one analogy with tarot cards: in this body of work almost every picture has an evident subject, a single element, a person or an object that acquires a larger meaning, that becomes a symbol of something bigger and collective, a new archetype… the child, the staircase, the mask, the hanged child. Usually, as a photographer, I don’t want to leave the reading of an image as something complete subjective; I try to suggest the meaning of my pictures but, as with tarot cards, different readers give different meanings to what they see.

Simultaneously, as with tarot cards, the usage of the vertical format and the framing of the subjects intensify the evocative power of the images.

JC: How did you go about working on the series? Did you mostly find pictures, or was there a plan, however loose?

FM: Usually there are no plans. I just bring myself to places and situations where, given my interests I could find something I want to photograph. Very often I see something special in situations that often are quite normal. The camera becomes an instrument to break people’s blindness to reality’s wonders and to the fascination that I feel.

I have been influenced by the masters of the intimate diary like Anders Petersen or Daido Moriyama. But at the same time I’m scared to become a photographer who, no matter where you are, always looks for the same things and photograph those in the same way. The risk is to make every place of the world look the same, and that is really scary to me. Before starting a new project I spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of visual language is the best to create an aesthetic that reinforces and is in dialogue with the narration I want to create. I hate it when the choice of color or black&white or the post production become pure decoration that transforms a useless picture into something aesthetically pleasant.

At the same time, the editing process is really important. I separate the pictures that are only aesthetically pleasant from the pictures that have a sense of the story I want to tell. Every picture has to have something in it, every picture has to evoke or suggest something in order to move the viewer. I believe in the invisible. Beauty is not enough.

JC: So you go out with an idea for a story, and you then create the photographs that fill it? Do you allow for pictures to change your original idea of the story? Have you ever had to change your visual treatment of the photographs, given you found it worked better if done differently?

FM: It depends on what kind of project I’m working on… If it’s a reportage or a project with a strong bond with reality, for sure I have an idea of what I will probably find and shoot. But it’s only an idea, an idea that very often is proven wrong. A photographer always thinks beforehand about what he could photograph in a certain situation. But Dorothea Lange used to say that if you already know what you will photograph, you will photograph only your preconceptions.

About my personal projects, sometimes I have a very strong idea and I photograph according to what and how I want to communicate it. If, for example, I’m doing a visual diary of a journey, there is no idea to follow. Maybe there are some previous thoughts that anyway will change during the time I take pictures, giving shape to a narration that at the end will be a mix of previous expectations and surprises.

About the visual treatment, I have some aesthetic languages I usually use, because they successfully emphasize my vision and the atmosphere I want to reveal. As already said, before shooting I usually think about what kind of post production could fit with the project. But it has happened that I change ideas while shooting. While I was shooting my series Le Tchad Dense in Chad last summer, I started to think about how to communicate the sense of suffocation I was feeling there. When I came back and started editing the pictures I realized that I could have achieved the effect with a different type of post-production, working on the grey layers. The result is something totally different from what I had expected before leaving.

JC: I’m also curious how you would describe that difference between a beautiful picture (or maybe one with a specific aesthetic) and one that, to use your words, moves the viewer? I guess what you’re saying is that you don’t want your aesthetic to become a filter – maybe like those Instagram filters we all use. But finding the pictures that work and separating them out from those that don’t is a big struggle for many photographers, so maybe you can share some of what you do when you do that?

FM: Well, I was a fixer for Bruce Gilden once, and he told me one thing: “Every picture has to have something interesting in it, it cannot be only about the aesthetic”. I thought a lot about this statement; and I think it’s true, especially if you want to take pictures that can be universally appreciated. If a picture is only aesthetically pleasant, someone might like it, someone else might not. If there is something else, people who maybe do not like the picture visually will look at it with interest, and maybe they will remember it.

Doing the editing is so important and so difficult. I work also as the photo editor of a photojournalism agency. It’s easier to edit a reportage since you have a linear story to narrate, and you need some pictures in order to collect all the elements of a story and show it to the audience.

With personal work, editing is more complex since it’s much more personal and subjective. It’s very hard to explain how I decide that a picture works. It’s about something you feel in front of the picture, something that you feel in your guts the first time you see it. Maybe if you start thinking too much if a picture works or not that means it doesn’t work. For sure, in a series aesthetically good images are necessary, but you also need images that link things and communicate.

During the editing of my work I discarded many nice pictures because of their emptiness or because they didn’t find their place in the narrative. They would have weakened the whole sequence. At the same time, I don’t think that a series has to include only beautiful images with a strong meaning. There also have to be images that slow down the rhythm in order to create a roller coaster that keeps the viewer interested without anesthetizing his gaze, enabling him to be stupefied many times.