“I don’t really care about single images anymore” begins Alessandro Grassani. “For me,” he adds, “almost anyone today can take a great single image – even with their phone – what’s more important is to produce a complex body of work. A series of images is vital in making a story and it’s that which can open a window to an unknown world – not only from a journalistic point of view but an emotional one.”
One such project, The Last Illusion, is about the journey of environmental migrants to cities. The title is about their aspirations, which are sadly dashed.
In their own lands there’s no future, so they go to the cities. But if you’ve been a fisherman all your life and you arrive in a city like Dhaka, you don’t have the skills to survive. The dream of the cities becomes a nightmare for them.
So how did he get here?
Like most people’s careers it wasn’t immediate. After training in photography, Alessandro first worked as an assistant to an advertising photographer. “I worked for him in the studio for a year, maybe a bit more, then he fired me,” Alessandro laughs, “he said you’re not right for this sort of work – you should focus on your passion, which was documentary photography. It was a kind way to fire me, really.”
From there, he went to work freelance for Italian newspapers including Corriere Della Sera, later moving on to cover the Middle East. Now he works across a variety of advertising, corporate and documentary assignments, fitting in his own projects when possible, “all assignments are good, because as a photographer you need finance – enough to feed your family and to keep working on your own projects.”
So, has any of that advertising training followed him into his documentary work? And if so how does it translate?
Mainly in terms of using light. When you’re in a studio you move the lamps and build the light yourself. You obviously can’t do that on location, but if you have the awareness, you can look for the changes in available light. You’re more aware of it, and make it part of everything you do.
This means waiting for the right lighting conditions – committing to getting the right image to tell the story.
With one of my migration projects, the final edit might be 30 pictures or less taken over several years, but to take one of those pictures might mean a week’s work – I know what I want to say, I know the place – so to take the picture, I keep going there, sunrise, sunset, rain, different periods for days, just to wait for the perfect light to tell it.
As part of this, editing becomes a large part of the project in order to find the perfect balance of the images. Alessandro explains, “I never really know which is the perfect shot until the final edit when I have them all on screen as a set. The edit is vital because if you don’t do it right you can destroy your work. Bad work edited well can look better – and good work edited badly can lose the story. Images have to work as a series, telling a bigger story, a narrative, that has an emotional effect.”
Because of this, Alessandro always seeks help with editing so as to get a fresh perspective on his work, “as the photographer you’re not always the best editor of your own work. I edit with people I trust and it takes time. It could be a week to edit each part of a project, or a few months. I make the first selection, then we have a discussion, and then leave it a while. It’s like wine – you leave it and it can get better.”
One of the key aspects of both the photography and the edit, is striking a balance between aesthetics and journalism, “I apply the rules of photojournalism when I work but from an aesthetic point of view, I feel free to work in the best way I can to better capture images with a strong impact. Let’s say that my aspiration is to find the perfect combination between beauty and truth – that’s when images are most evocative.”
To that end, Alessandro has found himself paring down his compositions, to find simpler and more effective combinations. “Before,” he says, “I was maybe looking for more complex compositions with different subjects in different layers of the frame. Now I try to make it more essential.”
In practice, that simpler approach means “taking unnecessary things out of the frame to simplify it – the noise and the distractions – but keeping the context, such as the place the subjects are living. That’s why I often like big landscapes, with the subject in the middle – landscape, ambiance and the subject must come together – after all, the context is the story.”
"This is my personal aspiration: to leave my own testimony in the constant search of that perfect combination between beauty and truth we call art"