Muted colours, with a light touch of sepia – for many decades this is what photographs of shared family memories looked like. But what if those memories and the pictures connected to them are not real? What if the people that might have made up a particular family, never actually knew each other – as in the case of the photographer, Marzio Emilio Villa? Villa was three months old when he was adopted from Brazil by his Italian parents. He never knew his bio-logical parents. He never tried to know who they were. Even so, it would seem as though he wanted to use photography to give form to this empty hole in his past, and so to create his own story.
Please tell us more about your project “La Marée de la Mémoire” (The Ebbing of Memory) and how it came about!
For adoptees such as my brother and myself, building family memories is extremely important. The first part of your life, the one that preceded your adoption, is essentially non-existent. For me, it is a mystery that will never be solved. I have a different name on my birth certificate, and when I was adopted, I started a new life – I became a new person. My parents kept a box full of souvenirs and photo documents for my brother. In this box I also found a diary containing the information and addresses that I needed to create this project. It took me 32 years to find the courage to read it.
What was your motivation behind „La Marée de la Mémoire“?
My core motivation for this project was to explore where I came from. It all started with my brother spending a holiday in Brazil to find out more about his past. At first I was scared of going too, but then I decided that telling this story was a way to prevent myself from overthinking my history for the rest of my life. When I got back, I didn’t touch the pictures for seven months. I needed some distance from the entire experience.
Your images are characterised by muted colours. How did you arrive at this particular aesthetic?
After ten years of black and white photography, I dedicated myself to studying colours. What you see here is the result of more than four years of research on how to best express my feelings through colour. I set out to create an introspective project on the topic of identity and, as is the case for many photographers, my work is also my therapy. I would describe my style as static, slightly dark, with allusions to the iconography of the Renaissance. In fact, much of my photography is inspired by paintings. I particularly like old portraits whose colours have slightly faded, and I try to reproduce this atmosphere in my photography. Even though my style is constantly evolving, these traits always remain the same. I favour a minimalist aesthetic, and my portraits usually consist of simple compositions, with the subject posing at the centre of the image.
Your photographs also emanate a certain melancholy. Was that your intention?
For me, memories are inevitably intertwined with melancholy. When I travelled to Brazil, one of my main intentions was to express this sentiment in visual form. The Leica S enabled me to achieve the perfect optical density and find the colours that corresponded to my feelings. After my return, I adjusted all of the colours in the earliest photos I had taken for this project, and found that colours were the perfect means of expressing my emotions.
What was your family’s reaction to these images?
They were very moved because they recognised the landscapes, the church, the buildings we had lived in, as well as some of the places that had changed in the course of those past thirty years. Today we have the Internet, which made it easier to find locations and unravel stories that they hadn’t told me before.
Most of the images in this series are entirely devoid of people. Why did you decide to take this approach, especially in a megacity such as Curitiba?
I love that brief space of time in which people don’t cross paths; that small moment of peace when the city holds its breath – that’s when I press the shutter. It is a static instant in between the Before and After, charged with invisible emotion. I sometimes wait and wait for that moment to happen. For example, when I photographed the house in Curitiba we used to live in, I stood outside the building for more than an hour, just waiting for the perfect light.
You also photographed the priest who had organised your adoption when you were three months old. What was that like?
Some people from the church in Brazil where I had been baptised arranged a meeting with the priest. After a brief introduction and explanation of why I was there, the priest asked me the names of my adoptive parents. I was so emotional that I could hardly speak. It was a very powerful moment, because this priest had contributed to my adoption, and he actually remembered my parents. He then showed me the house my parents had stayed at during their time in Curitiba, and I photographed that, too.
You usually work with analogue equipment. Why did you decide to go digital for this project, and how did you find the experience?
I mostly prefer to shoot film, but I was in a phase of wanting to explore colour – a process for which I usually use digital techniques. I started the project with my M240. Overall, I like to balance both approaches, to develop my style and be comfortable with a wide range of techniques.
Which cameras did you use for this project and why?
I created the entire series with my M240 and Leica S. I’ve been shooting with the Leica M for ten years now, but the Leica S is gradually occupying an increasingly important role in my work. With a studio camera such as the Leica S, you have to slow down and think about the picture you are taking, especially when it comes to portraits. I think this is something that becomes apparent in the resulting photographs – the fact that you had to delve that bit deeper into your subject matter.
How did you come to be a professional photographer?
I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. I always wanted to be a photographer, though it hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices to get to where I am right now.
What is your personal Leica story?
When I was fourteen, I attended an arts-focused secondary school in Italy, and that was when I first found out about Leica. I was completely captivated and actually worked a second job in order to buy my first Leica – a IIIC made in 1942. Today I own an analogue and a digital M, as well as a Leica S.
What can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
My trip to Brazil has been very inspiring. At the same time, I encountered a different type of racism than I have been exposed to in Italy. I think this has to do with its origins, because there were many African slaves in Brazil. So I decided to address this important issue in my work, and started to take portraits of black Italians. This time, I decided to use an analogue Leica M for my black and white portraits, and the Leica S for my colour work.
Born in Brazil in 1987, Marzio Emilio Villa was adopted when he was three months old and grew up in Italy. After studying art in Milan, he moved to Paris when he was 23 years old. Influenced by his own story, Villa deals mainly with subjects such as identity, social structures and discrimination. Villa has been a member of the Hans Lucas Agency since February 2017. He lives and works in Paris. See more of Marzio’s work on his website and Instagram. His project ‘La Marée de la Mémoire’ has also been featured in the portfolio section of LFI magazine 01.2020.