While much of the world despairs at the state of print media, important exceptions stand out and give us hope. The Italian magazine Internazionale is one of those bright spots. Founded 25 years ago by a group of four friends, the publication carries on its original mission of translating the best journalistic stories from around the world and bringing them to an Italian-speaking audience.
Today, Internazionale continues to thrive. We are honored that the magazine’s photo editor (and Deputy Editor-in-Chief) Elena Boille agreed to serve on the jury for our Portrait Awards 2018. Curious to learn more about Internazionale’s founding, philosophy, and success—as well as the key role that photography plays in each issue—LensCulture’s managing editor Alexander Strecker reached out to learn more.
LensCulture: Tell us more about Internazionale, especially for our global readers who might not be familiar with it. As you were co-founder of the magazine, I am also curious if you could describe the spirit in which the project began. What was your mission, and how has that changed over time?
Elena Boille: I co-founded Internazionale in 1993 with a group of friends: Giovanni De Mauro, Chiara Nielsen, Jacopo Zanchini. We were all in our twenties—most of us were still in university. When we were on holiday in France in 1991, we bought a copy of the French magazine Courrier International. The magazine publishes a selection of articles from the worldwide press, translated into French. We loved it and we agreed that we’d like to have a magazine like that in Italy. “Why don’t we do it?” asked Giovanni. Shortly thereafter, we started Internazionale and Giovanni became the editor-in-chief.
At the very beginning, it was just the four of us, so there was a lot to do! I was studying art history, so it seemed logical that I would choose the photos, but I was also reading and selecting articles from dozens of publications, focusing on science, economics and the United States. Freelance translators translated the selected articles and we worked on all the rest: editing, fact-checking, headlines, and all the visual aspects (graphic design, illustration and photo editing).
With a circulation of just 10,000 copies, the first years were not easy. But in 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center provided a turning point (for the world, but also for us). From then on, the newsroom and the circulation began to grow steadily. I imagine it was the public’s feeling that they needed a better understanding of what was going on in the world. Today, we have a team of about 50 and our circulation exceeds 100,000 copies. Still, all the co-founders continue to work at the magazine, so I believe we have preserved something of the initial spirit. Internazionale remains a collective work, a joint effort.
LC: Besides working as the magazine’s photo editor, you are also the Deputy Editor-in-Chief. That means you are thinking about both the photographs in the magazine and the overarching tie between the stories. What is your process for picking portfolios to publish in each magazine (your photo editor role)? What about the stories and overall mix (in your Deputy Editor-in-Chief role)?
EB: I contribute to every stage of production for each issue: the topics we focus on, the copy editing, the photo editing, the selection of the cover, etc. I’m also still in charge of the science pages.
As in any newsroom, we have a meeting where each editor proposes several stories, but in our case, the stories are already written. For example, the Asia editor could propose an article from The New Yorker about the US-China relationship (it was our cover story a couple of weeks ago), a piece about architecture in Seoul or something about the ongoing Rohingya crisis. The Africa editor recommends an article about rape as a weapon of war in Libya from Le Monde or a piece about the drought in South Africa, and so on. Then, when we have decided on the main features, we start working on the photos.
As the head photo editor, I work with a team of four photo editors: Giovanna D’Ascenzi, Mélissa Jollivet, Maysa Moroni and Rosy Santella. Sometimes, we use the photos that were originally published with the article, but we usually look for other pictures that could go with the piece. I’m always looking for images that can add something to the story: not just illustrations, but more like a parallel story, that can enhance the meaning or impact of the written one.
For example, a couple of months ago we ran an article by the neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky, first published in Nautilus. It was about the fact that humans universally make Us/Them dichotomies along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic status, and so on. We naturally tend to see “the Other,” those people who are not “us,” as a threat. But, in the right circumstances, we can easily overcome these dichotomies. For this piece, my colleague proposed work from the Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass called Humanae. In her series of portraits, Dass maps the world’s skin tones, assigning each person a colour according to Pantone’s guides. The aim of the project is to show the absurdity of racism—we thought that the message of the photographic project, and the way Dass realised it, was the perfect accompaniment for the piece.
Besides finding photographs to accompany the words, we also dedicate the first pages of each issue to three double-page spreads that focus on the news photos of the week. To select these three images, we go through all the news photos produced by the world’s biggest news agencies—Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse. And we also look at the selections made by other newspapers around the world, like The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, or the Danish newspaper Berlinske.
Finally, we always make space for a photography portfolio, which focuses mainly on long-term projects. We are open to every genre. We feature classical photojournalistic stories on human rights issues alongside documentary projects, personal works, conceptual series and more.
LC: Do you ever feel a tension between the words and the pictures? For example, a great journalistic story which is not easy to illustrate via photographs, or great photographs that don’t have a journalistic angle?
EB: There’s always a tension between text and photos in a magazine. An article of the Spanish newspaper El País revealed there was an editor-in-chief who, to avoid arguments with the editors, had a sign on his desk that said: “If you have space problems, go to NASA.” I’m sure this struggle between “text” and “image” is present in every publication, but if all goes well, this tension will ultimately result in the right balance.
Sometimes it can be hard to find the right photos for stories that are visually weak (for example, a story about the European Central Bank) or when the topic is abstract. How to visualize a topic like quantum entanglement? Other times, it’s difficult to find something different or fresh. After dozens of articles about the euro crisis, we pushed ourselves to find something new. A less literal approach can add both insight and a bit of humour, as long as it can be understood by our audience.
On the photographic side, an image (or series) that doesn’t have a journalistic angle, but is more artistic, can very often be useful as well, especially to accompany stories about abstract topics. For example, we used the delicate work by Amy Friend titled Dare alla luce to go with an article about memory loss.
LC: Are you especially proud of any photography portfolios that you published in recent months? If so, can you pick one and describe how/where you first discovered the work (or the photographer)? Why did the work stand out to you?
EB: I’m particularly proud of a project about migration done by Patrick Willocq that we published a few weeks ago. It tells the story of 50 migrants “parachuted” into Saint-Martory, a French village of 900 people. Almost overnight, asylum-seekers and French people were suddenly forced to live together. In response, Willocq produced a series of photographic tableaux in which locals and asylum-seekers transform themselves into actors, so that they could unify and create a photographic work that reflects their shared story. The project included these tableaux, portraits of the migrants as well as the people of the village, and also texts and video interviews by Maria Pia Bernardoni, an Italian curator who contributed to the project.
Ultimately, what was interesting to us was not only the project itself—its aesthetics and content—but also the impact it had on the people of the village and on the refugees. The project brought a broad range of people in conversation, some of whose opinions on migration were in opposition, and offered them an artistic platform to express themselves.
What I love about Willocq’s work is that it’s not just a photographic series, but rather it’s an artistic project with deep political meaning. It’s a wonderful example of the fact that there are always fresh and personal ways to tell a story—new perspectives, new angles. We’ve all seen thousands of photos about the migrant crisis, which is good since it is a key issue of our time. But we keep seeing (almost) the same photos over and over. The risk becomes that we don’t see them anymore. Willocq’s photos surprise us. That’s rare and important.
LC: Where do you discover the photographs and photographers that you publish in the magazine?
EB: For portfolios and longer features, we often work with Italian and international agencies: Contrasto, Luz, VII, Institute, Magnum, Noor, Redux, VU’ and collectives like Maps or Terraproject. But we also work with freelance photographers from all over the world. We receive a lot of proposals. But we also spend a lot of time researching photographers’ websites, photography magazines, newspapers, blogs, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, festivals, photography awards…And finally, we use platforms like LensCulture, where I have found many stories that I have published in Internazionale.
When we receive an interesting proposal that we don’t need immediately, we archive it (note: that’s why it’s so important that the subject lines of your email pitches are clear! Don’t make it generic, like “portfolio proposal,” but specific so it can be found later!). As we don’t write the articles we publish, we don’t know very far in advance what we will run. For the same reason, we rarely offer assignments (though we do that a bit more for the features on our website, which are different from those in the print magazine).
Some of the websites I visit often to find interesting work (in no particular order): Feature Shoot, Re:Public, Clavoardiendo, The Guardian’s photo section, L’Insensé, Reading the Pictures, Lens Blog, The Atlantic’s photo section, and many more.
LC: Can you say more about the Italian editorial landscape? In the US (as around the world), print magazines have undergone a period of severe crisis. How did Internazionale weather this storm? How do the coming years look to you, both for Internazionale and in general for Italian media?
EB: I’m quite optimistic about print magazines and newspapers in general. In 2016, Iris Chyi, of the University of Texas, published a seminal paper, “Reality Check: Multiplatform newspaper readership in the United States, 2007–2015.” According to Chyi, in many cases the “digital first” drive was a mistake [for those interested, a highly readable review of the paper is available on Politico].
I think that Internazionale is proof that Iris Chyi could be right. Our print circulation has been growing, year after year, since 2001. And our ad revenues from the print edition are growing as well. Also, we have very young readers.
One of the reasons for the healthiness of our print edition is that in all these years, we have remained focused on it—we never imagined that our future would be online-only. We have invested energy and resources into the print magazine, trying to consistently publish brilliant articles, essays, photos, and comics.
Alongside the magazine, in 2007, we launched an international journalism festival called ”Internazionale a Ferrara.” Here, for three days, our readers can attend talks and workshops with the authors (such as Iris Chyi) of the articles/photos they have read and seen in Internazionale.
LC: Your magazine has a very international focus, but I’m curious: I feel there is a movement growing in photography towards “local journalism”—in other words, hiring “native” photographers to document their own stories, rather than flying in a star photographer from the outside. Italy, for example, has many local topics to be covered. Perhaps more Italian photographers should be covering their own country rather than traveling to the next news “hotspot” to make pictures next to all the other Western journalists.
So my question: How do you feel about this tension between telling stories at home vs. telling stories while abroad? Again, I recognize your magazine is built around the notion of taking a global view, but I am curious for your perspective on the importance of local storytelling as well.
EB: That’s exactly the point! We are interested in what’s going on in the rest of the world, and we try to go directly to the source. Instead of having an Italian journalist writing about, for example, the Russian election, we look for a good article from the Russian press. It is not always possible—and sometimes “local journalism” is simply too “local” to be understandable to a foreign readership. But when that happens, we preserve the local voice while trying to add more context and explanation for our Italian readers about aspects that could be unclear.
As for the photos, having local photographers working on their own country can be a way to avoid stereotypes and look at things from the inside. Since locals know the country, the language, and the customs so much better, they can delve much deeper. But it is also true that it can be difficult to see one’s own country with fresh eyes. Many photographers became photographers precisely because they like to travel, explore, and discover unknown places. And others feel the need to tell the stories of the people who are victim of human rights abuse, wherever they are. There are just so many reasons that may drive someone to become a photographer.
Of course, it might be worth it to hire a photographer halfway across the world if s/he has a truly unique style or a special insight into the topic. But that’s so often not the case. Once, an Italian photographer told me that he had been hired by a major American magazine to shoot a story in the US. He was really happy to do it, but also surprised: “There’s so many talented photographer there!” Besides the cost, there is also the carbon footprint of long flights…
There is another factor: people go where they can find work. In Italy, for example, we are fortunate to have many very good photographers. But it’s not always easy for them to be assigned Italian stories. The editorial landscape here, at large, is in crisis so photographers don’t receive much support from the press. Furthermore, local stories are harder to sell abroad. But newspapers and magazines in Italy, as everywhere, will always need good work about politics, economics, breaking news, social inequality, health, technology…
LC: Finally, what is one piece of advice you have for the entrants to this competition? Or something you often say to emerging photographers or that you wish you could tell every photographer who submits his/her work for your consideration?
EB: Like everybody who’s working in this field, I like to be surprised. I am hoping to see something I have never seen before; something that is both visually attractive and compelling; something that arouses questions. What’s happening in this photo? Who is this person? Why? But there is naturally no single recipe for surprise…
More practical advice: be true to yourself and propose something you really love, something that has meaning for you. Take care of all the details. Everything starts from the basics: the composition, the light, the colours (or the tones, in black-and-white). Editing is also fundamental: remove what isn’t necessary. Content and formal aspects are important, but still, to catch the eye you will also need a touch of wonder.
—Elena Boille, interviewed by Alexander Strecker