It could happen sometimes that a photographer gets lost and breathless, that in the blink of an eye they feel observed, and it dawns on them that it is the landscape that is taking a picture of them, rather than the other way around. It may happen sometimes that, conveyed in the eyes of the person the photographer is trying to capture, they may find the very image they seek. In that suspended interlude, the photographer feels exhausted, à bout de souffle, enchanted, stunned and overtaken by passion, like a visual fragment imprisoned by pathos.
The mechanical shutter risks staying shut, drawn like a stage curtain not rising on a performance; it no longer releases the command, the shutter button gets stuck, hesitating almost though it were jammed. It is us, the photographers who are entranced by the gaze, lost for a moment in darkness, wandering aimlessly among unequivocal signs of emptiness, without that narrow strip of light needed for the film. However, it is nothing more than that condition of being spellbound, that unconfessed pause for meditation. The same may occur to actors who have been slightly delayed and hiding behind the velvet curtain on the proscenium they peer through that invisible buttonhole made in the fabric – a small pinhole – to check whether the theater is empty. No one in the audience notices it, but nevertheless the perplexed actors peek anxiously, with their hearts beating fast, as they try to sniff some trace of meaning.
To recall the core of pathos using formulas, tropes, models and forms, we need to go back to the twentieth century, pick up Greek and Latin dictionaries to check the Italian equivalent, leaf through their pages, thin as rustling leaves, look for the entry paschein and reformulate the etymology of the word with meanings and concepts. All the declinations that propagate from the word appear painful and figurative, exciting, passionate, exhausting, happy, painful, exhilarating, festive and mourning, shocking like a scourge, devastating like floods, disruptive as an earthquake, volcanic explosions in the manner of falling in love or even ecstasy. Pathos is also an emotion that joins love with death. A com passion that is difficult to translate as it opposes the rationality of logos, inspires fear, dread and circumspection, it’s disturbing yet fascinating but, perhaps, can be put into practice through the visionary nature of images and time sweeping us away. It is like meeting death, an appointment that offers no redemption, is inescapable, the conclusive, consolation-free vis-à-vis between two faces that divide and separate life from the first and second act, up to the point of no return. It is a troubled, infinite and at the same time undefinable time that remains nevertheless imprinted in the eyes and simple memory of those who know how to look.
For many years, both Vito Teti and I have felt an affinity, we share an instinct for that peculiar pathos that marks “photography natives”, born and raised with light-sensitive film, and seeking images from that special point of view. A visible, protruding, projecting glimpse that involves, indicates and signals empathic vision and demands attention: glimpsing figures ‘gushing’ out summoning the photographer from a primary source, a source of light and wonder. It is a complex kind of enterprise that is encountered, and as such, it is not always possible to find or solve it. Rummaging through our respective archives, we deemed some of the frames to be “completed scenes”; we chose them following an anthological drive and central theme, perhaps among the most frequently recurring ones as we toured to make our reportages. For half a century, our gaze has been driven by amazement at the dramatic loneliness of individuals and things, at inadequacy, abandonment, natural disasters, eco-environmental stalemate, ancient and new migrations, disorientation, apocalyptic crises befalling modern and contemporary human beings so afflicted by existential and climate crises. It is the amazed glance at the identification with and adherence of contemporary human beings to the landscape that punctually describes, shows and evokes them in the landscape of natural and artistic wonders.
These are the latest signs and legacies of a tradition and a history that many persist in forgetting, on a planet that seems poised and ready to overturn its own axis. Not all is sad and desolate, however, some images evoke joy and participation. In those figures we try to recognize ourselves by micro-stories of documentary photos and photo-portraits where something has happened and demands testimony, while new daily habits become slippery, “liquid” and more and more disconcerting. It is a journey backwards, from this immediate present disconnected from the real world, in some Italian locations, or just Calabrian places where we traveled over the years from North to South, together or separately. These journeys are linked by the idea that pathos was a common feeling, a kind of privilege that would never abandon us: the momentum and the motive for a sort of humble rebellion against cold science, the one that refuses to be moved and does not get excited.
We were driven by the desire to restore empathy, meaning and soul to the people and things we encountered. It was a choice, we were there to see and experience it, it’s not a secret endeavor and some people know it. In order to avoid getting lost, Vito and I have always shown each other the way, the one leading home and the one leading away from it, so that, even when we are far away, every place seemed familiar to us. This averted the danger of detachment, emptiness and silence. So why not suggest, in clear photographs and clear letters, these passions that have made such deep impression on us rather than keep them on the sidelines as if they were taken for granted? For the time that we have left, it would be a good thing to look more carefully, be patient and vigilant, avoid haste, but rather meditate, grant time, honor orders and take care of space using gaze as our measure. It is the ethics of respect for others that should prevent every emotion-driven photographer from engaging in aggressivity and abuse, the talent of their pedigree is not enough: one must be sensitive, kind, good, courteous, cautious and present, participatory, without pretending and without wearing a mask.
Clues and inspirations on the topos of pathos for figures, visions and images can be referenced using vast bibliographic sources, the most fundamental we have used are works by Charles Baudelaire, Aby Warburg, Ernesto De Martino, Roland Barthes, Carlo Ginzburg, Jean Baudrillard and Georges Didi-Huberman.
The cover image was taken by Vito Teti, in Nicotera (Calabria, 2000) for the feast of the Immaculate Mary.
The first photo in the body of the essay was taken by Vito Teti among the olive grove and ruins of the ancient Greek colony city of Oppido Mamertina, in Calabria (1991).
The second photo was taken by Salvatore Piermarini in Sicily in 1991.
The third photo was taken by Vito Teti in Africo antica , an abandoned village in the interior of Calabria, in 1999.
The fourth photo was taken by Salvatore Piermarini in Rome, in 2004.
The fifth photo was taken by Salvatore Piermarini in Val d’Agri, Lucania in 1996.