If Luigi Baldelli had to choose a shot that sums up his project on Italy’s Calabrian charcoal burners… well, he wouldn’t. “In my opinion,” he explains, “one shot can’t sum up the complexities of the situation. The best way it can be described is with a collection of many different images.”
It’s this tapestry of photos that makes a successful project, he says, with the collection of images bringing together the story to show “a bit of everything – their work, their effort, the smoke, and the difficulty of this environment.”
His Calabrian project started in May 2019. Luigi was drawn to the idea of documenting the charcoal burners because it’s a job with ancient roots, peculiar to the Calabrian region and passed on from father to son.
Did he approach it in the same way he’d shot other communities throughout his celebrated reportage career? “In a way, yes,” he tells us, “but every story and subject are different, so it’s important to always be ready and to be open. I had to find the best times to do my job, and keep to the burners’ pace, in order to prevent any inconvenience to them.”
Integrating with his subjects, Luigi was well received. “They are very kind and friendly people,” he explains, “and they accepted my presence, explained their work to me, told me their stories, and invited me to have lunch with them. When there’s a good level of acceptance, confidence and friendship like this, it’s easy to take pictures, but the most important thing is that you have respect for your subject and their story. I have learnt this throughout my career – this way of working really helps me to delve deeper into people’s stories.”
A professional photojournalist for over three decades, Luigi knows all about what a camera needs to do to, but also what it shouldn’t. “A good camera for reportage,” he says, “has to be reliable, manageable and make the technical part of the work easy. That then lets me concentrate on the image alone and on what I am seeing through the lens. My α7R III is reliable, discreet and light, but also professional, and all of these qualities really allow me to focus entirely on the image. Shooting becomes a reflex, not something you need to think about.”
Working across the burners’ demanding environments, particular strengths of the α7R III made Luigi’s job far easier. For instance, working with the camera’s advanced autofocus and high ISO performance gave him pin-sharp results both for the intimate portraits of the workers, and also when documenting them as they toiled through clouds of ash and smoke.
During this project I really appreciated the camera’s autofocus, to be able to shoot at high ISO, the build quality and the excellent battery. It had everything I needed to capture the shots I wanted. For example, because of the ISO performance I was able to shoot pictures with very little light, and the camera’s weather sealing meant I could work in the rain without a problem.
For this project, Luigi used the FE 24-70mm f/4 ZA OSS on his α7R III, giving a combination, he says, “that allowed me to cope with all situations.” Everything from the wide shots of burners working silhouetted against the smoke, to the striking portraits of the men covered in ash, was shot on the same lens, meaning he could work quickly and react to the moment. Sticking to a single lens also meant there was no risk of changing lenses in the smoke. Luigi tells us he also kept to a consistent ISO of 2000, allowing him to work with faster shutter speeds and smaller apertures that showed off the gritty setting.
So is the project finished for Luigi now? “No,” he smiles, “I’d love to go back in autumn and try to find a different light and a different forest environment. The benefit of a long term project is that you can discover new things every time – maybe unexpected things – and get to know the story better and better.”
But alongside wanting to discover new things, do the relationships he built during the project also have an influence on him wanting to go back? “Absolutely!” he laughs. “The more time I spend on a project, the more I increase the level of trust with the subject or subjects, and find the pictures that are important to properly tell the story. You have to spend that time dipping into the reportage to find the humanity of it, the emotion, passion, intimacy, atmosphere, and history. I don’t want to stop at the surface, because I know that I can always find more.”
"To me, photography does not give answers, but emotions and questions"