The Photobook Review

Review: Daniele De Luigi on Nicoló Degiorgis

 

Nicoló Degiorgis, Hidden Islam

This book was the winner of the First PhotoBook Award in the 2014 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards

Nicoló Degiorgis
Hidden Islam

Rorhof

Bolzano Bozen, Italy, 2014

Designed by Nicoló Degiorgis and Walter Hutton

6 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. (16 x 24 cm)

90 pages, including 45 gatefolds

42 color photographs and 82 black-and-white photographs

Hardcover

rorhof.com

“Silent invasion” is a phrase that Italian right-wing populist parties and media frequently use to oppose the rise of new Islamic places of worship across the country. The clear aim is to generate panic about Muslims “colonizing” Italy. It is true that places in the country where Muslims can practice their faith are often invisible to others—but this is because requests to build official mosques are so frequently denied by local governments. Beyond special regulations for Catholicism, there are no clear and complete national laws on the construction of places of worship, leaving other religious groups vulnerable to bias. Moreover, every time there is an announcement that a new mosque may be built, groups of local citizens shout that it will be a den of terrorists and barbarians. As a result, you can literally count the number of official Italian mosques on two hands, and an estimated 1.5 million Muslims are forced to gather in hundreds of makeshift places of worship.

Hidden Islam by Nicoló Degiorgis, winner of the 2014 Rencontres d’Arles Prix du Livre d’Auteur, uses a clever layout device to illustrate this situation. The photographer’s research focuses on northeastern Italy, a large area where Islamophobia has spread. Degiorgis carried out an extremely accurate mapping of unofficial places of worship and decided to represent them using a dual approach in style. He shot the exteriors of buildings using the rules of nineteenth-century documentary aesthetics: black and white, diffused daylight, visual clarity, no people, anonymity. The point of view is always diagonal, facing a corner of the building, or frontal, for the apartment buildings featured. The sequence is made up of images of similar buildings, to increase the impression that there’s nothing to see. All the photographs are sorted into eight types—such as warehouses, shops, supermarkets—and pinpointed through postal codes. Half of the buildings have been shot inside too, but in color and typically with people in prayer. The documentary approach in these color photos is narrative: Degiorgis allows himself to vary the point of view and the moment of shooting, with great attention to detail depending on the scene.

The peculiarity of the book is how the photographic material has been organized. Every page in the book is made up of a gatefold: on the outside of the flaps are pictures of the exteriors, while inside the gatefolds are the interiors. The combined use of two photographic codes that are usually seen in opposition—a choice that could be seen as risky—works surprisingly well; the gatefold structure doesn’t read as an obvious play on inside vs. outside.

This book does not only shed light on the condition of Italian Muslims or of Muslims living in Italy. As it’s up to the reader to either keep the pages folded, only looking at the surfaces of the urban landscape, or open them to cast a glance inside, it also works as a metaphor for the attitudes one can adopt in the face of this phenomenon. This is key to understanding religious tensions in contemporary Italy, a land that is both the cradle of Catholicism and a prime destination for many Muslim immigrants, many of whom arrive from countries just across the Mediterranean. Ironically, Hidden Islam could even be a useful tool for the supporters of the “silent invasion” theory. Thus, the book is also a reflection of the instability of photographic meaning and the limits of the medium. As Lewis Baltz suggested, to see is not the same as to know.

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Daniele De Luigi was recently appointed curator of the Galleria Civica di Modena Italy, and is a regular contributor to the European Photography Festival in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

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