Please tell us some of your background, and how you became involved with photography.
I was born in 1984, in Rome. At the age of 4, I decided I would be a dancer, and I intensively studied and practiced ballet up to 16 years old, the age when I decided to leave the National Academy of Dance and to move my study into an Art School.
After high school, I immediately started to teach decorative art, and I do not remember how, after a couple of years, I ended up at the Roman School of Photography. My father, who has always been passionate about photography, lent me his Canon A1, and so I started. As soon as the photography school ended, I started my first wedding photography service, still with my father’s old camera. Despite the sleepless nights before the event because of anxiety, the work went well, and that’s how I found myself doing wedding photography for a couple years.
In 2010, I realized I had done enough “exercise,” and that it was the time to want more, to travel, and to experience more in photography. The decision to move to London was dictated by the question of learning English. I spent the first months wandering around the city, and I had my camera with me all the time. I had lived all my life in the countryside of Rome, so for me, finding myself living in a big city like London, was quite a big change. I was in a bit of shock, and I used my camera to investigate the madness I was seeing everywhere.
I already had a Flickr account, and by chance I found myself on the Street Photography Now Flickr page, and since then I began to take street photographs. There were monthly topics to follow for the whole year, that’s been a kind of street photographic school for me. Then, in 2011, the Street Photography Now book came out, the festival of street photography in London happened, and I discovered In-Public, and so the wave of this genre completely overwhelmed me.
I practiced street photography, I traveled as much as I could, I joined workshops, and I worked as a waitress part-time to be free as much as possible, mentally and physically, to do my photography. I’m now dedicating one hundred percent to photography, working freelance, am back into weddings, plus I organize street photography tours in different cities in Europe. I understand that street photography for me is a way to express myself, by which I can “talk” and communicate my ideas, my fears and my views. This is for me more important than the genre with which I decided to express that, so I want to feel free to move from street photography, to portraits, to a more documentary genre, and don’t feel the pressure of putting myself into a box.
From your experience with street photo tours in different cities, what could you share about the differences in shooting from place to place?
My photography and my approach are very different from city to city. Generally, I don’t take many pictures during my first day, if I don’t know a place. I observe as much as I can, I study the light, the citizens, and the architecture. I create my idea, my first impression of what I’m seeing, and I try to represent it through photography during the rest of the days.
I was recently in Berlin, where I mainly photograph empty spaces and walls of sites under construction, so definitely I’m very influenced by the culture, atmosphere and energy of a place. I like to give to every city my own vision, I would like to value the difference between one and another. Even if I know, mine are just impressions.
When I do the photo street tour, I start the first day with the simplest thing, which is shooting in the city centre. On the second day I bring participants on routes that are more authentic, far away from touristic zones, which I found to be too similar one to another. When I’m in tourist areas, I feel I’m in a gigantic shopping centre that could be just anywhere.
Of course the more you visit a city, the more you understand it. I know in Rome the citizens are quite suspicious if they notice you, in Milan they don’t seem to care much. In London they don’t even realize it, while in Madrid you probably end up having tapas and beer with someone you just photographed. Of course, everything is relative, and can change from one neighbourhood to another in the same city, and also from Europe to other countries.
Most important, I believe, is that a lot of it depends on us, on our approach. Wherever I am, I want to have a certain calm, be open and be human while shooting. Before, I used to feel like a hunter of images, and I don’t like this approach anymore. I want to feel that I am a photographer.
Has doing these tours offered insight into anything about women street photographers?
My tours are really workshops, I call them tours because I want them to have the feeling of freedom and spontaneity, not something stationary, or me standing around all day showing you what I’ve done, but something more active.
I started the workshops a few years ago, after I attended a workshop in Varanasi, India. The main reason I had signed up for it was because I really wanted to travel to India for my photography, and was nervous about going as a woman alone. My experiences while traveling there gave me new confidence, and I had the idea of giving my own workshops before, and now I decided to pursue this.
For my first workshops in Rome, only women signed up, and they are still mostly women. I don’t mind, I actually love it. My dream is to give to women photographers, or just women in general, this freedom that I have found. Many of them are feeling how I was before I went to India, feeling they don’t have enough courage to travel because it’s dangerous, or some are afraid to get close. Women who are just starting, they are often not very confident and shy, compared with male photographers. We are less aggressive, we are different, of course we are, that’s just normal. I want to be that person who allows and encourages them to travel, or to get close to subjects. I love that when we are together, it’s different, when you are out with only women, it’s completely changed. Sometimes I can see there is one who is more shy than the others, and to this one I say “Come on let’s do it!” And step by step, we reach the subject as closely as we can, and I say “Don’t worry we’re not doing anything wrong, we are just photographing reality.” And they are so empowered and feel great, and finally say “Wow that was so great, let’s do some more!”
Valeria Tofanelli profiled for #SheShootsNoir, by Susana Soler
Tell us about yourself, how long have you been photographing, and how did you get started with street photography?
I was born and still live in Rome, which is also the main stage of my photos. I approached street photography about three years ago, more or less when I started my professional experience to become a lawyer. At that time I began to feel the need to escape from daily routine and to have something personal that could allow me to express myself freely. So I started taking photos, and while shooting I discovered a real passion. All the rest continued naturally. Actually, street photography to me represents a way to freely interpret the reality that surrounds me.
You mentioned Rome as the main stage of your photos, can you tell us how your location impacts your photography? Do you find the light there an advantage or a hindrance?
I think my location has an important impact on my photography. The aim of my photographic research is to propose a personal vision of the reality I live in.
I often want my photos to leave some pending points and not completely reveal the scene, allowing the spectator to imagine a possible story. For this reason, I often use light to hide parts of the frame, and to create a narration through interaction between people, shadows, and silhouettes.
Rome offers me the opportunity to develop this kind of approach, being a very bright city. I usually prefer to shoot with the afternoon light to take advantage of the depth of the shadows. At some moments of the day, like in the morning, the intensity of light might seem a hindrance, but I think it is possible to handle it by exploiting its positive aspects, such as the high contrasts of colours and shadows make people stand out—their gestures, their expressions.
Shadows and silhouettes in complex composition show up in a lot of your frames, is this what you are naturally drawn to shoot, or do you pick these afterward when editing?
I am naturally drawn to the light and the strong contrast that it creates. I can use the light to design my photo, and develop an intuition. Sometimes, I look for scenarios with intense cuts of light with alternating shadows. Once found, I ideally preconceive the image, decide what to include and what to exclude from the frame, and then I wait for protagonists to enter the scene. This is for me the most interesting moment, because the unpredictability of this kind of photography often does not allow you to know what will happen. Something unrepeatable might happen, or anything interesting. As you said, I usually look for multiple elements in the frame, trying to relate them to create a narrative also different than the real one. Shadows and silhouettes help me to make this possible—not to completely reveal the scene, giving a more subjective interpretation. During the editing, I pick up the photo that best expresses what I wanted to represent. This approach is not the only one I apply, but it is definitely prevalent when I decide to work with light.
Who are your influences? Is there a photographer that you especially admire?
Ever since I started dedicating myself to street photography, I have appreciated the work of many photographers. At first, I was fascinated by William Klein, in particular by his ability to be inside the scene, and so I started to follow that kind of approach. Later, when I decided to deepen the colour study, I really appreciated Saul Leiter, Harry Gruyaert, and Alex Webb, but I could continue with a long list of names.
I also think that the current international collectives, in particular, In-Public, are an important landmark. I love the works of Narelle Autio in Australia for the peculiarity of the environment and for the poetry I perceive in her shots. I am also deeply fascinated by the incredible insights of Matt Stuart and Tavepong Pratoomwong.
As you can see, I do not feel that there is one photographer in particular that I especially admire. The street photography scene is really full of talented photographers from whom to draw inspiration!
All your work has a strong sense of colour and contrast. Why colour and not black and white?
At first, I chose black and white and still today I admire many monochromatic works, especially of Japanese photographers. However, nowadays I just do not feel black and white as something of mine, but of course, I don’t rule out that I may practice it again in the future.
When I realized I was fascinated by colour, I studied it and I understood that its visual and psychological strength is so strong that the colour itself can be the main subject of a photo, and can fully express the photographer’s vision. I think of a phrase by Franco Fontana, who says that “Colour can make visible what was previously invisible and give it a sense”.
In my case, I decided to use colour to strengthen the sense of my photos, and to convey the feelings and energy I perceive at the moment I shoot. Colours are the measure and the expression of my involvement in the scene and for that, I cannot ignore them. If I see interesting colours, I can abstract them of context, and use them to convey my personal interpretation of reality. Or I can enhance contrasts between multiple colours and emphasize subjects in the scene.
For all these reasons, I can really feel satisfied with a picture when there is the right balance between light, colour, composition, and narrative.
Do you think being a woman affects your photography?
This is a question I have been asked several times, but I still do not know if I’m able to answer.
Probably women have a different sensibility than men, but not for the better. It’s just different. To be honest, I do not know if looking at my photos it is possible to understand that behind is the eye of a woman, but from a practical point of view, I can say that I find it easier to approach people than male peers.
For the rest, I believe that to have good results in this kind of photography it is necessary to have passion, imagination, curiosity, and patience, which can be present in both men and women.
Guest interviewer Susana Soler
The street is veiled in Linda Hacker’s abstract candids
Please tell us a little about you and where you are from.
I grew up in upstate New York and Phoenix, Arizona and moved around a lot for school and work. I have lived in Brooklyn, NY for the last 20 years, though and love it here. I still work full-time, but spend a lot of my free time on photography. One of the great things about living in New York City is that there are often interesting things to see and photograph while doing errands, walking from the subway to work, etc. When I can, I try to get to things a little early so I have a little extra time to wander and look for photos.
How did you get involved with photography? When did street enter the mix?
I started taking photos as a child, starting with a Brownie and then a Polaroid camera given to me by my brother. I purchased my first SLR, a Minolta SRT 101 in high school, and loved exploring photography with my father. But like many, life got in the way and I let it drop. I picked it up again with the introduction of digital photography, and was re-inspired by the ability to play and to see instant results. A 365 project really awakened me visually, and that’s when photography became a passion.
My draw to street is probably at least partially a result of living in New York City. I love the city and love wandering around it, taking photos of what I see.
Where does the inspiration to approach the street abstractly come from?
I was lucky enough to take a workshop from Jay Maisel, and there saw some of his photographs shooting through something, often some type of fencing. I had never seen that before, and found it truly inspiring, and something I was very drawn to. From there, I just kept playing and exploring—finding different ways to abstract images. It wasn’t anything I consciously decided to do, but rather something I found myself naturally drawn to. I think it’s because it allows me to transform the world around me and show my personal vision of it.
What techniques do you use to create this “Street Impressionism?”
The primary tools I use are shooting through something and reflections. I look for opportunities to transform the scene into something new, but still have it recognizable. One particular favorite is UPS trucks (the three above photos with the dots/rivets.) I’m working on a series with these trucks, but it’s slow going. I have found that when the light is right, UPS trucks reflect pretty well, and they provide a great texture along with other bits of grunge, and I think this makes the photos very interesting—when they work. It’s rare to find the right combination of light and reflections. Weather also often provides great abstractions, either the falling snow or rain itself, or even the fog or droplets left on windows. I also love to use shadows and silhouettes and intentional camera movement. For me, photography is really visual play—playing with light, color, lines, shapes, and forms. I only use in-camera techniques, not post-processing, to achieve the abstractions since for me, the fun is finding them in the real world.