We interviewed for you an Italian photographer who has always – and I mean from birth – lived in expatriation. Axel Fassio tells us about his journey as a photographer and offers us some interesting points of view and his personal experience to reflect on how photography can find its place in a life divided between all continents. Axel is also a male trailing spouse, and this interview helps us understand some of the aspects of the experience. Thanks Axel!
Axel Fassio was born in Paris in ’72 from an Argentinian mother and a father from Siena, but who grew up in Rome. Three countries, therefore, were already somehow present in his life at birth, but that’s nothing compared to what awaits him.
His father’s job as a representative for Alitalia (the Italian airline), moves him to a different country every two/three years on average. He moves to Cameroon at the age of three, then to Brazil (Rio de Janeiro), then to Chicago in the United States, and finally to Istanbul, Turkey, before reaching Italy for the first time, in Bologna, at the age of 13.
After four years comes the move to Venice, where Axel finishes high school and starts studying Industrial Chemistry at the University of Venice: one of the few bad choices in his life, he laughs.
Realizing that his choice does not actually match what he really wants, Axel opens new doors to discover other paths. While at university, he occasionally happens to accompany tourist groups to Libya and Papua New Guinea on behalf of a tour operator from Mestre who organizes very special trips.
It’s is through this contact that he is offered the opportunity to run a company in Mali, a kind of travel agency/hotel/restaurant. He returns after three years, by now well connected into the tourism sector, and becomes the head of department for the Americas (North, Central and South) with the same company, working for a year and a half in their office.
Meanwhile, Giovanna becomes part of his life. He had met her in Venice, where he used to see her from time to time at mutual friends’ dinner parties. After her master degree, Giovanna goes to Nicaragua for an internship experience that turns out to be quite hard at the beginning. She contacts Axel, who at that moment was working in Mali.
Their mutual understanding, and sharing their experience of living abroad, develops into a close dialogue through the Internet that turns into a solid and lasting relationship when Axel returns to Italy and reaches Giovanna in Cambodia, where she had gone in the meantime for a feasibility study. His fate of perpetual wanderer is also confirmed through his story with Giovanna, who receives a job offer in Misiones, Argentina. Axel gladly follows her, taking a sabbatical.
It is during this period of cooking and cleaning, Axel jokes, that photography begins to take on a more concrete shape. Alex had always taken pictures during his travels, although in a very minimalist yet involved way. The idea of doing something more with photography had never abandoned him, and Axel takes advantage of this time in Argentina to build his first website and his photographic portfolio.
That becomes the basis, over the course of the next two years, for his contacts with various agencies and the beginning of a more professional approach.
In Argentina, Axel and Giovanna get married, and during their honeymoon they are both called to Sri Lanka to handle the post Tsunami (we are at the end of 2004). That means two working positions, and a year and a half of extremely intense work during which Axel must inevitably put photography aside.
However, that doesn’t prevent him from taking photos, and on his return to Italy for the birth of Filippo, their first child, a fine book on the Tsunami for the NGO they had worked for gets published.
So, even while devoting himself to other things, Alex maintains a strong relationship with photography. He takes advantage of the break after the birth of Filippo to improve his website and to contact various photo agencies. The results are surprising, as he gets about thirty positive feedbacks.
Axel ponders, evaluates, and listens to the suggestions of his professional photographer friends, who advise him not to work with a large number of agencies, but rather to choose one or two and stay with them.
When Filippo is eight months old, another job offer arrives for both Axel and Giovanna: two years in Ethiopia, after which Filippo’s brother, Lorenzo, is born.
The next proposal comes for Giovanna from a big Italian ngo for an important position in Peru, where they currently live. Axel tries immediately to find something to do on the spot. By chance, his namesake (and contemporary) happens to have been living and working in Lima for many years. Alessandro Fassio, longtime friend of Expatclic owns a travel agency, and with his experience in tourism Axel starts to work immediately for Tucano, but once again does not give up photography.
Indeed, it is while in Peru that he participates for the first time in his life in a series of high-level international photographic competitions, receiving a lot of satisfaction (https://www.fassiophoto.com/awards.html).
I congratulate you because you’re obviously very good at reinventing yourself in different areas on the spur of the moment, which is essential for the expatlife. Do you think you developed this ability thanks to the kind of life you always lived?
Certainly the fact that you constantly get to a new place, have to make new friends and face new things requires you to learn to be flexible and malleable, to extricate yourself in areas that you do not necessarily know. Over time you learn to get along in every field.
So far you have worked in tourism and in the humanitarian field, two areas where photography finds a place easily …
Of course, both in Sri Lanka and Ethiopia I was considered the official photographer of the ngo I worked for. With my pictures we made fund-raising campaigns, books, magazines, exhibitions on the projects we were working on.
In Ethiopia I was even contacted by the EPA (European Press Agency) that wanted me to become their correspondent in the Horn of Africa. My work, though, was rather delicate, as I followed projects on the borders with Eritrea and Somalia (refugees and water projects), areas where the Ethiopian government did not like having foreign eyes.
Doing something in the field of photojournalism was quite risky. So I accepted but I eventually did little or nothing. At the same time, however, new doors opened with the division of Getty Images that takes care of photo reports: they required my services in the area, and this was a very interesting opportunity, but I was leaving for Italy at that time so nothing came of it.
Here in Peru things have become very lively in the last six months, and requests for services have grown. The novelty is that now I can work by direct contact (i.e. with a client who finds me through my website and contacts me, or finds my name on the Internet). For example, earlier this year I was contacted by Sipa Press (French Press Agency) that asked me to be their area representative for their corporate clients. This was followed by Frommers Guides, Harvard University, International Expeditions, American Express, United Airlines, RSCG Worldwide, Ruoka & Matka, Sunday Times and UNICEF.
Not everything ended in real work for one reason or another, but the important (and unexpected) thing is that they were all direct contacts (except for UNICEF).
Among other things, some of these also ask me to travel, but I can’t always accept because of my work here and my family. For Hemispheres of United Airlines I should have gone to Argentina. For International Expeditions I did a service in the Peruvian Amazon and in August / September I shall go to the Galapagos. I even had an offer to go to Nepal to follow a marathon that runs down from Everest!
I’m pretty surprised by what you tell me, because all of the photographers I spoke to recently find it hard to have contacts, opportunities, etc., Especially in recent times of crisis …
It’s true, it’s very difficult, and I am indeed amazed by how things are going, despite the tremendous crisis of the last six or seven years, from the period just before I entered this field. Before the crisis one could live well with stock pictures, now even established photographers who have been working for twenty years have to turn to other things because they can’t make ends meet. Photojournalism is completely gone. The sector is going to pieces or is evolving toward something that no one yet understands, everything that has to do with movement and sound is growing, even in advertising, and while fixed and static photography still exists, demand is going down.
I am not just talking about the Internet, and therefore the ability to track down the email of photo editors and send them your portfolio, but also about what happens after the initial contact.
Before, you had to send your physical book, your archive of photos with written captions, something that only a professional could do. Amateurs would not store photos and send them physically to Australia, for example. The Internet has thrown open doors to many aspiring professionals who didn’t know how to do it before because it was not so easy to contact agencies and be heard. Now with a website and a portfolio you create the first contact extremely easily. The competition has increased a lot, and this is another factor that led to the crisis, as well as drastically lowering of the value of commercial and editorial photographs.
I understand that you, like other photographers I spoke with, don’t consider technical preparation an an essential element to creating a great photographer. What is or what are the elements that characterize a good professional photographer?
The definition of a professional photographer is ambiguous, because it generally applies to a photographer who lives off his photography. This does not necessarily mean he is good: there are many photographers who manage to live on their photographs and are not particularly gifted.
Many others, perhaps better photographers, by nature or character don’t know how to sell their work. I believe that what distinguishes a good photographer from a mediocre one is essentially a matter of eye, sensitivity and ability to find a detail in a landscape that perhaps others don’t see, and making it stick out in that particular photo.
Obviously, following a course in technique can help, but unless you have eye and sensitivity you can only go so far, and there lies the difference between a good photographer and a mediocre one.
Technique is of course the springboard that launches you in taking pictures, and the more photos you take, the more you learn and more opportunities you have to “fine tune” your sensitivity.
What do you like photographing the most?
Saying that it’s more natural and easier for me to photograph landscapes is a bit limiting. I really like the geometry, the abstract, so I look for something in the colors, lines, lighting, in possible matches. Mine is an aesthetic research in what I see, which of course also applies to documentary and social photos. I could also say I look for the positive in what I photograph. In Ethiopia I had many opportunities to photograph tragic situations in refugee camps, and somehow, although clearly not in all cases, I always tried to find a positive element and make it stand out.
Are you interested in photography? Here you can find a fabulous beginners’ guide packed with useful tips.
Interview by Claudia Landini (Claudiaexpat)
All photos ©AxelFassio
The website of Axel : https://www.fassiophoto.com/