An Italian lawyer turned photojournalist found himself at the centre of international peace-keeping efforts in Haiti. WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES
Back in Rome, Lorenzo was astounded to discover that only two of the 20 rolls of film he’d developed contained any usable images. But those images, although few in number, offered an astonishing portrayal of a little-known people in the furthest place on earth.
There were none of the usual travelogue images of the gargantuan moai statues that are synonymous with the remote isle; instead, he captured the exquisite simplicity of the natives’ lives – fishing with a tin can tied to a nylon wire, riding bareback, lighting a campfire, sharing tender moments. The more he pored over the images, the more he became convinced that their story needed to be told. So he contacted the editor of Il Diario, a magazine in Milano, and offered his images. “My pictures were published in a six-page exposé. I couldn’t believe I had actually been paid for what was nothing more than a hobby.”
But nothing could prepare him for what followed. Lorenzo faxed photocopies of the feature to his newfound friends, and that fax eventually became a prominent feature at the entrance of city hall – it was overwhelmingly well-received. But the seminal moment came in 1998 by way of a phone call. A Chilean archaeologist who had seen the article contacted Lorenzo and invited him to participate in a photography exhibition at Universidad de Chile in Santiago. “I was nearing the end of my degree but returned to Easter Island almost exactly a year to the date of my first trip to take more pictures for the exhibition. It was mid-August – winter in that part of the world – and the island was chilly and wild, with few tourists. I stayed with the same family I had met the year before.”
Worried he’d run out of film, this time Lorenzo took 100 rolls with him, as well as a new 35-70mm f/2.8. “Easter Island was beautiful, and I didn’t want to leave. I started to think that maybe, just maybe, I could devote my life to photography. To hell with my law degree and military service. I knew I’d be charged with desertion, but what did I care? I wanted to live there, to learn to fish with nylon and a tin can, and maybe buy a few cows.”
But a phone call from his father and hearing his mother’s desperate cries in the background were enough to jolt him. “My father said only this: ‘In life you have to finish what you begin.’ He was referring to my law degree. I knew I had to go home, so I abandoned any ideas of an exhibition, packed up, said my goodbyes, and returned to Italy, but I never once stopped thinking about my time with the Rapa Nui.”
Lorenzo eventually accepted an apprenticeship at a law firm specialising in family law, but his heart just wasn’t in it. He kept finding ways to show his work around Rome – at community centres, social clubs, pretty much anywhere with a plug socket and a blank wall on which he could project his images and give a talk. He decided, after all that time, to contact the Chilean archaeologist who earlier had offered to organise an exhibition of his work. That phone call paved the way for Rapa Nui: Factor Humano – not just an exhibition of images but an event that celebrated, on a grand scale, the indigenous people of Easter Island, made possible with the financial support of the Italian Embassy in Chile.
“The Rapa Nui are critical of the way in which photographers have tended to portray them, like some sort of an evolutionary curiosity – Indians adorned with features, wearing loin cloths, hopping around with spears in their hands. They resented the intense scrutiny of their heritage and being reduced to postcards in trinket shops. I never treated them as an anomaly,” he says. “I never treated them as props. I got to know them intimately, as they are – as parents and friends and lovers who share their lives, their food, their drink, their marijuana.”
A representative of the Rapa Nui came to the exhibition and was so appreciative he asked Lorenzo if there was anything he could do for him. “I said I wanted to return to Easter Island. He mentioned that a cargo ship would be departing from Valparaíso within days and said I could hitch a ride. So I did. I boarded the Orlando II – just me, 16 crewmen and a hold full of onions, potatoes and gas cylinders. And that’s how my second reportage series came to be.”