Reading Period: 4 minutes
All pictures from Fastidiosa © Jean-Marc Caimi & Valentina Piccinni, courtesy Overlapse
Blending a variety of photographic techniques, the duo draw on the power of digital photography to tell a story of a heritage at risk of eradication
In 2013, the first outbreak of the plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa had been detected in Puglia, the southern part of Italy. Native to the Americas, the aggressive bacterium raged through farmlands causing different diseases, including olive quick decline syndrome. It has infected and killed hundreds of thousands associated with olive trees, some more than 100 years old. Land once rich with olive harvest is now haunted with the skeletons of dead tree silhouettes. The Italian heel, as the Puglia region is nicknamed, is responsible for some 40 per cent of Italy’s olive oil creation, and supplies around twelve per cent of the world’s. Yet as infections persist and containment has been slow, the condition has continued to spread and is slowly crippling the economy and the families at the rear of it.
Not long after the break out was detected in 2013, Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni travelled to Puglia. Piccinni is originally from the region, which was partly exactly why the photographic duo, also known as Caimi | Piccinni, became interested in the story. That, as well as the suspicion that the reports these were watching and reading had been sorely underrepresenting the difficulty of the situation and the experience of the farmers directly impacted by the epidemic.
“We wanted the materiality associated with what we were doing to become exactly like the farmers’ property and soil […] like a ritual, as [the farmers] had been doing with the land. ”
Caimi | Piccinni began simply by speaking to those farmers. “People are always at the centre of our own stories. We start from there, ” says Caimi. They will spent time in the country – in the village associated with Gemini, where the first outbreak was detected – plus interviewed and photographed the particular families who have cultivated and cared for the land more than many generations. Not only did their livelihoods depend on the particular olive trees, but their entire existence was deeply intertwined with the nature and climate that surrounded them. Whilst there, Caimi and Piccinni were hosted in an essential oil mill. They set up a darkroom and began establishing the film they were shooting on the spot. “We wanted the materiality of what we had been doing to be exactly like the particular farmers’ land and garden soil, ” Caimi explains. “We wanted to make it like a ritual, as [the farmers] were doing with the land. ” The duo leaned into the challenges of creating film in the heat and dust of the Italian summer. “We wanted all of this to go to the pictures. ”
As the threat of the bacteria unfurled and journeyed north, so did Caimi | Piccinni’s investigation. These people spent time in the agronomic research institute in Bari, learning about the science and analysis of the bacteria’s behaviour and movement along the land. The images they chance here are more clinical, well-lit and precise. Some move in to the geometric compositions of cells and molecules of plant samples using a microscopic camera, resulting in images of dynamic patterns one can hardly believe were created by organic forms. “We decided to refuse and give up on a monolithic visual approach, ” the duo explain. “Why should all of us put our vision before a documentation that requires various tools? [In other projects] we also use our own digital cameras, so why shouldn’t we use all the tools necessary to convey the story as precisely as possible. ” As the duo continued the research, they continued to respond to the subject in order to came to choosing how to photograph it. At times, they renounced their cameras completely, plus made use of archive imagery in order to denote the agricultural and cultural heritage attached to centuries of olive oil farming.
Together, these storylines type a new book, Fastidiosa , published by Overlapse. From the moment you hold the photobook in your hands, sensation its thickness and bodyweight and thumbing through the different papers, you know that the narrative ahead will be intricate and visually stimulating. Held together with Swiss binding and a fold-out cover, the immersive experience considers the images not just for their documentary function, however storytelling potential.
“We wanted to use the material not merely in a didactic and story approach, but also to use the images for their power to stimulate and bring the reader to the story. To leave area for the imagination, to raise questions, to put the reader in some type of enigma of doubt. ” The didactic approach was “useless” they say, preferring in order to tease out “the power that is hidden inside the picture”.
The book also speaks to a broader issue. It warns how the gravity of the Xylella fastidiosa epidemic is symbolic of the natural environment weakened by environment change and human neglect and greed, in Italy and the rest of the world. The use of pesticides and chemicals provides weakened the trees’ organic immune systems, for example , which makes them more susceptible to diseases they may have previously been able in order to fight. “It sounds obvious, but we tend to neglect that this is a crucial aspect of our lives, ” says Caimi.
Though the crisis will be far from over – the condition has also been detected in Italy, Spain and Portugal – the photographers felt the project was finished. The particular textured pages are heavy with angst and trauma, but conclude with a feeling of hope. In recent years, local agronomists have conducted extensive research into genetically engineered olive trees that are immune to Xylella fastidiosa . However , making a globalised olive ‘super tree’ eradicates the nuances of that special, local Italian biodiversity. It may not be the ultimate remedy, but it is a sign of progress. “It ends where the new story starts, ” says Caimi of the book. “And there is optimism. ”