Matilde Gattoni is an award-winning French-Italian photographer based in Milan who covers social, environmental and human rights issues all around the world.
Since the start of her career in 2000, she has worked extensively in Europe, the Middle East, South and Central Asia and Africa; she has covered topics such as droughts, refugee emergencies, illegal mining, mass migrations, large scale land grabbing and climate change for more than one hundred newspapers and magazines worldwide.
Below, she is interviewed by French photo editor and critic Jeanne Mercier about her career and her perspective on photography after over a decade in the field.
JM: How did you become a photographer?
MG: I went to Morocco when I was 19 carrying an old camera that belonged to my father. I fell in love with the camera and with the adventures it allowed me to experience. Later, in 2000, I was in Hebron at the beginning of the Second Intifada—that was a good opportunity to really start my career.
JM: Your first work in Africa was about Eritrea. How did you end up there in the first place?
MG: I went to Eritrea in 2003 because UNICEF was trying to produce a report about the consequences of war on a very remote country. It was a special journey for me because my father was born there and my grandfather lived there for 20 years. I grew up with images of Eritrea, so it felt like returning to my roots.
JM: After that, you lived for eight years between Dubai and Beirut. Can you say more about why you chose to move?
MG: At that point, I was represented by arabianEye, an agency created by a young English woman named Celia Peterson. I was covering the Middle East for international daily newspapers and magazines such as the Financial Times, TIME, Newsweek, and Der Spiegel. I was also lucky enough to be commissioned for a lot of corporate work; this allowed me to work with a variety of clients who had very different expectations.
Working in such different contexts—from Eritrea to the Middle East—made me realize how Europe has a tendency to confine you to a specific category as a photographer. Abroad, or perhaps outside your familiar context, you feel much greater freedom to explore different paths.
JM: You’ve frequently returned to Africa to produce work—for example, you just completed a project in Western Africa. Can you tell us more about that project?
MG: I just spent five weeks in Western Africa (Ghana, Togo, and Benin) covering the effects of climate change there. Coastal erosion is beginning to swallow the countries on the western coast—this changing landscape will have long-lasting and absolutely devastating consequences.
JM: In your opinion, how are photography and writing related? You co-founded Tandem Reportages with journalist Matteo Fagotto to tackle this question.
MG: This is an essential relationship within photojournalism. The first doesn’t exist without the latter, especially in the context of reportage.
Matteo and I have been working as a team for three years. This allows us to talk about topics that are very important to us. Tandem was our answer to the crisis the press has been experiencing for many years. Commissioned projects are very rare, and when they do exist, they are brief—only a few days. That isn’t enough time to cover a topic in any detail.
Tandem does exactly the opposite: we don’t cover the news. Instead, we go to very remote areas of the world and try to create a link between those isolated zones and the West. We want to exist outside the demands of the ever-changing news cycle.
JM: During your assignments, you often post images on Instagram. Are they part of your documentary work, or are they just random shots? How do you fit them into your “serious” practice?
MG: They definitely serve both purposes! When I’m reporting, I post daily images of what’s around me. Sometimes the images are part of the project I’m working on, sometimes they are just candid moments. On the other hand, when I don’t travel, I post archival images with full captions as a way to catch up on my work.
I really enjoy Instagram because I love having direct contact with the public. I love it when they ask me questions about an image I’ve posted, especially questions I haven’t considered. It’s heartening to see that people are interested in the world and what’s going on in it. Even though I no longer cover “news,” people still care about the stories I’m telling.
JM: You are a member of Everyday Climate Change on Instagram—can you tell us more about that group?
MG: Everyday Climate Change is a group of photographers based on five continents. We aim to illustrate the effects of climate change. Our goal is to make people realize that climate change is real and that it affects the whole world and not only Third World countries. It’s one thing to read an article or a scientific report—it’s another to see an image of a countryside devastated by deforestation. The emotional impact of the second is so much greater. In my mind, that’s the power of photography.
JM: Usually your work is published in the press, but recently you’ve also had the opportunity to show your work in exhibitions. Can you talk about the difference between presenting your work in the media vs. presenting your work to an exhibition audience?
MG: Don’t forget internet publishing! Everyday Climate Change, which began on Instagram, was exhibited last year in Milan, New York, Chicago and Bangkok. I also just had a solo exhibition in Dubai.
Generally speaking, I would rather publish my work in magazines because they give more people access to the stories that are a part of the project. That said, it’s always personally satisfying to see your work on the walls of a gallery. Exhibitions give me the chance to assess my situation: I have to stop running around and put things in perspective. I get to look at my work and say, “OK, this is where I am now. Where am I going next?”
—Matilde Gattoni, interviewed by Jeanne Mercier
Editors’ Note: Until January 16, the exhibition ”On the Front Line: Women Photojournalists in War Zones” will be showing at the Palazzo Madama in Rome. This exhibition will feature work from 14 female photojournalists from all over the world.