Veronica Milli (b. 1997, Italy) uses the medium of photography to immerse her viewers into the depths of her personal life. In her debut monograph ‘Valdescura è lontana un’ora dal mare’, she explores her mother’s birthplace Valdescura – a small Umbrian fraction absent from the maps. Mingling somewhere between the past and present, she translates an atmospheric viewing experience of the place through her photographs. Valdescura is far from everything. It is disappearing. Its inhabitants seem to embody a profound sense of life as well as a sense of deep melancholy. Everything is cloaked in a sort of atmospheric decay, a tension towards the end. Another layer of the photograph lies in Milli’s own experience of motherhood and subsequently, her documentation of the pregnancy and birth of her daughter. The significance of Valdescura in combination with Milli’s motherhood then form a narrative that oscillates between life and death.
We sat together with Milli to ask her more about this mysterious place and her unusual portrayal of motherhood.
When I googled Valdescura, on the map only about 10 houses showed up. It really seems like a completely secluded place with a close-knit community of inhabitants. In your book you describe that “Valdescura is an hour away from the sea an hour away from the hospital, it’s decaying yet it’s still so alive. It’s easier to count the dead yet it’s still so alive.” Could you please tell our readers a bit more about this place and how did it become the focus point of your project?
Valdescura is the birthplace of my mother, located in Umbria, in central Italy. It is a hill surrounded by greenery, with four houses and now only three inhabitants, a location difficult to find even on maps. I grew up in this place and came back every summer for a few weeks. Far from any city or supermarket, an hour from the sea, and an hour from the hospital, it is, for me, a place full of memories and roots.
Years ago, my mother was forced to move for work, she experienced this as an uprooting from what she considered her birthplace. She had spent all her childhood and adolescence immersed in the middle of nowhere. Up until 15 years old, she had never seen the sea. She’s always lived with grief about the lack of what she called her land, and I grew up internalizing a sense of deep melancholy towards the place where my origins reside which brings with it not only what is my family tree, but also a series of atmospheres, feelings, and rural realities typical of Italian culture, which are now disappearing.
Every time my mind returns to Valdescura, it does so with the awareness of remembering a place that is about to end. And I feel overwhelmed by a great sense of desolation and end. Like many mountain villages, or remote localities, it has grown from having several people to three. I am heartened to be able to tell it in some way, albeit under a darker and dreamlike vision, and I am glad that I can continue to live through my photographs.
I started from here, then in parallel with my pregnancy, because this place, which for me is an inner fulcrum, is linked to the roots that today I chose to plant in my life having Agatha.
The way you portray your experience of motherhood is very unusual from traditional representations in visual culture. Let’s say, generally, bodies of works on motherhood tend to be in colour loaded with a positive atmosphere. In contrast, your photographs are soaked in deep black with sharp contrasts, giving them a mysterious and existential quality. Why did you opt for this aesthetics?
Thank you for that question. I feel totally distant from the imaginary of pregnancy in the Western world. I cannot say that some of the things that are represented in this aesthetic do not exist, but completely eliminate a side that coexists during pregnancy: that it is not only happiness, love, joy, but it is also anguish, fear, doubt. Walking down a dark alley not knowing what’s next.
My pregnancy started at a particular time but with an even more complicated situation that amplified some negative feelings. But I’m sure there are traces that every woman, in a different way, carry with her, both during the nine months, and in the post-partum.
I think it is right and important to talk about this experience even the darkest, deepest, and inner aspects. My photography is not born with a reportable objective and so I don’t feel like sending a message or telling something overly specific. My photographic eye often sees in black and white, and it is only through this way of seeing the world that I was able to express what were my anxieties. The choice to use this aesthetic is spontaneous, and the reason I chose it is closely linked to the taste of humanity and truth that I seek.
Becoming a mother is a transcendental experience, and for me it had to be told. Through contrasts, voids, whites and blacks, gestures, screams and scars. Smiles and love are always there, deep and deep, but that’s not what I needed to show.
You seem to portray the human body as a prop in a space moulded into unnatural poses. Also, many of your photographs are self-portraits. What role does performance play in your work?
I started my photographic journey mainly through self-portraiture. I think that the act of self-portraying in terms of positioning, dressing, disguising, getting naked in front of a target, is, in itself, a performative gesture. Over the past few years, I have taken on multiple identities in front of the camera, changing what was my aesthetic, and trying to mutate into other human beings that had a strong impact on me. This has all been very therapeutic, and I’ve always seen the self-portrait as a radical, yet subtle form of therapy.
I think all my photographs have a performative character, even those in which the subject is not me. Everything is almost always built and thought, and then, very often, left to chance. I like the phrase “unnatural poses” because it is what I constantly seek in my work – both inconvenience and introspection. I try to make you feel those feelings that exist, but that you hardly want to face. This happens through insertion, for example, as I did in the publication with my placenta, my scar, or additional disturbing elements. People ask me why I do these things… saying “they make me anxious; I don’t want to look at your placenta,” and I realize I’ve hit the spot.
The cover of your book and some inside pages are printed in pink colour. It is a gendered colour and perhaps might connote the birth of your daughter. Why did you choose this colour to accompany your dark black and white photographs?
You’re right, it’s commonly considered a gender color, but I hadn’t even honestly thought about it. It was a choice I took reflecting a lot with Klim and Martha (founders of DITO). We liked the idea of interconnection of a color that represented a candid world, light and perfect, with these photographs so dark and contrasted. Almost as if it were a kind of semantic, vaguely ironic opposition. Dark and black images that say something, and then sometimes pink pages, that seem to say something else.
How do you reflect on having the role of both a mother and an artist?
I can honestly say that the role of a mother is overwhelming everything and that after this publication I wanted to take a break, choosing not to shoot. I would like, however, as soon as I feel like it, to go back to shooting and tell my life and my reality further. Also to speak about this multitude of roles that a person can have and their coexistence, in me is expressed in those of person, mother, woman, artist, curator, etc.
Since this is your first photobook, what do you hope to achieve with it?
This book is something I did not expect, it was born after a proposal from DITO Publishing, and I felt totally taken aback. It was, therefore, a real project that we all worked on together, for a year, thinking about different editing methods and visual languages. I am very satisfied with the result, and for the moment that makes me happy. I hope it’ll turn your stomach a little off if you hold it in your hands and leave something in the memories of those who browse it.
‘Valdescura é lontana un’ora dal mare’ was published by Dito Publishing and is available for purchase here.