Alessandro Iovino’s absorbing lens on the world
The Cape Town-based photographer discusses his recent project shot inside a youth development centre.
Photographer Alessandro Iovino makes the bulk of his work between South Africa and his native Italy. He's also travelled pretty extensively -- the USA, Norway, China -- finding remarkable stories to tell in radically different landscapes and communities. His most recent project, Chrysalis Academy, takes the viewer inside a military-style youth development centre of the same name in the mountains of Cape Town.
Born in a small town in the north of Italy called Parma, best known for its namesake cheese and ham, growing up, "it was pretty much all about food," he says. Alessandro's father was the owner of a small business in the countryside that sold empty glasses to the food industry. "My mother used to work for him, but they broke up when I was five, and she started the same business in town which, with time, has grown bigger than his." He chose a degree in economics upon leaving school but, some years down the line, landed on photography, not finance, as his calling. "I realise now that the reason I chose economics was that I didn't want to fail and disappoint my mother," he says. "One day, I asked myself why I always bring a camera with me, and that question changed my life quite drastically."
In 2014 he enrolled on a short photography course in London, initially veering towards studio photography. "I thought that was a wiser decision, but obviously that wasn't right, again." On completion, Alessandro began looking for stories to tell, taking cues from the documentary greats: "The masters of the past, like James Nachtwey, Don McCullin, Robert Capa…"
His search eventually took him to the Cesura headquarters in Pianello Valtidone, Piacenza, an Italian collective started by Magnum photographer Alex Majoli, which offered him guidance and advice. In the years since he's developed a body of work that has clearly taken valuable lessons from this pantheon of artists. Still, for a long time, he felt downbeat about his place within photography. "I would ask myself what stories I was drawn to, and I couldn't answer," he says, "and this was always very frustrating for me, not being able to answer what I like, what I was passionate about. I couldn't bear the lack of coherence between my stories."
Alessandro travelled to Cape Town while grappling with this feeling of disillusionment. "I was unsatisfied with making stories only to accomplish things for magazines and my ego, and I wanted to change something," he says. Once there, he soon became interested in capturing the intricacies of South African youth, particularly its men, "trying to highlight the changes in its youngest generation," he says, "as well as the persistent and present segregation that is visible in every layer."
This interest led him to Chrysalis Academy -- a self-described "youth development" centre opened by the government at the foot of the Table Mountain range south of Cape Town. Chrysalis teaches "personal mastery, greater resilience, [and] enhanced skill sets" to young adults from troubled backgrounds, according to its website. "I had to wait one year before being able to stay there and to photograph it," he says. "But the wait was very much worth it." Before the project was cut short by the pandemic, Alessandro spent two months inside the institution, waking up at 4:30 am with the cadets and photographing their daily rituals.
The images certainly offer a striking, if heavily romanticised, view of the academy. The contrast between the clearly gruelling physical (and perhaps psychological) aspects of the academy, and the natural beauty of the academy’s backdrop and sun-bleached blue uniforms strikes an uncomfortable balance at moments. But the images also speak to Alessandro's ability to blend into his surroundings; a comfort and familiarity clearly felt between him and his subjects. "I never question too much on how I should behave or approach the subject in order to fit in a place where I'm the stranger," Alessandro says, on his role within such spaces. "I believe in being myself with honesty and showing the subject who I really am."
All images courtesy Alessandro Iovino