Grand Art Déco buildings, sophisticated cinemas, and the hiss of well-polished espresso machines in busy cafés. Clara Vannucci headed for Asmara with her Leica Q, intending to document the traces left behind by its former Italian colonial rulers – what she discovered was a city where time appears to have stood still.
What was the turning point in your life, that made you decide to become a photographer?
18 years ago, I started printing the first pictures in my father’s darkroom; I never wanted to do anything else. That is where I encountered pure magic.
What gave you the idea to produce your project Cinema Impero?
One day at the end of 2015, when I was at my grand mother house in Florence, Italy, I discovered a dusty box full of old pictures of my great-grandfather in East Africa. His name was Gino Guerrini, and he was one of the many Italians who had moved to Eritrea during the 1920s. He went as a doctor. This instantly triggered my curiosity for a country about which I knew virtually nothing. And so I started to research. I opened other boxes and found more letters, postcards and photographs from Eritrea during that period. I overwhelmed my grandmother with questions. Driven by a desire to learn more, I travelled to Eritrea. Most journalists have been banned from the country since the government, led by Isaias Afwerki, has, according to a 2015 United Nations Human Rights Council report, “imposed a reign of fear through systematic and extreme abuses of the population”. That’s why documentary director Manfredi Lucibello, who accompanied me during this trip, and I decided to travel on a tourism visa this time rather than a media visa.
What did you experience during your trip? Eritrea is one of the poorest countries worldwide and is often described as a hermetic police state…
Eritrea is a country that’s very closed in itself. It doesn’t have commercial and trading relationships with other countries. A former Italian colony, the country gained its independence in 1993 after 50 years of turmoil: the British expelled the Italians in 1941 before Ethiopia annexed the region in the 1950s. As the political and economic situation in Eritrea has remained dire, young Eritreans are increasingly trying to leave the country for Europe. There’s only electricity and water two hours a day. There’s no future. There are no jobs.
Nevertheless, your pictures speak of a city with a friendly, authentic, almost historical atmosphere. Does this atmosphere correspond to reality?
Yes. It is different in Italy, where time has almost completely erased the memory of Eritrea’s colonial heritage. After the Second World War, Italy embraced a systematic damnatio memoriae of its Fascist past. This has led to a collective amnesia. Most Italians study this history very superficially at school. My generation know little about it. Fortunately, Italy’s colonial history survives in Asmara, where the anti-colonial and anti-Fascist ethos in post-war Italy, has not affected the legacy of language and architecture.
The biggest Italian school outside of Italy – with some 1,200 students – is located in Asmara. That is why most of the old people – and the few young people who have not left the country – still speak fluent Italian. And the marvellous buildings are still in surprisingly good shape. There are around 100 landmarks which recall the colonial period. Most retain their original purpose and the decor of 80 years ago. These include the Albergo Italia Hotel, the old railway station and several nostalgic cinemas, which still project Italian films from the 1950s.
How did the people react to you as an Italian?
As I walked the streets of Asmara, I would often need to hide my cameras. But I soon realized that being Italian helped. People would hear me speaking Italian and would immediately come and talk to me, eager to know more about Italy. Even the police would be more inclined to turn a blind eye when they found out my nationality. I had the chance to meet locals in bars and spend entire evenings with them, just chatting about the old good times of the Italian colony, drinking espressos and eating cornetti. I felt like I was in a time capsule, exploring an old Italy that I had never experienced myself, but rather heard of in the tales of my grandmother’s youth and the childhood recollections of my parents. It was like being home, yet at the same time very far from home.
You completed the series in the spring of 2016. How do you look at it now with the distance of a few years?
The impression when I was there was that time had stopped. I quickly understood that time is relative, over there more than ever. In that sense I strongly believe that my images are still very current.
What fascinated you the most during your trip?
As a photographer and as a human being, what fascinated me the most was to see the dynamics between the people: chatting for hours in a bar, drinking a cappuccino, eating a cornetto, reading a newspaper for hours with out the ring of a cell phone, their elegant and old fashion clothes, the way they say good morning, very formal but at the same warm as well.
How would you describe your photographic approach?
Which equipment did you use and how did it perform?
For this project I used a Leica Q with the 28mm. Now I do have an SL with 24-90mm as well, but I didn’t at the time. I have to say that the Q was simply perfect in that kind of situation, since I need something small and silent so as not to attract attention.
What is the most important skill a photographer should have?
A good eye, and to really believe in what you do and tell. For me images are a way to communicate with everyone, in every country. That’s why I find photography irreplaceable; and I find reportage and spontaneity the best way for me to represent the subjects I photograph.
Clara Vannucci was born in Italy in 1985. She first studied architecture, before turning to photographic work in the criminal justice system. Among others, she produced the Crime and Redemption in Volterra reportage, as well as a project about the women’s jail at Rikers Island in New York state. In addition to working as a photographer for magazines and newspapers, she teaches photography to inmates at the high-security prison in Milan. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram.