Lorenzo Castore (b. 1973, Italy) is based between Rome, Italy and Andros, Greece. In his oeuvre, he focuses on long-term projects that are self-reflective, mirroring both personal and universal narratives. In his latest monograph LAND (published by BLOW UP PRESS), the focus is on the Silesian region and particularly, its inhabitants. Silesia is known for its mining industry which boomed after World War II and communist times, yet slowly fell apart after the introduction of a capitalist market economy. As times revealed, the land is complex in nature as the history of displacement, regime changes and consequently, identity crisis has heavily shaped the current development of the area, which is now soaked in uncertainty.
We, therefore, sat with Castore to talk about his book LAND and experiences from his journeys to Silesia to learn more about the artist’s views on photography and this complicated place.
What initially sparked your interest in the Silesian region?
I started my photographic path as an independent photographer by visiting Kosovo during the war in 1999. I was 25 years old. The experience was tough, and the media world brutally let me down. I wasn’t even sure of my true motivation. I didn’t know enough about myself to talk about something so complex and big. I looked at the map and decided to go where something crucial happened for all of us, but nothing was happening anymore. I escaped the news and the current facts.
In Gliwice, Hitler attacked Poland and that was the spark that started World War II. Since that time our world has changed forever, and we have changed with it. I went there without a real plan but with the support of a friend who knew someone based there and logistical help from the Polish Institute of Culture in Rome. I wanted to photograph everything, learn something about myself and what I had around me. It was a leap into the unknown. That piece of land was a pretext. I was brave but also scared and confused. In addition to its war history, Gliwice was also one of the coal mining towns of Silesia. I’ve always been fascinated by coal miners. Once as a child I saw on TV a group of miners digging underground with their helmet lights and that image had a strong impact on me. It went beyond the contingent: men together with other men who, with the help of a small light, sought new paths in total darkness. Silesia was the real start of my journey, and I’m not just referring to photography…
As an Italian, how did you gain such close access and trust from people in the region?
When I got there, I was a maverick dog. The only two people I was in contact with were Jan, a chemical engineer, and Iweta, a nice woman employee of the municipality who was helping me in whatever way she could to make me feel less lost.
So… I ended up at the premiere of a film in the main local cinema theatre and there I met Justyna, a beautiful girl with yellow cat eyes and an irresistible gap between her upper teeth and Janusz, a weird guy who wore a leopard-print hat and a Red Army coat. I spent a crazy night with them and some of their friends. I fell in love with Justyna, and I became friends with Janusz and especially with a guy named Darek who traded in parts of old locomotives and stuff like that. They somehow adopted me.
Silesia could be harsh and pretty hostile – and believe me, it was – but I wasn’t alone and that made a big difference. Very quickly I felt at home. It was natural, simple. I loved being there, it felt so good to build something from zero in such a neutral place.
You visited the region between the years 1999-2001 and then again in 2018. The book is also divided according to these time frames, why did you decide to return back and document Silesia further? Also, would you say that your approach changed the second time you visited?
It wasn’t my decision to go back. I was invited by Wojciech Nowicki (a friend from Krakow) is and also a very good writer and curator. He is in charge of the photographic department of the Museum of Gliwice. He visited my first Silesian exhibitions about twenty years ago – before we became friends. As curator of the Museum of Gliwice, he had the idea to ask me to go back and the curiosity to see what would have been my approach after so long and after so many life and photographic experiences.
I’m usually skeptical about going back to places that I have loved so much: I’m afraid of being disappointed and ruining the memory of the good times. Plus, my people weren’t there anymore. Life goes on, it is what it is… but at the same time, I had a strong feeling that my work there wasn’t finished. I had to close the circle, so I accepted the residency at the Museum. At first, I was about to quit and leave: I was looking for what it was, and it was extremely frustrating to realise how everything looked kind of similar but depowered… I had the nasty feeling I was going for the weak copy of what I did there twenty years before and that was something I want to avoid at all costs because I didn’t have any desire for that – and desire is a fundamental element of my photography.
Instead, I wanted to focus on old maps (which was doable…) and on teenagers (a growing obsession…) but I didn’t know any and with teenagers, you can’t just ask a fixer because it would look forced and not believable. With teenagers, you have to earn their trust for real. I had the need to be in the present, to start from zero.
When I was in Silesia for the first time, I felt like some kind of aged teenager, and I wanted to refresh that feeling but on a brand new basis. I was close to despair and ready to resign but then I met by chance my new young friend Bartek, and everything drastically changed. In the meantime, I was introduced to Iza, Roman and Marcin: they supposed to help me, but they did much more… I was somehow adopted for the second time but this time I had more experience, I was aware of those places and the work done in the past. Above all, I was home again.
Besides the two sections that the book is divided into, what were the other main editorial decisions you took when composing this book?
The maps – together with old photos either of unknown and famous Polish photographers (Jerzy Lewczynski and Zofia Rydet among others) and with old postcards – are the cover case of the book and then they are assembled in two unfold collages – one at the beginning and one at the end of the book. The first collage is from 1749 (date of the first existing map of the region) until the end of World War II; the second one is about communist times. The progression of the book is simple and strictly chronological: the maps collages comprehend my two times there, linked by the text by Wojciech Nowicki.
In the whole book, there is only one colour image, breaking the flow between the two sections. Why this colour image in particular when the rest is all in black-and-white?
I had the desire to try to shoot some colour during the residency but then I rarely did it. However, one morning I felt I really had to do it. I ran into this special strange guy, Dawid. We were at Bytom bus station and met by chance. He had sticks because of his extremely weak legs. He was fragile and gentle, barely able to stand. His face was beautiful, magic, far away, concentrated. He had amazing blue eyes looking in opposite directions. I couldn’t stop staring at him. For some strange reason wherever I go I always meet someone I am irresistibly attracted to who has eyes looking in opposite directions. Like a sorcerer, a magician, a different being able to see what we can’t.
Would you say that your documentary projects are not only about the place and people you depict but also a kind of mirror of yourself?
Of course. They are an experience. I hope they are full of life and question the mystery of being.
Three years have now passed since you visited the region, how do you look back on the project now?
I don’t look back at it. The book exists. The circle is closed. Now I have my people there and Bytom is one of my favourite towns so I hope I will go back soon, maybe just to visit my friends. I take pictures anyway, there doesn’t have to be necessarily a structured project. I have the attitude of an amateur photographer, I like to feel insecure, pay attention to the signs and start from scratch every time. Life defines my work.