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Interviews

Alessandra Meniconzi: Travelling

Alessandra Meniconzi: Travelling

© Alessandra Meniconzi

June 2007

A trip to India at the age of 21 sparked a 10-year exploration of the peoples of the ancient trade routes. Alessandra Meniconzi describes her journey from traveller to photographer.

Before I got into photography I was into travelling. My main motivation was the desire to explore faraway places and different cultures and photography was simply a way to record my experiences. At the beginning I didn’t know anything about the camera: exposure, shutter speed, aperture, flash – nothing. I just shot. So when the slides were developed I was often disappointed because a lot of images were under or over-exposed, blurred and so on.

By training, I’m a graphic designer, but I used to shoot without any idea of composition and after several trips I really felt the need to improve. A friend of mine helped me greatly, not with the technical side but to ‘see’ the image. And little by little I think I have improved. Often I’m not so happy with my photos, so I try to learn from my mistakes, and learn how to create a better image. I’m really very critical of my work. I always try to understand why certain pictures work and try to learn the technique from those images.

My travels on the Silk Road, which began in the mid Nineties, were made in more than one journey. At first there was no specific idea to follow the Silk Road but after a while I began to notice that my pictures covered a great part of that route. My bicycle trip from Pakistan to China was the main impetus.

I prefer remote and rugged places, mountainous terrain and desert. I love to find people who can manage to survive in these places, to discover and record their ancient way of life before they are changed by the modern era.

Along the Silk Road there are many different ethnic groups. In Pakistan, I spent some time with the Kalash minority. They have practically remained segregated from the entire world living their lives secluded from every external influence. Numbering approximately 3,000, they are the smallest ethnic group among the religious minorities of Pakistan and their origin is an enigma which has been lost between legend and history.

© Alessandra Meniconzi

This was taken in the Hunza Valley in Pakistan on a bridge near Pasu village. I was on way way to China along the Silk Road. I placed the camera on the tripod in a place that was better for showing the vertiginous suspension bridge. I focused on the middle of the bridge and asked my friend to wait until I reached this point and press the button. I was a little scared because the bridge cable was rusting steel and I was afraid to cut my hand, and also some pieces of wood were missing or broken.

The Kalash themselves claim to be descendents of Alexander the Great, who in 327 BC, fascinated by rich legends of the Indian continent, entered the Battriata via the Lowari pass with his Macedonian troops. According to myth, during the long and exhausting journey, many tired soldiers mutinied and chose to live in these valleys.

© Alessandra Meniconzi

Kalash children at school

An archaic society, which has stopped in time intact, is solidly bound to roots and traditional values. Kalash people speak the ancient Dardic language, a branch of the Indo-European languages and practice a very complex and politheistical religion.

In this amalgamation of centuries, a varied ethnic mixture is found: people of tall stature, of light complexion, eye shades which range from the most intense blue to green and brown. Hair tones are also numerous: blond, red, brown and black.

© Alessandra Meniconzi

In the Zanskar Valley, an isolated Himalayan region, farmers cultivate wheat and barley during the short summer.

In China, on the mountanous border between Guangxi and Guizhou province, nature has modelled the landscape and mankind has carved its deep trace. It is a domesticated, modified land where farmers, as well as patient and ingenious sculptors, have bent nature in order to meet their needs.

© Alessandra Meniconzi

Sunset on the ricefield

It has been calculated that to cultivate a kilo of rice around 3,000 to 10,000 litres of water are needed. In the saturated ricefields fish farming is practiced. Small fish and prawns help maintain the land clean from insects harmful to the crops and supply a good supply of proteins to their daily diet.

The giant steps not only help to reduce the dangerous landslides during heavy rainfalls but also contribute to a reduction in soil erosion and help increase the area of arable land. Breaking the steep slope of the mountains into several levels, the fields can gain more benefit from the sun’s rays and the rice is able to mature more quickly.

In Guizhou province, young Miao women dress beautifully embroidered costumes to look for a marriage partner during a spring festival. The elaborate handmade costumes are designed to attract a desirable young man. In Miao culture silver is symbol of wealth and beauty. The young women can wear several kilograms of it at one time.

© Alessandra Meniconzi

Long-Horned Miao are famous for their unique costumes composed from an exotic hairstyle formed with a horned headpieces.

I wouldn’t want these cultures to be kept in a kind of a zoo for tourists, but I think every culture of the world is our cultural heritage. If you can’t stop the modernisation and the homogenisation of our world it is important to record the richness of every culture.

I graduated from an old Canon SLR that my brother gave me to an EOS-1 just before my first trip to China more than 10 years ago. For my first bike trip I bought a zoom lens to keep the weight down. The weight of the photographic equipment during my travels varies from 10kg to 15kg, depending on the number of lenses and films that I carry. I now have two bodies mainly as insurance after a bad experience when I damaged a camera. Both are EOS-1N (it’s a very strong camera – I’ve used them now from about 15 years, and they’re still working fine).

Technical

I currently have the following lenses:

EF20-35mm f/2.8L
EF200mm f/2.8
EF85mm f/1.2L
EF100 f/2.8 Macro
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM

My preferred lens is the 24-70mm f/2.8 (this lens is also very useful because you can use it like a macro lens). I also have a 1.4x extender that I rarely use, and I'm waiting for delivery of a 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye. I use filters quite a lot - polariser, skylight and UV, Neutral Density and colour correction 81A, 81B and 81C. In my bag I usually carry the 540EZ Speedlite which I use mainly for fill in, not as a primary light source. I’m also experimenting with lensbabies - a toy lens, but very interesting to use.

I do not carry all of this during my bike trips. On the bike I usually carry two or three lenses, a flash, a small Gitzo tripod and one roll of slide film per day. I usually travel for about two months at a time.
I like the image stabilization on the 70-200 but I never leave home without a tripod. For me the tripod is as important as the camera. My nightmares in travel photography are the dust and battery problems. Dust is one of the reasons that I haven’t moved to digital yet. It’s hard to keep the camera protected from dust in the type of photography I do.

Each of my images is very considered so I find it strange when I see people shooting with a digital camera like a machine gun, only stopping to see if any images are any good and then deleting most of them. New technologies are important but the photographer has to manage them and not be mastered by them. If your eyes and brain become too lazy to think before you shoot I believe your photography will suffer. The camera is not the issue; the issue is who is doing the clicking.

I feel that with digital anyone can transform a poor image into a reasonable photo, which makes me think that it would be difficult for someone who has talent to emerge. Of course it’s not actually the case, but I feel that with slides or negatives, what you have is the ‘real record’.

However, there are many things I like about digital: it’s great to see the images you have taken, and maybe you can correct your mistakes faster. And you don't have to carry lots of film. I’ll switch one day but I hope to work in the same way that I'm working today: thinking before shooting.

Inspirations

Photographers I admire are: Olivier Föllmi; Eric Valli; Steve McCurry; Ami Vitale; Frans Lanting; Steve Bloom; Roland and Sabine Michaud; Pascal and Maria Marechaux and, in particular, Yann Arthus Bertrand. It is not just for the great images that he takes but for his advice to humanity on the environmental damage we are doing to our planet.

These photographers don’t simply produce good images, but ones that are also poetic. You can feel the essence of the moment. For me shooting is the act of materialising my feelings, a mix of thoughts and technique. What I want to learn is how to paint with my camera; I love the effect of light in pictures. For portraits, I always think how Rembrandt used light, and try to do the same. But to achieve this in travel photography is very difficult, because you need to pick the moment.

Biography: Alessandra Meniconzi

Alessandra Meniconzi

Swiss photographer Alessandra made several trips to Asia over a 10-year period to document the people and cultures of the so-called Silk Road, the 2,000-year-old trade route linking the Orient and the Occident. These trips led to the publishing of The Silk Road in 2004. Books on Iceland and China are expected this year.



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