More than 100 years ago, Vladimir Lenin penned a document of bullet points that would change the course of history. The ‘April Theses’, written in the Spring of 1917, called for the toppling of the Provisional Government and outlined the strategy that eventually led to the October Revolution. Italian photographer David Monteleone’s The April Theses tackles the challenges of bringing this historic moment to life.
Focusing on the two weeks leading up to the speech, Monteleone recreates and sometimes reenacts Lenin’s epic journey from Switzerland, where he was in exile, back to Russia drawing on archival documents, historical books and his own travels in Lenin’s footsteps. The final work is a blend of fact and fiction constructed through a collection of contemporary landscapes, forensic archival photographs and staged self-portraits which retrace a journey in space and time.
In this interview for LensCulture, Monteleone speaks to Eefje Ludwig early on in 2020 from his home in Moscow about his approach to documentary photography, the challenges of addressing history through photography and the importance of nourishing a critical approach to reading images.
Eefje Ludwig: To get started, can you introduce the project to me?
Davide Monteleone: I completed The April Theses in 2017, in time for the 100-year-anniversary of the Russian October Revolution. A year before, I had started to think about doing something to commemorate the event, but at first found it pretty complicated because it’s such a wide theme. I decided to concentrate on two weeks of Lenin’s life, which were historically pretty significant, during his exile in Switzerland, when Russia and Germany were at war during the First World War.
Lenin managed to cross through Germany—an enemy country—then Sweden and Finland, to eventually get back to Russia. As soon as he arrived, he gave the speech that dictated the rules or criteria by which he planned to lead the October Revolution that came three months later. His speech became a very important historical document for the revolution. It’s called ‘The April Theses’ because that’s when he wrote it, most probably on the train along the way to Russia.
EL: How did you go about telling this historic story? What was your approach?
DM: My approach started with two sources of inspiration. One is that, in the past few years, I have had concerns about ‘pure’ documentary photography that follows certain ‘rules’. These concerns arose from the observation of what is happening to documentary photography and, historically, what documentary photography is.
I revisited my view of what it means to tell a story and the question of what the ‘real’ story is—and not necessarily in a traditional way. In this specific case and scenario, I was dealing with a story that had happened a hundred years ago. It is very difficult to narrate, because nothing is actually ‘happening’ now. It’s like photographing the invisible. And even though I think I am a kind of specialist of making photographs of things that are invisible, or just very difficult to depict, I still found it challenging. So I decided to structure the project in three chapters. I started with the first part: retracing the trail of Lenin. I basically traveled the same path that Lenin did.
EL: Also by train?
DM: Well, sometimes by train. Sometimes the train was not available so we took a car. The idea was to go on the same path, stop at the same locations that he had stopped in. Technically nowadays you could do the trip, even by land, within two or three days. It took him two weeks to do it. It took me three weeks to do it. That was the first part. Well, the ‘first part’—he did only the first part!
Then there was a second part: collecting all the documents from the archive about these two weeks of Lenin’s life. I spent a lot of time in archives here in Moscow and St. Petersburg, just finding everything that was available about Lenin between March and April of 1917. This included photos, letters, utility bills: everything imaginable. It took a lot of time and then I made a selection of what I thought was valuable and reproduced it. I spent a lot of time making forensic, still life images.
EL: How much did you find?
DM: There is a lot, of course, because it’s Lenin. I think they even collected the tissues he used to clean his nose. Of course, not everything was relevant, but what was very interesting is that it seems Lenin had very little private life. He was so obsessed with the idea of revolution that basically everything that concerned him was about the revolution. And not necessarily just in Russia—he actually attempted to make a revolution in Switzerland when he was in exile there.
EL: Tell me about the third part of the project.
DM: The final piece was an effort to unite these two very ‘real’ parts. One being the documents—and there’s nothing more real than documents—and the other retracing the path, adding an actor to play the role of Lenin. I was aware that along the path, I wouldn’t find any symbols, or anything that would relate to Lenin’s presence, a hundred years back.
Initially my idea was to hire someone who could play the role of Lenin, like a doppelganger. Then someone made me realize that if I put on a bit of makeup and dressed up a little bit, I could easily look like Lenin. So that’s what I did—I made the trip dressed like Lenin. My idea was to become the ‘image’ of Lenin, or rather the icon of Lenin, within a specific landscape.
EL: Can you talk a bit about the process of getting into the role? What were you trying to convey?
DM: In the photos, I’m not impersonating Lenin but rather his ‘image’; Lenin as his own icon. A statue, a painting. I took inspiration from his gestures and postures. That was basically the criteria. I had an assistant who was helping me with make-up and the practicalities of taking the image. We used a large format camera.
Another interesting thing happened in the meantime while we were doing the story. I don’t know if you remember, but we were making the project when all of these scandals about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US election came out. And it turned out that even Lenin was sponsored by Germany to go back to Russia and overthrow the government. This just emerged from the documents. There’s no clear evidence but a lot of allegations.
I was very curious about this idea that the October revolution may have, in fact, involved potential meddling as well. The Germans wanted to overthrow the Tsar and they sent Lenin back with money to organize the protest, the uprising and the revolution. There was an interesting parallel with what was going on in the present day, and the assumption that revolutions are simply revolutions with nothing else behind them but the will of the people. It’s utopian in a way.
EL: You mentioned that the self-portraits are provocative. Can you elaborate on that?
DM: Because they are inserted in the same narrative. It’s a combination of forensic pictures and documentary images and fictional, staged photographs. For me, it was a way to say, Look, there is a way to tell the story without being confined by the criteria of documentary photography. In the book, the three parts are mixed up: the story is structured in a way that the first pictures that you see are the ‘fake’ pictures of me as Lenin. You need a couple of seconds before realizing that something is wrong.
When it comes to these discussions of provocations and how to tell a story, I think it’s really a matter of how you position yourself and how transparent you are. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not against photojournalism. I think it’s still extremely valuable and it makes a lot of sense. At the same time, I think at one point in my career, I just realized that I wanted to do something different than just inform. Because, nowadays, information is infinitely available. We have information about everything. There are images about everything. Most of the time, we don’t need images—especially in the case of spot news or events. Most of the time, the first images that we see are not produced by professional photographers.
We are informed through images, and that’s the world we live in. I wanted to revisit the role of photography in this respect. Maybe it’s not just to inform, but more to spark a sense of curiosity in our minds. We’re overwhelmed with information, and it means that we have to guide people’s curiosity in some specific direction rather than just saying: “This has happened. That has happened.” I think it’s more interesting to let people know that there are things that maybe they have heard already, and then help them figure out why they should still care about it.
EL: Beyond The April Theses, is that what you aim for in your work: to spark curiosity in people?
DM: Definitely. Sparking curiosity is definitely a central theme for me. It’s not new in photography. I think it’s extremely challenging to try to photograph and depict things that are really invisible. Sometimes, photography is not enough. I think that when you’ve been involved in photography for many years, there comes a moment when one starts to question the meaning of images and photography. It can’t be reduced to the idea that, “If we follow certain rules, then we fall into a specific kind of photography. If we don’t follow these rules, we jump into another one.” It’s much more complicated than that.
EL: You teach a Master’s program in Documentary Photography in Bologna, Italy. Is this quest—this reflection and attitude towards photography—something you address with your students?
DM: Every year, I question myself about what I should teach people that want to make photography their profession. It’s very different. On the one hand, you have to teach them how to work for publications. On the other, I think you have to challenge them to understand that, in my opinion, that’s just the very first step of engaging with photography or engaging with image. There are many other ways. Most of the time, I start with questions. What is a good photograph? What is a good story? I think the answer is: a photograph that has a purpose. It’s not a matter of how good the picture is or how it was made, but more its purpose. The principle of teaching is just to make people’s mind wider, to think differently.
EL: So, actually, we’re back with sparking that curiosity again…
DM: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think they found answers with me. They just found a lot of more questions.
EL: That should be the purpose of education, right?
DM: Yes, I totally agree. In 2018 , I had a sabbatical, if you can call it that. I didn’t take any pictures for a year. I was in London doing academic research at Goldsmiths University at the department of Art and Politics. I think that really helped me understand my relation with the image and the relation of the image with the world nowadays. I definitely look at photographs in a completely different way now. For me, it’s becoming very difficult to say, “Oh, this is a good picture.” The question is more: What is its meaning? In which sense and from what aspect?
EL: Are you now ready to start again? What are you working on now?
DM: There’s two things. My academic research was about data images. Images that are not used by humans, but by machines. The evolution of the use of images from, let’s say, human entertainment as I like to call it, to whatever is information, advertising or the operational use of the images. Not images that we necessarily see, but those that are used by machines, how this data is processed, and what is the meaning of it. I keep thinking about it, reading about it, sometimes writing about it.
Then there is the practice of being a photographer. In June 2019, I received a fellowship from National Geographic Society and I’m completing a story about China’s investment overseas called ‘Siomocene’. I think every project is a step forward to my way of thinking about photography. I actually like that. I like that there is an evolution. Every project is different from the other. It may seem like there’s no consistency but in my opinion, there is a lot. Maybe it’s just in my mind.