History is one of her passions, and is often the reason behind her choice of travel destination: In Ghana, photographer Andrea Torrei was surprised and overwhelmed by the unknown, and at the same time learnt much about the beauty and strength of the women and children. Her emotional and colourful series speaks about a country where life is not easy – but where people can still dream.
What was your impulse for the series?
When I travel to a new country, I don’t usually have a project in mind, as I like to be surprised and overwhelmed by the unknown at first. It was the same with Ghana. The project developed by itself, becoming clearer to me day by day. I was very interested in seeing through my own eyes, what was once the starting point for one of the most tragic events in history: the transatlantic slave trade. I visited the castles in Elmina and Cape Coast – the last memory slaves had of their homeland before being shipped off across the sea, never to return. Also, Ghana is the first African country south of the Sahara to break free from colonial rule and to achieve independence. You can feel a deep sense of nation. It is very strong. History, one of my passions, often makes me choose the destination of my travels.
What was your impression of the country and what photographic approach did you use to capture it?
I discovered a country very rich in culture and traditions with both strong Islamic and European influences. It is something you notice after a while. Street photography was my first approach, letting myself see the beauty that is hidden in the quiet moments and capture them instantly. Time then helped me to get closer to people and I slowly started to take portraits. It was not easy, as many people do not like to be photographed, so it took a while to gain their trust.
How did you approach the people, considering that human beings are the focus of your pictures?
People are always at the core of my work. Ever since I began this adventure of photography, people have always played the main role in my pictures. At the beginning, it was not as conscious and clear a choice as it is now. Mutual curiosity is often the key to my approach. Somehow, I always meet women. In Cape Coast I became friends with a small Islamic community I visited often during my two-week stay. They welcomed me from the first moment I stepped by chance into their courtyard, and after that I spent a lot of time with them every day. Especially with the women. We connected very quickly and talked a lot about our lives. It was nice and interesting to share those days with them: those moments are still with me now.
What does life, normal everyday life, look like in Ghana?
It’s a very busy daily life! Lots of noises and activities, everywhere. As of dawn, at 6 o’clock in the morning, the streets are bustling with parents bringing children to school, women heading to market, others going to church in their elegant dresses; while fishermen on the shore get set to brave the sea. As a photographer, it was a paradise to delve into this daily life, so normal, so vibrant.
Your pictures are characterized by colour. What role does colour play in the country – and for your photographs?
There are many stunning works on Ghana in black and white; but for me it was definitely a challenge to work in colour. The colours of the country are so attractive, appealing, not easy to deal with; but I could not ignore them. I was once told that colour makes my work very personal and more interesting. I don’t know if it’s true, but my choice to work in colour is related to the place and how inspirational it is.
Many of your subjects are children. What significance do they have for the country – and for you?
Children are open and curious. They always wanted and enjoyed interacting with me. I visited several schools, in both Cape Coast and Elmina, and the girls and boys always asked me to spend time with them; which of course I did with pleasure.
Your series is called Gold Coast – inspired by Ghana’s export of gold. Your pictures, however, show anything but a golden life… Is your series also to be understood as a critique?
Or maybe there is a golden life; but, in order to see it we have to drop our western perspective. I don’t think there is just one way to look at life; not just from one point of view. I met people there who said they are very happy with their lives, and they would never migrate to other countries. Others say that a lot must be done on many levels – enrolment in schools, public health centres, etc. the list is long – and yet they would never leave the country. Life is not easy there, it’s true; but people have their dreams. There is an African dream, a Ghanaian dream. To me this was one of life’s big lessons.
You used a Leica Q to take your pictures. What was your experience with it, and what made it special while photographing?
The Leica Q is very robust, silent and discreet. The navigation is very intuitive and the camera reaction is very fast; the focus and settings are very easy to apply. Really amazing. And because of the 28 mm, I was forced to get closer to people. It was a great pleasure to use it and I highly recommend it.
What role does tradition play in Ghana? And how does it affect the country?
From what I saw, tradition plays a strong role there, as it seems to in most of Africa. In the coastal area, the fishing villages are tightly-knit communities with their own traditional rituals and beliefs, together with their family values. Family is the centre of life, the bedrock of all social life, where women are independent and powerful. But in some areas disparity is entrenched. In rural areas, girls unfortunately not only face poverty, they also face the cultural mind-set that thwarts them from going to school or staying in school after primary level. Traditional gender roles stand in the way of women’s access to education. I see a lot has been done in closing the gap between girls and boys when it comes to education, and the government is trying to break the tradition that wants women to stay at home. There’s a long way to go.
Colours and light as narrative, as emotions, as complements. Andrea Torrei is an Italian photographer based in Rome, Italy. She works in both black and white and in colour, but she has mostly been exploring the latter, and its strong role in evoking feelings. From portraiture to documentary, from street to landscape, the core of her work centres mainly and usually around people in their ordinary, everyday lives. Find out more about her photography on her website and Instagram Page.