by Allan Kliger
“It was May, 2014.
A Magnum Agency workshop in Reggio Emilia, Italy, with Magnum photographer Abbas leading. As part of Fotografia Europea 2014, the Municipality of Reggio Emilia had invited several Magnum Master Photographers to participate in a series of activities, presentations and workshops. I was one of those selected to attend, a pretty small group of 10-12, for three days of shooting, critique and guidance. Aside from learning under Abbas, one of the preeminent photographers of our time, there were a few other enticing carrots – one of the students from each workshop would be selected and featured in a public projection show later that week in the imposing Teatro Municipale Valli as part of the Fotografia Europea events, and each Magnum tutor would choose one deserving masterclass participant to be featured in a special online feature of the prestigious British Journal of Photography with an accompany interview, as well as online on the Magnum web site. Pretty heady stuff for a type-A driven photographer.
I’ll be truthful. I really wanted to win that accolade. I’m not normally considered a wallflower so I wasn’t afraid to get out of my comfort zone, whatever that may have been, and to push for more.
We had been given the subject of the assignment a few weeks before the workshop was supposed to start so that we could begin to think about what we each would do, how we might approach the assignment. The theme was NO PLACE LIKE HOME. It was up to each student to define that as they wished, and to then seek to tell a story in images that would portray the theme as they saw it. As we had to work within the city of Reggio Emilia, I decided to fly there a few days early, scout for possible locations and, maybe even meet some of the locals so that I could hit the ground and workshop running. I wanted to set myself up to win and so it seemed to me I had best put in the time that others might not. I guess that’s a pretty good formula for wanting anything in life, eh? (That’s the Canadian in me speaking).
It was a grey, dismal, rainy day when I landed. The city seemed deserted. I checked in to my hotel, got my cameras ready and figured I may as well begin to explore. I had already decided that I would try to see if I could find new immigrants to the city and see if I could cajole a story from that. Reggio Emilia was known to be a starting point for many newcomers to Italy, refugees and others wanting a better life in promised lands, and so I thought if I could perhaps just meet and befriend some that I might be able to document what their new life was like, their community, their HOME. I’m a “people person” so I knew that my strength would be in shooting people up close and personal. If I was to leverage what I was good at, and have a chance at winning I would have to focus – pardon the pun – on people. What better place, I thought, than to try and meet newcomers than the local train station, so off I went.
I was pouring rain and I was scurrying for shelter wherever I could find it. It was a pretty depressing way to start, I thought to myself. I found myself huddling to stay dry wherever under bridges, pressed alongside walls, beneath building overhangs with my camera always in hand as I went along. So from cover to cover I went, saying hi to people along the way, probing for openings, for any opportunity to make a new friend and get a lead for my story.
Finally I found the train station. And that’s where it started to fall into place. Shooting strangers, feeling who was friendly and who wasn’t, striking up conversations, explaining why I was there, what I wanted to do, and asking for help. Needless to say, lots of no’s, along with some other choice words and expressions but that’s never stopped me before and it didn’t stop me then. And then I found it. Her, actually. The one with the big, crazy hat. You could tell she had a big personality by how she dressed and carried herself. She was happy to sit for a quick portrait and, as it happened, was there to meet with some friends. They had all come from Nigeria not too long ago and were living together in a small community of others who had recently arrived. I asked if she would introduce me to her friends and see if they’d agree to let me shoot them for my story, hang out with them morning to night, shoot as we went along until they weren’t even aware I was there. She said yes, and so I was off to the races. Hard work ahead, long hours, trying to blend in and be invisible yet still get the shots I needed up close and personal. Looking for the light, for locations and mood, for my story.
Read the full article on Lens Magazine Issue #32