finding beauty on the slum beaches of sicily
Mauro D’Agati has been photographing the young Marzia and her family for the past eight years, revealing the hidden world of Palermo vegetable sellers.
The Sicilian photographer Mauro D'Agati found his most enduring subject, a six year-old girl named Marzia, on Termini Beach outside Palermo. You have to be a visionary (which Mauro is), to find beauty at Termini, a spit of sand in an industrial wasteland, ringed by oil and chemical refineries, and a power plant. Poor families from Palermo come during the summer to illegally camp on the garbage-covered beach and the nearby Fiat factory parking lot. It's a summer holiday for the marginalized.
"Si, a vacation!" says Mauro. "They relax, they eat, they sleep, they enjoy this place. The water is not clean, everything is like a disaster movie, but they enjoy." It was this joy that drew him to Marzia, whose family would become the subject of a five-volume book out this fall from Steidl. The book tracks five summers in the life of the family, but Mauro sees the project as even longer than that. He wants to keep photographing Marzia until she marries, perhaps.
Out of the thousands of people at Termini, why Marzia? "She's natural and spontaneous and sweet and beautiful in the face," says D'Agati without hesitating. "Even if she is fat, she is very beautiful in the face. She posed like a model. Fashion magazines don't consider this kind of beauty."
Families like Marzia's aren't just invisible to fashion publications, they're invisible from almost everyone. In Palermo, where Marzia's father works as a vegetable seller, the family lives in a slum with no gas, electricity, or traditional bathrooms. When I ask Mauro if most of the people in the city are aware of this community, and their squat-holidays, he laughs. No. So images like D'Agati's, of Marzia laughing on the beach, or dignified in a communion dress, or crowding onto a motorbike with her friends, are peeks into a hidden subsection of Sicilian life.
Providing that access is Mauro D'Agati's mission as a photographer. He has made a (shockingly undersung and underfunded) career out of lifting the curtain on people in the margins. His main territory is his birthplace, Palermo, and its decaying, passionate underbellies. After studying law, he photographed the city's local jazz festivals, its notorious crime families, and transvestite hookers. When he left Palermo, he found similarly cloistered communities: the freemasons of Cuba, the ghettos of Mexico City. His next project is infiltrating Bangkok's secretive fetish society.
As to the common thread between these subjects, "there is something human inside," says Mauro. "The common thing is the connection with me and these people. Every time, there's a sort of friendship at the end."
So every summer, he returns to Marzia. She and her family like the photos. "For them it's like a family album we are working on," says Mauro. Although over the years, she's grown from a trusting child to a more apprehensive adolescent. "Marzia is not easy to make photos of now," he says. "Now she is shy. You need joy. She don't want to be famous. They like to remain invisible." He hopes that the 'Marzia's Family' project will benefit the family, somehow. He plans to give them proceeds from any profit from the images.
The tension between invisibility and being seen is something Mauro understands. He has always photographed in a pure way, working rarely with magazines or gallerists. "Conventional stuff I don't do," he admits. He collaborates closely with Gerhard Steidl, who has published all his books and also curated a retrospective of D'Agati's work in Naples this year. But ultimately, as he says, "I think to be invisible is okay."
Text Rory Satran
All photography (c) Mauro D'Agati