Photographer and filmmaker Alberto Di Guida discusses his personal journey to create his emotive Azerbaijan series, and delves into the thoughts and processes behind his shots
First of all, what inspired you to create this particular series on Azerbaijan?
The reality is that I went to Azerbaijan because I knew absolutely nothing about Azerbaijan. I had just finished film school, and I wanted to leave. It seemed to me that I had wasted enough time with theory, I wanted to travel and see new things and that place attracted me because it was completely unknown.
I know it's a cliché, isn't that what everyone dreams? To travel, live adventures, meet new people. But not everyone does it in the end. And that’s what inspired me. I felt the urgency, I felt the pressure of all the people that had left and went for the unknown and I felt I had to do it too. This idea was just in my head in the most abstract way possible, but it’s actually the reason why I went there. I didn't know what I was looking for, I just put myself in a condition where I could have had a life-changing experience. So I travelled the country for one month, alone. Inspired by my Italian teacher who in eighth grade told us that the only thing worth doing with money is to spend it travelling.
"The reality is that I went to Azerbaijan because I knew absolutely nothing about Azerbaijan."
The series is shot in black and white, is there any reason you chose this aesthetic?
I try to take simple and neat photos, which contain only what aroused my curiosity or made me think; “Now I have to take a picture”. So I try to exclude all the stuff that has nothing to do with the meaning of the photo: sometimes it is a street lamp, or a person passing by, or other disturbing elements. Sometimes the disturbing elements are the colours. I like colours, but they can be so distracting. I hate it when people say - “Nice picture, beautiful colours!”, and then the photo has nothing to do with the colours.
There were beautiful colours in Azerbaijan. Some places were very special, and all the cities were dull beige like the sand from the desert. But in my opinion in this case the colour adds nothing to the photos. What struck me about the country is the way time flows, the way people seem motionless there. There was no need for colours to see it.
"I like colours, but they can be so distracting..."
Is your style of photography drawn from anything else too, any films, books, music, or other photographers?
The first thing that comes to my mind are Tarkovsky’s films. Those films really made me think, and the way they deal with the passing of time impressed me deeply.
I remember a scene from The Mirror, after the children ran out of the room to see a fire, and the camera remains still, showing the table where they were sitting, showing a room that now is empty… and after a few seconds a bottle from the table falls on the ground. Or a man who turns to take a last look at the house he is leaving, while a wind blow sways the wheat. I don't think it's empty symbolism, I think that those are some of the most beautiful images of the time passing that I've seen. In Azerbaijan I often had the same feeling, much more than I ever had here before, in Europe.
What was the process to get the shots featured in your series?
Just walking around. The first ten days I stayed in Baku. I went out alone, or with the guys from the hostel. I'm not a particularly talkative person, but there was this group of Egyptians that adopted me. They thought I was a great chef just because I'm Italian. I've cooked pasta for them a couple of times, but I assure you I'm nowhere near a great chef. I can hardly cook to survive. But they were delighted with my pasta and said it was the best they had ever eaten. It says a lot about the pasta they must have eaten until then. Anyway, they were there on vacation and so we used to go around together. They were very, very funny.
After that week I went to the Caucasus mountains. I always had the camera around my neck. When I saw something, I took some pictures. I took a lot of pictures of nothing. In Azerbaijan most of the times you find yourself in places where there is nothing, and there never has been. I loved that. It’s the thing that struck me most about the country, they seem locked in time. You could have gone there a hundred years ago or in a hundred years and you would have found the same things. I tried to express that sensation with the photos. The very strong connection that they have with living the present, with the here and now.
"When I saw something, I took some pictures. I took a lot of pictures of nothing. In Azerbaijan most of the times you find yourself in places where there is nothing, and there never has been. I loved that."
What is your favourite photo from the series?
Definitely the one of the train (below). The last photo at the end of the last train trip that brought me back to Baku, and then to the airport. I took the photo while getting off the train. I remember that the man behind me complained because I made him wait before getting off, but I was struck by the new locomotive approaching with the driver hanging from it.
I had traveled all night from Şəki to Baku. The train had gone very slowly. Time have expanded in that country. Everything is infinitely slow. People wait at bus stops lost in the nothingness of the present. That train came from Georgia, and the station I took it from was in the middle of the fields. The classic train station in the middle of nowhere. While I was there I never thought the train would come. It's not easy now to explain how tired I was. I was tired of not being able to communicate with most of the people. I was tired of the food. I was tired of walking. I was tired of sleeping in terrible places. I was tired of worrying of being without water. I was tired of the hot sun.
It was an incredible journey and Azerbaijan will always be in my heart, but when I arrived to Baku and got off the train I cried because I realised that I was finally going back home.
"...when I arrived to Baku and got off the train I cried because I realised that I was finally going back home."
How did you decide which images would appear in the final series?
The selection process took a long time, because I had no idea what I was looking for. I shot everything that struck me for a month, and then I found myself full of photos of all kinds. I started skimming them, trying to figure out why I liked some of them, what the common thread was, and I tried several paths that got me nowhere before I could find the right one, before understanding what the photos that excited me and conveyed something to me had in common. When I understood it, it was then logical to look at everything and divide the photos that sent that message from the others. But it took a long time, and luckily a couple of friends helped me.
"I shot everything that struck me for a month, and then I found myself full of photos of all kinds."
What were the difficulties or obstacles in creating the work?
The hard part was definitely the communication. I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know where to go and rarely found someone who spoke English. So it was complicated. Fortunately, sometimes I’ve found travel companions who knew useful languages: a Turkish girl who could make herself understood, because their languages are very similar, and a Moldovan guy who spoke English very badly but knew Russian, a language that almost everyone speaks in Azerbaijan. In short, I managed it, but it was difficult not only from a practical point of view, but also from a human.
I couldn't communicate with anyone, or hardly anyone, and the conversations were always very superficial. It was difficult to talk about profound issues, and being in such a different place those were the things that interested me most obviously. So it is a shame. Only with the Egyptian guys I was able to have long conversations, in the evening at the hostel, about religion, culture, goals in life, girls and human relationships, happiness, and so in the end I learned more about their life in Egypt!
Did you do much in post-production on the images?
Actually no, I don't like being on the computer, I prefer to go around taking pictures, so in post production I do almost nothing. I find it surreal to spend time moving Lightroom's sliders. Usually I slightly correct the Raw files - I try to recover some detail in the lights and shadows, those kind of things, and that's it. Post-production will never make a bad photo beautiful I think, and if it takes more than five minutes to edit it probably wasn't worth it.
"Post-production will never make a bad photo beautiful I think, and if it takes more than five minutes to edit it probably wasn't worth it."
Have you any future plans to expand this series (such as books, exhibitions, more trips etc?)
I'm thinking of making a book about it, yes, but mostly for personal memory. I don't know. Surely I would like to return and expand the series, which unfortunately has not been possible so far due to the pandemic. I’ve seen a lot of places, but I wasn’t able to meet many people and really talk with them. I miss that, so probably I will come back, at least to see a couple of friends again.
See more from this series below, and also in Alberto's Picfair Store.