It’s not long after Davide Monteleone’s images of a reunited mother and daughter have appeared on Time magazine’s cover, and filled 28 more pages inside to make up the “Beyond Walls” feature when a message hits his inbox.
“This was the first time I saw migrants from South America as individuals, and after looking at them for a long time, I think I understand them better,” the email reads. Could you find better proof of the power of photography today? Migration, after all, is the story of our century, and what else can photojournalists do but react to it; to investigate and challenge what’s going on.
The purpose of Time’s story was clear – to confront perspectives on migration, and the way Davide’s images accomplished this was simple but vital. The method was to make delicate and striking portraits, very much at odds with the way migrants are normally portrayed in the media.
Each time, Davide tells us, a simple, white backdrop was deployed, “so the context is removed and you have to focus your attention on just the person. It removes the stereotype of migration, the things you normally see: distress, queuing… a camp of desperate people.” And with the simple effect, he explains, you can change their status. “They become individuals, real people, and it’s harder to use dehumanising words like ‘flood’, ‘wave’, ‘mass’... we can defeat that.”
Having worked with other cameras previously, for his Time assignment, a new tool was needed, and with good reason.
I used a Sony α7R III,” Davide explains, “which was a big change to begin with, but I soon appreciated its advantages. Logistically, using a small, light, pro-quality camera was so refreshing because the ‘Beyond Walls’ project had to be completed in just 15 days. So, while large format always needs a tripod, and lights, we could work so much faster with the α7R III, just taking the white background to pin on a wall, and not much else. The camera’s quality is striking, too, so it’s perfect for press, or making huge prints. It’s very impressive.
Something else that changed the way Davide could work was the α7R III’s weather sealing: “One day, shooting at the border in Tijuana, it was raining hard, and we didn’t have time to wait it out because we only had four days to shoot. I’m used to using old cameras where you’re afraid about even a drop of water getting inside the plate, but with the α7R III there’s no such concern. If I was shooting on large format, I’d have needed an assistant with an umbrella! As it was, all I need to do was remember to clean the lens occasionally. It’s a feature that makes you so much more productive, and I’ve found the same thing shooting in the arctic and in the desert.”
“Working with a camera the size of the α7R III can also make it less intimidating for sensitive subjects,” says Davide, adding that its speed can liberate the photographer using it, too.
The AF is so fast you don’t even notice it, so you can make your composition, speak to the subject, and you can forget the camera.” Like most tools, “if you don’t notice it, it’s working perfectly.
What also goes unnoticed in Davide’s images is the backdrop, but it’s this that gives his portraits the striking simplicity of a studio session. In fact, “it’s all natural light,” Davide finishes, “and we just put up the background in the opposite direction to the sun, in shadow, which that makes the light very soft.” Shooting in manual, he overexposed slightly each time to get a clean canvas, letting his subjects step to the fore.
"I come from the tradition of documentary photography but my interest is to encourage curiosity rather than deliver information. The best story is not in the picture itself but around and behind it. What you see is in the frame is just an emotional window"