Gritty Photographs Get to the Heart of the Human Experience

Paolo Marchetti tells us about the complex dance of mind, body, and spirit that allows him to create emotionally charged images.

Paolo Marchetti first caught the eye of National Geographic director of photography Sarah Leen with his work on raising animals for luxury goods, which evolved into a feature story published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

"He is a very passionate, driven photographer," says Leen. "The work has an aesthetic appeal that's often in conflict with the subject matter, which I find very intriguing."

As part of our "Through the Lens" series, we take a look at Marchetti's work and find out what makes him tick.

A frigate bird flies above Fernando de Noronha, an archipelago off the northern coast of Brazil. August 2011

What was the first picture you made that mattered to you?

The photograph that marked my path is an image I never took.

In 2009, I was in southern India telling the story of outcasts in the state of Kerala. This area has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. I photographed alcoholics, orphans, and the mentally ill. On this particular day, I was itching to take pictures.

At the end of a long, rectangular room [in] a mental hospital, I saw an old man on his bed, crying. I approached as cautiously as possible, but the man noticed me immediately, stopped crying, and gave me a wise look, like a grandfather watching his grandson. In a moment his emotional state changed. I sat on a cot next to his, and we looked at each other for several seconds. It seemed that he wanted to ask me, Why are you here? That embarrassed me.

When the crazy desire for taking a picture prevails over your own heart and sensitivity, it can damage your humanity. This lack of awareness, when you lose contact with yourself, can negate the good intentions that should be part of making an image, especially when what we do as photographers draws on the suffering of others.

I couldn’t take that picture, and it was a lesson that I will never forget.

A protestor yells during a demonstration in Rome organized by the fascist party Forza Nuova against the government of Silvio Berlusconi. January 2010

If you weren’t a photographer, what would you be?

It intimidates me just to admit it, but I would wholeheartedly be a jazz pianist, although I have no experience with musical composition. I have just been an avid listener for a long time.

Who or what is your greatest influence?

Everything I have been through has played a role in what I do today. Music and literature have fed my photographic work; martial arts and my prior experience as a magician have contributed to my mental and physical discipline.

In photography it is deeply important how you use your body. Body language is a complex code.You are creating complicity, like a magician drawing the audience in before performing a trick. You have to show yourself, your intention, and personality to the people you're communicating with. The energy you transmit with your body, your eyes, your voice is fundamental.

A worker at a farm in Colombia prepares a brown caiman—killed earlier by a single cut to the back of its neck—to be skinned. He will slice the animal from head to tail, and then another worker will peel off the hide. Caiman leather is not considered as luxurious as American alligator and is thus less expensive. April 2014

What fuels your passion for photography?

Photography is the reason for being in that place at that moment. It is the perfect excuse to travel, not only in the geographical sense but also spiritually. Photography allows me to walk away from the constructs of my own culture and upbringing and recognize myself in the look of a stranger.

Photography is fertility—I learned this from the women in my life—and fertility is one of the most powerful concepts I have come across. Everything starts with this energy. Photography is my tool for translating this into a gesture. The gratitude toward life feeds my passion, because I'm not interested in photography but [instead] the consequences of my choices as a photographer. When I expose my frame, I'm exposing myself.

What is the perfect photograph?

I've always thought of single images as orphans separated from their parents. It is the whole experience, the process, surrounding a photograph that matters to me. The single photograph means nothing if it doesn’t create a conversation with the image before and after it.

Perfection is linked with simplicity and manifests when it's not tarnished by an overactive ego. I am not interested in creating only beautiful pictures. It’s useless.

The region of Cruzília, Brazil, with farms like this one dating back to the 1800s, is where the bloodline of the Mangalarga Marchador horse originated.

What is your most treasured possession in the field?

My ability to be surprised by ordinary life. I don't want to lose the opportunity to observe and pay attention to the emotional experience I want to live—and to photograph. I want to recognize the extraordinary things in the simplicity of the ordinary.

What is the most important advice you can give emerging photographers?

Don’t lose your sense of curiosity and wonder. Teach yourself to be enchanted, because this is what fills your emotional tank, and this tank has to overflow. Keep emerging.

Thirty-six-year-old Cedric stands underneath a waterfall in the remote village of Saut-d'Eau, Haiti. The waterfalls attract thousands of pilgrims each year, who seek purification in this place where the Virgin Mary was said to have been sighted. July 2010

You can see more of Paolo Marchetti's work on his website and follow him on Instagram. Alexa Keefe is a senior photo editor for National Geographic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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