Interview with Ferdinando Scianna: Sicilian Photographer

Ferdinando Scianna
Ferdinando Scianna –

“Curiosity is, in itself, a form of adventure”

Interviewed by Alejandro Luque

       The Magnum Agency photographer has just published L’etica nel fotogiornalismo, an essay in which he sets out ideas and controversies encountered throughout the many years he has been exercising his profession.

The link between photography and books has one of its most actively studious participants in Ferdinando Scianna (Bagheria, 1943).  Taken under the wing of the great writer, Leonardo Sciascia, with whom he published his first book, Feste religiose in Sicilia, it wasn’t long before he left his birth place to take up a job as reporter for L’Europeo, initially in Milan and then in Paris.  In the French capital he would meet Milan Kundera and Cartier-Bresson, who encouraged him to apply to join the Magnum Agency.

From 1987, he combined an intense period of activity in the field of fashion and advertising, including projects like L’instante e la forma, Città del mondo or Forme del caos.  He has also published books of portraits of Sciascia, with whom he co-authored Ore di Spagna, and of Jorge Luis Borges.  Apart from that, Scianna has developed another facet to his career, as a photographic and journalistic critic, in which guise he organises forums for debate: the last of which, coordinated with Antonio Ansón for PhotoEspaña, took the exact title, Words and Photos.

His latest publication to date, L’etica nel fotogiornalismo (Electa), the fruit of well matured reflexion, has just been published in Italy.

Your maestro, Cartier-Bresson, spoke of good photographers as ‘adventurers with ethics’. What qualities should accompany such professionals?

Henri Cartier-Bresson said that in reference to Robert Capa.  And I think, as always with his brilliant definitions, he was right.  But there are many types of reporter. And I believe the main quality of a photo-reporter should be curiosity.  Curiosity is, in itself, a form of adventure: above all an adventure of the mind, and, for a certain type of photography, occasionally a physical one.  However, I’m referring to a compatissante curiosity, compassionate, the type shown by a man who is interested in the life of other men.  And that, without doubt, implies an ethical positioning.  On the other hand, the practice of ethics is somewhat complicated, and, therefore, after almost half a century of work, I’ve decided to give it particular consideration.

Is there any common ground that reinforces the fact that photography never lies, to what degree is that true?

The only true part of that common ground lies in the fact that all non-manipulated photography is always a representation of visible reality. But photography shows, it doesn’t demonstrate proof. It shows you death: the murderer is almost always postulated by us, the viewers.

I remember the controversy provoked by the photography of Javier Bauluz, in which you can see some bathers next to the body of a drowned shipwreck victim.  There were many more people on the beach, the police, teams from the Red Cross, etc., but the frame was the perfect metaphor for European indifference with regard to the drama of migration across the straits of Gibraltar. Is this legitimate if it’s in a good cause?

There are many similar examples.  I have a great mistrust of the pretension that justifies things done with the motivation, or excuse, of acting in a ‘good cause’.  To start with, one would have to be sure that the cause in question was indeed good.  And, when it seems so, one can’t justify cynicism or the manipulation of viewers.  But Bauluz’s photo was legitimate because it showed a factual event.

For many people, photography smacks of an attack against privacy, and I’m not only talking about the paparazzi…  Where are the limits?

Cartier-Bresson said that freedom consists of a system of rigorous rules that each person freely chooses.  It was a speech that referred to the aesthetic, but I also consider it excellent with regard to ethics.  Not everything has to be photographed, not everything can be photographed and not all that has been photographed should be published without bearing in mind the context.  One ought to be as much against any kind of censorship as in favour of everyone’s dignity.

In the press, they usually insist on the need to ‘put a face’ to dramatic situations in order to move public opinion. Every face and in all circumstances?

In a way, I think I have already answered that with the previous question. All said and done, the Christian and secular value of not doing to others anything you wouldn’t want done to yourself ought to prevail.  Using an element of shock could be an ethical gesture, but also an economic or pornographic one.  I’m in favour of looking at things on a case by case basis.

And do you think that the extraordinary circulation offered by the Internet and mass media makes this art more shameless?  I’m referring to the fact that before, for example, a young woman could let herself be photographed, “as long as her mother doesn’t find out”, but now any image flies around the world in a click…

I believe that the Internet and social networks are a symptom of our current cultural and historical predicament.  A private gesture used as a public one changes its very nature.  The family album or one’s own personal diary aren’t the same thing if we make them public.  In the anxious desire for individualisation and being centre stage, identity, paradoxically, gets lost amongst the multitude, as we relinquish our own individual privacy.

In your homeland, Sicily, there is the very famous case of Baron Von Gloeden and his homoerotic portraits of the locals…  Can we judge him from an ethical point of view, leaving to one side prudishness?

Baron Von Gloeden exerted his economic and cultural privilege.  Time absolves him for aesthetic reasons, but his moral attitude is very ambiguous, not to say reprehensible.

Next to your work, I think the most widely spread photographic images of Sicily have been those of Letizia Battaglia, where there have been plenty of dead bodies, victims of the Mafia…  What’s your opinion of her and her work?  Have you never been interested in capturing that dramatic aspect of your homeland?

I have a great admiration for the photographs of Letizia Battaglia, and for those of Franco Zecchin.  They form an extraordinary historical document, as important as Weegee’s images of a violent New York in the thirties.  However, I’ve always thought that a murdered corpse, or for that matter many war photographs, show, often very commendably, the tip of the iceberg of a social situation that is blatantly expressed in violence.  It’s the dramatic moment, and it can be useful in certain circumstances.  But I’m much more interested in the view that explores the submerged part of the iceberg.

As a Magnum photographer, you travel around the world.  Do you change in anyway your attitude according to the place you’re visiting or for the culture that receives you?

I think the view of any man, of any photographer or of any writer, is determined by his own cultural experience, which above all is formed in infancy and adolescence.  This comes to be a ‘world view, and if there are any, with prejudices included.  And it crops up again, in the choice of contents, the forms, in anything you look at or photograph, wherever in the world.

 Alejandro Luque

This interview by Alejandro Luque first appeared on the website, Mediterraneo Sur, ( in June 2010 – translation Andrew Edwards.

Alejandro’s book, La defensa siciliana, is available from Amazon – click here

Alejandro Luque
Alejandro Luque
Alejandro is a journalist who writes for the Culture section of the Spanish newspaper, El Correo de Andalucía. He is also part of the team behind the website Mediterraneo Sur. He has had two books with Sicilian themes published: the collection of short stories, La defensa siciliana and his travelogue in the footsteps of Jorge Luis Borges, Viaje a la Sicilia con un guía ciego – The Sicilian Defence is now available in English translation; the Journey is awaiting publication.

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