Tormented by a traumatic past and challenged by a difficult present, the destructive presence of Cosa Nostra has had a lasting impact on the Italian island. In Terra Nostra, Mimi Mollica photographs the problematic entanglement with the mob, focusing on the legacy of the Mafia’s imprint in Sicily. Born and raised in Palermo, the series is ultimately a labour of love towards his homeland. Mollica tells BJP how the series was created, and his own pathway to photography.
What’s the genesis of this project? Why were you compelled to see this project through?
I started to work on Terra Nostra in 2009 in an effort to voice both my need to reconnect to my homeland and to show the degree of decay caused by the pervasive influence of Cosa Nostra on the island. I knew since the beginning that this story would have been a long-term commitment and after seven years I felt I didn’t want to risk repeating myself after having explored a good deal of aspects related to the theme of my project. Sometimes you just need to complete a project and bring it to a positive and good end in order to work on the next thing.
How have the mafia impacted on your life?
To some degree the Mafia’s presence in Sicily impacts everyone, even the ones that live in denial and don’t want to admit it. Hollywood has shown and glamourised only the mere violent aspect of Cosa Nostra, but everyone’s life is routinely affected when the coasts of your beloved place are spoiled by cement poured illegally to profit from speculation. Your health is at stake when the tumours increase by the thousands due to illegal disposal of toxic waste perpetuated by the Mafia. Everyone is impoverished when businesses increase the prices of their products to compensate from the extortion money they’ll have to hand to local bosses. Finally your dignity is annihilated when your government is corrupt, the infrastructures don’t work or they lack. When your fundamental human rights are denied your future perspectives are shrunk. The presence of Mafia in Sicily has meant a collective loss of freedom and dignity.
What’s the challenges of photographing, both in terms of gaining access, and how you deal with them once you’ve gained access?
I never photographed the Mafia per-se, I never intended to gain access to “difficult” environments where I needed permissions by anyone. Unfortunately some of the evidence I photographed are of public domain, but also I rather focussed on articulating a personal, and at times evocative journey through the legacy of living with the mob. The real challenge was to be able to extrapolate a meaningful and eloquent visual story, while avoiding some cliches and relying on others to support my discourse.
What opportunities do they provide, as a subject, both aesthetically and socio-politically?
Sicily is very beautiful to photograph. Sicilians are indeed very theatrical characters which serves the photographer’s agenda very well, while the dense socio-political scene offers several anchors to themes that are relevant to the story I want to tell.
When was the first time you became aware of photography? How old were you?
I was born between photographs…actual photographs, prints smelling of fix wash and cameras used by my father who before becoming a lawyer was a very keen amateur photojournalist. I loved the fact that I could access the poetry of the past, a reality filtered by the necessary codes embedded into a photograph. Visual poetry. Then when I was about 9 or 10 years old, my grandfather presented me with a small compact camera which I treasured and voraciously used to take terrible pictures of banal things around me, but then I started taking more interesting pictures, and at 14 years old I won the 2nd prize of an award organised by a lousy local photography club in Palermo.
What is the primary reason you became a photographer? When did you decide to become one?
I never took a clear and neat decision to become a photographer. I always felt I was one, so all I needed to do was to work towards building a career in photography. So I assisted Master of Photography Helene Binet, attended the BA from which I dropped out and made a lot of cappuccinos before being able to live on photography alone.
What motivates you?
My deep, honest and passionate will to engage with the world I live in. I am a curious person and I like people, I also have an urge to emotionally discover and connect with different cultures and I must be frustratingly convinced my perspective on things is valid enough to show to other people through my photographs.
How did you learn to become a photographer (training, mentors, teachers, photobooks, etc.)?
Assisting, reading, trial and error and a lot of trust from people who commissioned me throughout the years.
What are the common themes, subjects or concerns that run through all your work?
A good dose of socially conscious issues are present throughout my work. That translates into different approaches relevant to specific themes, but I am also concerned with more philosophical questions and personal research.
Can you describe what you’re looking for in a photograph – are there any particular aesthetic concerns, or are you purely led by your engagement with your subjects?
A photograph must have drama and tension. A good composition, a great subject and a striking light should be helping the photographer reach the ultimate goal to produce arresting images that just make sense both aesthetically and conceptually.
What’s the best image you’ve ever taken? What was the scenario, and why do you like it?
I don’t have a favourite image, I believe that images are like bricks, they support each other, they come before and after other images, it’s all a built-up, a continuos flow of visual growth – a life-time poem in images that can’t be broken up and divided in a simple hierarchy of favs and outs. It’ll be history to determine which of my images have been more relevant to the broader context in contemporary photography. If one of my images will ever make it to this stage, that picture will answer your question.
What’s the best photo you never took?
That was never a photo.
The one photograph you’d save in a nuclear apocalypse – your own, or someone else?
One of my daughter and wife (my own) and probably one of William Egglestone.
What’s your message to your younger self, in the moment they decided to be a photographer?
Don’t fuck about too much, just enough to get inspired. The rest is plain, simple consistency, and hard work.
FEBRUARY 2017 ISSUE: Tales of the City: Richard Renaldi’s overture to New York is our February 2017 cover story. Skate photography legend French Fred provides a fresh take on urban form, Dayanitah Singh navigates India’s industrial legacy, and Mark Neville records children at play, from the East End of London to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. Plus we speak to Richard Mosse about his large-scale work debuting at The Barbican, and we give our verdict on the Canon EOS 5D Mk IV. It’s available to order online now.