Storytelling, Documentary Photography and Social Justice
By Helen Bermudes, Emma Comrie, Gabby Lozano, Sofia Vorontsova, and Alice Consigli
Photojournalist Rocco Rorandelli uses documentary photography to capture a wide variety of stories, from immigrants on the Balkan Route (Trans Europe Migration, 2015) to landmine-affected countries (Mineland, 2016-2017) to the personal belongings of unidentified migrants found dead in the Evros river boardering Greece (Traces of Identity, 2018).
Experimenting with drone photography, Rorandelli's images skillfully depict the narratives of people who have faced immense struggles, yet never cease to take action and strive for a better future. Rorandelli's stunning photographs highlight fundamental human resilience, ambition, and compassion, giving us all hope for a better humanity.
Rorandelli originally earned a Ph.D. in Biology before figuring out that photography was his calling. He began his career in photojournalism in 2006. His Ph.D. in Biology gave him a scientific approach when analyzing and developing projects and left him with a profound interest in global, social, and environmental issues. The same year Rorandelli founded the Terraproject Collective with three other Italian documentary photographers. This new adventure aimed to report on social and environmental issues through photography and to develop a portfolio of work featuring longterm field-work projects in Italy and abroad. Terraproject aims to develop a visual language to report on social issues while adopting the investigative gaze of the anthropologist.
The projects Rorandelli created made him one of the most well known and impactful Italian photojournalists. In 2011 he was awarded a grant by the fund for Investigative Journalism for his long-term project on the tobacco industries in China, India, the U.S., Indonesia, Nigeria, Italy, Germany, Bulgaria and Slovenia. The project, called Behind the Smokescreen, exposed the tobacco industry’s exploitative production processes and the health consequences of smoking. Rorandelli collaborated with the Italian newspaper Repubblica for another important online project called Earthquake in Central Italy. This one-year long project explored the devastating aftermath of the earthquakes in Central Italy between 2016 and 2017, documenting their impact on the lives of real people through their eyes. The Serafini and the Lauri families are the central subjects of the report. Rorandelli captured the first academic year of a school that was rebuilt with 22 containers in just 13 days. He included images of the students who populated the school before and after the tragedy and dove into the changing landscapes and emotions hidden behind the hard-work of a population that does not want to abandon their homes and give up their dreams.
In Kosovo and Mineland, Rorandelli explored the social and economic costs that the wars in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia at the end of the 20th century left behind including 150,000 unexploded ordnances in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia. Exposure to depleted uranium, contained in the munitions used during the war, caused irreversible damage to the health of many involved in the UN missions in these countries, as well as those still living in these heavily mined areas.
Immigration has been another recurrent theme in Rorandelli’s work. In Traces of Identity he collected and photographed objects of unidentified migrants whose bodies were found dead in the apparently calm water of the Evros river between Greece and Turkey. A lighter, a rosary, and a dental prosthesis are just some of the 150 items that he captured as traces of the anonymous existence of those who perished in their journey to reach a better future. With a meticulous forensic eye, Rorandelli engaged in the reconstruction of identities that otherwise would have been completely erased by the water and indifference. This work was featured in the New York Times. Rorandelli has also been following people escaping the humanitarian crisis in Syria. His project Trans Europe Migration focuses in on refugees who, after arriving in Europe by sea, must trek across the Balkans in order to reach Germany and Northern Italy. In 2015, after an estimated 1 million refugees arrived in Europe by sea, Rorandelli travelled to the Balkans to capture both the historic event in human migration and the personal transformation of identity that refugees experience. In this project he utilizes aerial photography taken from a drone to show a unique physical perspective of the refugees' journeys. This choice reflects his goal to humanize a group of people who are often categorized in political, religious, or economic terms. At its core, this New York Times feature captures the distinctly human instinct to travel in search of a better life.
When Rorandelli decided to pursue photography 12 years ago, he set out to do more than capture beautiful images. His pictures have vibrant colors, fascinating shapes, physical movement, and capture the most intimate moments of human life. Beyond these visual accomplishments, his photos tell stories that extend far beyond the limited frame of his camera. Without bias or judgement Rorandelli gives voice to the smaller human experiences that exist within larger social, political, and environmental trends.
How would you describe your style? Does your style impact the way you think about the issue of migration?
As a documentary photographer I try to represent life situations in the most direct way, without changing the setting of what I photograph. At the same time, I also utilise different visual approaches to explore an issue in what I think can be more effective in passing a message. Migration is made of such different realities, people moving, but also objects responding, hence the various styles I adopt.
How did you make the switch from zoology to photojournalism?
I liked the work I was doing as a researcher, however I felt I was missing a link to society and what was happening around me. The romantic idea of a photojournalist eye witnessing forgotten stories and reporting them to the general public was conveyed to me by meeting some of the most prominent documentary photographers. The role of the photographer as a storyteller is true for me. Together with the ethical values he or she needs to have.
What is your advice to aspiring students hoping to be in the field of photography?
Study the techniques on photography to become skilful and not have to think about it anymore. Read, be aware, dig into issues without stopping on the surface. Study the work of other photographers and think of how you would work on a certain topic. And start building your portfolio.
Is there such thing as a perfect picture?
Probably there is a technical perfection, but this does not mean that the photo is more important or valuable...
How do you think your usage of drone technology affects your subjects, since drones can be used as weapons of war and some of your subjects might be used to seeing them in this light ?
I use a small quadricopter which doesn't have much to do with drones used in war ares. When I use it in close proximity to people I make myself visible so that anyone can ask who I am and what I am doing. I often try to explain beforehand what I will do. For these reasons I have never seen or received any negative feedback or reactions from my subjects.