Drawing on his Italian heritage and a background in philosophy and politics, the University of South Wales graduate considers the resurrection of the Fascist New Man
“As the descendent of an Italian migrant family in South Wales, I was deeply affected by the results of the EU Referendum,” says Luke Richards. “I made quiet and more reflective documentary projects in the area in the months following the decision, but my practice changed dramatically when I started looking out rather than in. In my research I found that scores of families fled Italy during the Fascist regime in search of more tolerant and economically prosperous lands.”
The 21-year-old photographer’s project Under Black Sun reflects on the rise of far-right politics in contemporary Italy through the concept of the New Man – a form of idealised masculinity created by Mussolini during his reign as dictator, and propagated through various forms of meticulously controlled media. Appropriating the virile symbolism and values of Ancient Rome, the New Man model drew on Rome’s imperial history to whip up support for the New Italy that was to be delivered under a Fascist government – a pattern Richards believes resonates today.
“The ‘return to historical strength’ is ubiquitous now in contemporary nationalism and we see it in slogans and campaigns worldwide,” he says.
With a background in politics and philosophy, Richards has always been interested in the simultaneous power and inadequacy of the photographic image, and the way it functions in communities. To this end, he has pursued an interrogative, open-ended strain of documentary photography at the University of South Wales in Cardiff, where he just completed the three-year course.
Describing his time there, Richards comments: “The intervention and challenge to the aesthetics and approaches to documentary photography are hugely important to my peers and I, so by expanding across mediums, I hoped to create something that is directly conflicted with work made in this area before.”
For Under Black Sun, he carried out extensive research into the portrayals of the Fascist and post-Fascist man by Italian filmmakers and photographers before making his own work. Shot in Rome on motion-picture film, his staged images blur past and present, referencing the cinematic and theatrical nature of imagery produced under Mussolini – who famously created top-end film production facilities during his rule.
“The symbiotic relationship between performance and identity is more overt in extreme politics, and so the process and approach was significant in conveying the issue,” Richards comments. “It’s important that the work draws a proactive and questioning response from the viewer through the blurring of realities and performances this way.”