by Steve Bisson

© Still image of the book 'The Walking Mountain'

Last November, during the latest edition of ParisPhoto, CALAMITA/A’ presented the book 'The Walking Mountain', which illustrates the research that was done in the territory of the Vajont, Italy. The reasons for this project, which has gathered a large group of international photographers, have been introduced in a previous article published on Urbanautica in 2015

Two years later we are glad to talk about it in more detail and to give voice to the book designers, curators and some of the published authors. This article is an attempt to enhance the understanding of this publishing work, of the editorial choices and motivations that prompted several photographers to contribute to the research and of the choices behind the exhibition which was held at the gallery Matèria, in Rome, with the artistic direction of Niccolò Fano.

The book is divided into three separate parts. The central body brings together the visual materials produced by the photographers who participated in the enterprise. Each project is well described so that the overall diversity of contributions and of stylistic/expressive choices emerges. A second block includes a series of short essays. The text of Olivia Casagrande examines, from an anthropological point of view, possible meanings of an environmental catastrophe. Emiliano Oddone makes a historicized reconstruction of the geological context in which the calamitous event of the previously mentioned research takes place.

Finally, a third section of the book is devoted to the interviews section, thirteen interviews in total with photographers as Simon Norfolk, Olla Otto Becker, Rob Hornstra, to name just a few. In these dialogues, never mundane, the reader is led to reflect on other projects that have highlighted the role of photography as a means of socio-territorial survey, and also, more specifically, on issues such as immigration, war conflicts, climate change, economic transformation, technological progress and landscape modifications. An inventory of themes in which photograph stands as a conceptualization, description and representation tool. To clarify, we could say that a photograph favours a focused look, channelling attention objectively. Sometimes it stimulates “other” interpretations. However, the merit of CALAMITA/A’ lies in having these experiences catalogued and jousted them together as a choir.

These conversations have been complemented with sociologist Derrick De Kerckhove and historian François Hartog. Since the beginning, the search for a multidisciplinary approach has characterized the intentions of CALAMITA/A’. The book is a confirmation, so it is too simplistic to reduce it to a photo publication. It also differs in the form from a traditional catalogue of images. The same editing adopted in the book's design solution allows these different parts to be browsed together in variable geometries. This book takes time and attention to be appreciated in its entirety.

I think that the merit of this research goes beyond its content. The editors were skilled in drawing a methodological process, still in progress, that, hopefully, will hold other surprises in store for the future. No doubt that the one left by Arena and Caneve in the Vajont region is one of the most significant trace, particularly in this research & action field that crosses photography to reach a well-defined place, history, and community.

Well, having said this, let’s listen to the protagonists… Firstly the Dutch book designers of SYB.  

'The Walking Mountain' is not a regular photobook but is a research book. Making use of a very specific event - the Vajont catastrophe - it attempts to drive the reader to focus on some peculiar topics (the landscape of trauma, the identity and the reappropriation, the political/economical power...). How did you reinforced this idea of research?

SYB: Designing a book like this, a book with a content that does not consist of one coherent body of work by one photographer and that has rather a complex narrative with different angles and layers, demands (in my eyes at least) a design that helps the reader to recognize these different angles/layers and that also helps them to navigate through the complex story. Of course, you can mix the three angles/layers in the design and create a very, eclectic and interesting book, but in this case I felt that that approach would not help Calamita/à to get their message across. Especially since the artist section is also a mix of approaches by quite a few artists. So I structured the whole book as three separate books bound together as one. The artist book was, in my eyes, the most important one (and therefore the biggest and last). The two other ones are smaller. They open to the left and to the right with a kind of metaphorical link to sluice gates.

© Still image of the book 'The Walking Mountain'

© Still image of the book 'The Walking Mountain'

© Still image of the book 'The Walking Mountain'

Gianpaolo Arena, Marina Caneve, Niccolò Fano

Why did you decided to work together for this exhibition?

Gianpaolo Arena (GA): I know Niccolò Fano through curating events with him in the past at Matèria: the jury of ‘On Landscape #2’, the exhibition ‘Youth Codes’ (Andreas Weinand, Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon). Niccolò followed the project from its first steps and has collaborated with us by curating the interviews with Peter Bialobrzeski and Aglaia Konrad. Matèria reacts receptively to what is happening around art and photography. So the Gallery was the perfect place to present our interdisciplinary project. Open ideas and a collaborative feeling were part of the process. Last year Marina, Niccolò and I collaborated together following a continuous flux of energy. Good synergy and passion nourished us from the beginning to the end of the exhibition.

Marina Caneve (MC): Matéria gallery is a vibrant space in the Italian panorama and from the start of Niccolò’s activity we liked a lot what he was doing. We really appreciated his professionalism as well as the freedom in his decision making and the search for different visual solutions in all of his shows at Matèria. We started our collaboration somewhere in 2014. Niccolò showed up to a call we made online. We liked his profile so much that we decided to propose to him to take part of our interviews’ team. Our relationship has grown over the years by building a relationship of reciprocal trust. When we started to organise the crowdfunding campaign that permitted us to produce “The Walking Mountain”, we established a partnership with the gallery and the idea of the exhibition came almost naturally.

Niccolò Fano (NF): I started following Calamita/à long before I decided to open Matèria. As a platform it provided extremely interesting subject-focused content by fixating its interest on a small, specific geographical area in Italy and the events that shaped its history. The platform has the unique characteristic of possessing a high quality photography core that becomes well rounded as a project when supported by in-depth interviews, sound video and publishing. Calamita/à coincides with a fundamental aspect of Matèria’s exhibition programme. The choices of a commercial gallery are usually compromised and influenced by the market they cater to/ depend on; Through this restriction we often see socially engaging projects trumped by artworks of an ornamental quality and aesthetically driven nature. It, therefore, became very important to me to welcome Calamita/à within a commercial space that allowed room for a strong dialogue with the exterior; through the social, anthropological and historical elements of research which is crucial to a gallery’s role and function within its national and global context.

© Installation view of the exhibition at Matèria, Rome, 2016 

© Installation view of the exhibition at Matèria, Rome, 2016 

© Installation view of the exhibition at Matèria, Rome, 2016 

How was the exhibition articulated?

GA: In the first room the visitors found wallpaper of the map of the area with extra images of the authors, frames and texts. The second room was dedicated to a selection of the photographic work produced by the artists. A cacophonous exhibition with different layers and connections between the historic data and the author’s personal approach. We wanted to investigate deeper an area whose fundamental equilibrium was undeniably altered by a catastrophic event. “The Vajont consumed minds” wrote the journalist Lucia Vastano. Our main aim has been to develop a dynamic, fluid and mutant space to reinforce a common and shared vision. The book presentation has been helpful to consolidate this strategy.

MA: The exhibition had a double heart: in both cases related to the idea of a map. Entering the gallery, the spectator would have found a geographical map where the images were strictly related to the geography and history of the land. Afterwards, the visitor would have had to leave the physical geography to venture into an emotional map where connections were established by the authors’ images themselves. I’m glad with this exhibition’s result because I can clearly see how the process behind the project has manifested in the exhibition itself. Calamita/à is a complex project made of layers of different concepts and things that meet each other. I can say I’m looking forward to bring it to the next stage, for which, together with Gianpaolo, we’re thinking about something related to the book form. Let’s see what happens!

NF: The exhibition was structured and curated through a very close dialogue between myself and the Calamita/à founders, Gianpaolo Arena and Marina Caneve. It soon became apparent that a project of such weight in terms of written and visual material would need to be adapted to the space and articulated in two separate sections. The first - that ended up occupying the front room of the gallery - dealt with the historical description of the event; an introduction to the project through a mixture of historical data and aerial mapping of the Vajont area. A second part occupied the larger of the two rooms and was entirely dedicated to the photographic work produced by the artists, showcasing a contemporary counterpart to the historical and descriptive data encountered when entering the gallery. The difficulty of working within a rather small space with a project of such depth was reduced by the Calamita/à book that was launched at the private view and accompanied the exhibition, providing a comprehensive understanding and being the perfect vehicle for the content produced from the platform’s inception onwards.

© Installation view of the exhibition at Matèria, Rome, 2016 

© Installation view of the exhibition at Matèria, Rome, 2016 

Céline Clanet, François Deladerriere, Petra Stavast, Jan Stradtmann, Zuijderwijk Vergouwe are among some of the authors invited by CALAMITA/A’. We asked them three questions: 
- How did you come to Calamita/à? What did you find so fascinating to make you move from your country and invest your energy in this project?
- Were there any specific ideas or expectations you’ve had in the beginning, some goals you wanted to reach? How did your research evolve in time?
- The earth and focus of your project. How do you think your project implement the collective vision of Vajont?

Following are their answers...


1. I have been kindly invited to take part in the project, but didn't know anything about the Vajont catastrophe. What I found, through reading about it and watching TV footage, just blew me away because I was suddenly learning about one of the greatest catastrophes in Europe. How didn’t I know about this before ? I became fascinated with and very curious about what the landscape looks like nowadays and its emotional impact on a total stranger (like myself). I am very familiar with mountain landscapes, but had never experienced making pictures in such a dramatic area, where notions of danger, death, mourning, telluric forces are constantly vivid in the mind of anyone who lives or steps into that valley.

© Céline Clanet, 'Una notte, la montagna è caduta'

2. Since the first readings about the catastrophe, I have been overwhelmed by the dramatic nature of the place. I felt very intimidated and before going to Vajont, I couldn't think of anything precise to create. All I wanted was to walk out there as much as I could, day and night, trying to understand the place. As I said I learned about the Vajont catastrophe only weeks before going there. So for me, it was as if the events had just happened and, indeed, it was all right there before my eyes: the untouched dam, the huge Mount Toc scar, the rebuild village down the valley, the abandoned houses of Erto e Casso villages, the darkness of this enclosed place - many actors and traces of the tragedy were still in front of me.

© Céline Clanet, 'Una notte, la montagna è caduta'

3. On my arrival in Vajont I felt that I could not do anything related to documentary photography. It was not even tempting. The cold facts of the event were unbearable: the death toll, the wave height, the power of the air blast, the naked corpses, etc. It all seemed unreal, like a terrifying children's tale, beyond anything conceivable. Therefore, I instinctively chose the fiction path, something that could echo to this feeling of incredulity and daze, which I believe is felt by many. I wish to further explore that path in 2017, by including portraits of Vajont people, and to lose myself again into those landscapes.

© Céline Clanet, 'Una notte, la montagna è caduta'


1. It was Gianpaolo Arena and Marina Caneve who approached me with the idea of taking part. I was made aware of the Vajont tragedy through the project's social media presence. At first my motivation to join them was down to it being initiated by the participating photographers, with no further institutional backing. I was honoured and proud to have Gianpaolo and Marina ask me to join them in this well thought-out and brilliantly set up design. I'd recently taken part in another group project, France(s) Territoires Liquides, which showed me the importance of taking part in this type of enterprise, mainly for the exchange of ideas and experiences amongst participating photographers. I was finally convinced by the thematic, the mountain setting, the link to history. It all made sense with regards to my personal research and photographic inclination.

© François Deladerriere, 'Echo'

2. I knew the place through the documentation and the first pictures taken by the other photographers already participating, specifically the works by Gabriele Rossi and Michela Palermo. My initial ideas were built on what I could see online. However, I believe all projects evolve with time, the actual photo sessions test the concept in real-life settings and, more often than not, changes the initial idea, as it no longer corresponds to what is experienced. My aim is to reach a point where I am creating photographs that I never envisaged at the start.

3. I find that every single series in Calamita is a narration, a form of fiction drawn out of the Vajont itself. All of these stories put together forge another truth of what happened here. My hope was to contribute to the project by doing just that, writing my own fiction. One of the most interesting parts of this project was to capture on film the feeling of dread that still lies in wait in the landscape, over 40 years after the events, to show how History of Man forges the way we look at different landscapes. With this in mind, I tried to get closer to the truth.

© François Deladerriere, 'Echo'


1. Marina and Gianpaolo - who I knew from Landscape Stories - contacted me early 2016. We met in Amsterdam where we spoke about the Vajont area, its history, their platform and collaborations. They invited me to take part in Calamita/à, proposing I’d focus on Erto and Casso, two tiny settlements overlooking the Vajont Lake. I was interested and honoured to take part though it was a bit daunting too: there were already 20 artists from several disciplines involved that had already found their specific angle on the subject. Early in my research I read parts of the coverage of the events by Tina Merlin, the only journalist at sight that covered the aftermath of the disaster over a period of decades. The testimonies of inhabitants made me aware of the many ridiculous and redundant sides of this catastrophic series of events caused by authorities, before and after the tragedy. Some were so weird, to the extent where it felt almost unbelievable, bad fiction, which solidified my urge to go there.

© Petra Stavast, 'The Spectators'

2. I’ve been there twice and am planning my third stay soon. At first, I focused on the spectators, the inhabitants of Erto e Casso. My aim was to get more knowledge of the situation back then and how that is translated into the now by meeting people there that both were spectators of the ’63 tragedy and part of a movement called ‘gli illegali’:

Although the settlements of Erto e Casso stayed mostly unharmed during the catastrophe, authorities forced all its inhabitants to evacuate the area the day after the tragedy and made it impossible for them to return to their houses for indistinct reasons. Many locals claim that for them, the real tragedy started following the disaster; because of the failure of the court of justice, the power of the companies, dishonest compensations and the ignorant treatment by authorities. In 1966, a group of 60 families went back to their houses illegally and lived there for over 8 year in inhumane conditions, without running water or electricity. These people are referred to as ‘gli illegali’, a self-mocking nickname for the families that returned to what was theirs and struggled against injustice. After that, the suppression dissolved and although esteemed ridiculous and unnecessary by the inhabitants, new houses were built.

I met with Italo Filippin, former ex major and inhabitant of Erto e Casso. He provided me with a list of inhabitants of Erto en Casso who I should meet in relation to my interests. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find something that could actually depict all the events from that specific angle. I also figured that text and archival images would become important in my project. Nonetheless, during the first stay, I made a small series of look-outs on the mountains surrounding the Vajont Lake that are seen from the windows of people that fit my ‘profile’, which gave a simple yet layered insight. I researched the visitor centre, collected books that gave me new insights and found a comprehensive photo archive plus corresponding maps of the most important geologist in the matter, Edoardo Semenza (1927 – 2002), son of Carlo Semenza (1893 – 1961) who was the designer of the Vajont Dam. Edoardo's observations of the area, Mount Toc in particular, predicted the landslide. Next to the Spectators and ‘gli illegali’, I’d like to get closer to father and son Semenza and their role in the matter. My second stay I spent days wandering the mountains, searching for the locations that Edoardo Semenza took his images from, mostly dated from before the landslide. Although it was a wonderful experience to walk and search, I must admit I need a geologist to ‘translate' the maps in order to be able to revisit the actual locations. So yes, by being there I stumbled upon new and unforeseen angles and things I started wondering about: my project now concerns several ‘storylines' that will hopefully derive from my attempts to find out more.

© Petra Stavast, 'The Spectators'

3. Within the many visions and subjects being analyzed within the Vajont region now, that all concern a different angle, I’ve generated some specific questions which answers I’d like to come closer to, regarding disbelief and a strong sense of injustice. My personal process of getting agitated by this large-scale negligence by authorities, getting involved personally and, thus, feeling an urge to collect and share knowledge is - I think - contagious and, therefore, interesting for a wide audience. As is anyone’s process in this matter: the more knowledge spread due to the many sub-stories of each participant and the more diverse ways of getting information across will get more and more people to develop their own urge to know more, to be aware, to understand and maybe even define hidden parts of this history themselves. Precisely given the fact that it is an interdisciplinary collective research makes it interesting for a wider audience. Each of us represent a group of people with different interests and different preferences. My project is, as well as all the others, part of the aim of Calamita/à to get a large audience to gain awareness.


1. Gianpaolo Arena asked me to take part in the Calamita/à project. We met during the Bitume Photofest Residency in the South of Italy in 2015; he was supervising the residency programme, in which I had been selected to take part as a visiting artist. I am particularly drawn to unusual and often invisible spaces, as these yield a wide array of hidden stories. In exploring these, I offer the viewer insights into places they may never visit or simply do not notice. In most of my photography projects, I focus on changing environments and the consequences for individuals caught up in them. I grew up in the former GDR, close to major industrial areas. Since the wall came down in 1989, this region has changed quickly. The impact of reunification on residents’ lives and on the environment has been tremendous. My photographic practice began from observing how people deal with the reorientation of their purpose in life, along with the loss of structures they relied on, from their careers to their social networks. The alienation and sense of insecurity that resulted from radical change in the political landscape prompted me to observe people in moments of profound transformation. Today, I use photography to record and slow down these processes of rapid cultural change, to save and describe political and personal circumstances. Part of my recent work deals with moments of the encounter between man and nature. The catastrophe of Vajont fascinated me from the beginning, as it represents a disaster that was not “natural” but man-made, and to study the aftermaths—even 50 years later—is an opportunity to see how people, and Italian society, deal with the consequences.

© Jan Stradtmann, 'Third Nature'

2. I didn't develop any specific idea or concept before my first stay in the Vajont area, so I had no expectations; I had to confront myself with the area and the history of the disaster while I was there. Photography enables me to transform and express what I see and perceive. In each project, I search for a visual solution and result that mirrors my language within the medium of photography. I aim to find a visual metaphor beyond the documentary imagery. I use photography to describe my own fiction, which I develop on the basis of a true story. I prefer to narrow down the topics I'm working on to symbols and representations. To realize this, my practice is very empirical; I go out, I do things and I spend a lot of time looking at things. One of the key aims of my contribution, ‘Third Nature’, is to push vision and perception as far as I can.

To date, I’ve stayed in the area three times; each time, I worked on different episodes: the area around the dam, the new city of Vajont and the geographical connection between these two poles. Each time, I was able to add more pictures to my series ‘Third Nature’. Right now, I think I'm at a turning point. I want to re-structure and re-edit my results towards a more comprehensive body of work. To do this, I want to anatomize the story of Vajont as such and build different chapters. These chapters will include my series 'Third Nature' and new aspects of fictional elements. I'm looking forward to returning to Vajont, as this project has become a very personal matter.

© Jan Stradtmann, 'Third Nature'

3. My work demonstrates the tension in photography to conceal as much as is revealed. For me, therein lies the creative potential of a medium that is constantly changing and progressing. It’s a challenging process for me to continue to work for a long time on one subject. My contribution reflects the collective vision of Vajont, keeping a focus on the past in the present. Additionally, I realize that working as a photographer means building a personal archive. This archive grows with every new picture, not only telling the story of the things that happen in front of the camera but also reflecting the changes and focus of the person behind the photos. That's the parallel I see to the collective vision of Vajont; each contributing photographer tells his or her own story, and in doing so, a huge private and public archive will be built, which will be accessible for everyone who is interested in the story of Vajont as told in 2013 and onwards—more than 50 years after the catastrophe. I very much appreciate the efforts of Marina Caneve and Gianpaolo Arena to keep the focus on Vajont and to keep the story behind the disaster alive. Artistic perspectives on historical facts are always statements with a meaning.


1. We were approached by Gianpaolo Arena who asked us to participate in the project. At that moment we were thinking about exploring new landscapes and, in particular, mountain landscapes, in order to create a contrast with our Dutch landscape works. So for us the timing was perfect. We were also fascinated by the story. In our work we investigate the human-nature relationship. This story is all about this relationship.

© Zuijderwijk, Vergouwe, 'Gravity' 

2. We researched the history of the tragedy at home before we drove to the Dolomites. Once there, we really began to understand more about the scale and the many different aspects of the Vajont tragedy. All those aspects could be researched and could lead to new stories. Our idea for our first series was to look beyond the human perspective and to focus on the geographical changes in the area as a result of the landslide. We wanted to add something to the landscape and not just document it. Therefore we made installations of light in the landscape which symbolized basic aspects like verticality, current and gravity.
We focussed on the landscapes. We explored the territory with Emiliano Oddone, a geologist, who helped us look at this landscape from different perspectives.
We added these new insights to our ideas and started working. But, even then, we knew we had to come back as our time was limited and there was so much to explore. So in spring this year, we will head back to make more stories.

3. The strength of the Calamita/à project is that there are many different perspectives and approaches to the Vajont story. So it is nice to have many different artists research another aspect of the story. As said before, we try to look beyond the human perspective. By doing that, we try to get new insights and create new visions on these stories. All different approaches will together create a collective vision. Ours will be part of that.

© Zuijderwijk, Vergouwe, 'Gravity' 


Matèria Gallery