In this long and thoughtful interview Luca Bonacini, an Italian accompanying photographer who follows his wife in her career abroad, shares his experience abroad. Thanks Luca for your frankness and interesting points!
You are an accompanying photographer, following your partner Florence all over the world for years. It is indeed thanks to her stable position within Unicef that you could quit your old job and devote all of your time to photography, your big passion that you turned into a profession. However the road has not always been smooth… can you tell us what have been and what are (if any) the obstacles to turning photography into a regular paid profession?
No, the road has certainly not been smooth all the way. Indeed, after the initial enthusiasm for turning a passion into something real, obstacles linked to my personal and professional situation emerged.
The first one is that I always happened to live in places that were not exactly stimulating as far as photography is concerned. When I started, I was not in Paris, London or New York, but simply in Brasilia, where training opportunities and cultural stimula are scarce, at least in the photographic field.
However, I was very happy. The initial enthusiasm and some voluntary work and paid assignments allowed me to build a good professional experience as an accompanying photographer and gave me courage to launch myself into the jungle of this work.
Anyway, even obstacles can be seen as opportunities. At least when the right mix of desire, skills and meeting new people takes place. I am particularly talking about the online photography course that I launched with Expatclic, the result of your suggestion and my curiosity. I would say that with this course I am trying to fill a void in the training “on offer”, that was quite difficult for me at the beginning.
An online course is a chance to transmit passion and skills and allows me to carry out my activity from wherever I am. Sure, the course does not pretend to have the capacity to form real professionals, but aims at improving the technique and the photographic aesthetic of photographers who have just started, in a fun and interactive way.
Does relocating to a different country from time to time affect your working sphere?
It obviously does. Indeed, since I never happened to live in any of the top spots for photography, I have to make do with the local market. It would be different if I had started my career as a photographer in Paris and then had moved abroad. In that case it would have been easier to maintain a good relationship with the agencies I would have worked with.
In my case, at every relocation the network of local contacts dissolves and I have to start a new one in the new country. This can be stimulating in a way, because you discover a new culture and meet new people. It is also very tiring, though, especially when you leave a country where you managed to build good relationships with some partners. In Peru, for instance, I was very happy to collaborate with an Italian NGO, Aspem, who trusted me and gave me a certain freedom in my assignments. On the other hand, I did not like Lima. You cannot have it all…
On the other hand in Sarajevo, Bosnia Erzegovina, where I live now, life is great both for me and my family. It is also highly stimulating from a photographic point of view because of the themes linked to the post war period. However there are not many professional opportunities. Formal offers are very scarce, and competition is fierce.
I try to overcome obstacles and in order to enter the very closed market of documentary photography I have started offering ‘in presence’ ( as opposed to online) training. This allows me to meet new people, who share my passion for photography, and to discover with them aspects I would never have known on my own.
Are there other factors (both positive and negative) that influence your work?
I would like to talk about the “devaluation” of quality photography. I could write a book about it, but I’ll just give you some examples.
I believe that since “taking a picture” is now something that virtually everybody can do, even more so with the smartphones, the false idea that everyone is able to take a good picture is reinforced. I am generalizing here, but to explain my point, I would say that an institution is more likely to willingly spend 300 euros a day for a consultant than for a photographer. It is generally thought that a good picture can be shot by anyone within the institution.
This is a pity because a good photographic coverage – both in terms of content and of aesthetic – can really add marketing value to an initiative, and contribute to its historical memory. It is like hiring a consultant to evaluate the social impact of a project only because he can read, write and count up to 1000.
This false equation “everybody can take pictures” = “pictures should be free” enters all levels of the photographic field. The issue of recompense for us photographers is a serious problem.
Since, when you arrive in a new country Florence must start working immediately, you are the one who takes care of all practicalities – arranging the house, children, mobility, etc. – that are necessary for the family to start functioning rapidly in the new place. How do you feel in doing things that are usually carried out by the female side of the family? Have you ever felt discouraged in this role?
As a man, throughout the settling in process, I have never felt particularly pressured by the environment in the host country. Because I have more time on my hands, I am obviously the one that takes care of most of the things, sometimes together with the children. And without any problem. Where one can probably feel a bit out of context as far as gender is concerned, is where the child-mother pairing still appears as normal. For example, at the pediatrician. It has happened to me to be asked by the nurse with an accusatory tone or in dismay “Where is the mother?!”. Apart from this kind of thing everything is fine, or maybe I don’t care much.
Discouragement or despair rather come from the length of time required to get settled in, or from complicated procedures, or again from simple operations that are made difficult mainly because they have to be carried out in totally unknown languages…For instance, in Bosnia I found myself begging someone to make a call to simply book a restaurant.
We know that the model of a family where the woman is the breadwinner and the man follows, has a lot of free time and maybe does not produce an income on a regular basis, is something still very unusual, especially in some cultures. Do you feel you fit into this model and if yes, is it hard for you? How do people react when they meet you for the first time and they get to know that Florence is the one who has the working contract.
As far as the model you mention is concerned, yes, I do recognize myself in it, but it remains a “model”. We are still in the realm of a new way of being, sometimes by desire and sometimes of necessity; and certainly still unusual. Even if some things seem to change, the actuality remains very traditionalist.
Let’s take social events, cocktails and the like, when one chats with people one has just met. Usually the first visual and verbal contact is with me. After a few seconds spent positioning one another from a professional point of view, the attention shifts to Florence and on topics related to work. It is very rare that a conversation starts about French photography or Giacomelli’s contrasts. It might happen that I have to explain to my kind new acquaintance, in search of a new camera, that I am not a seller but a photographer.
Generally speaking, do you think the life of a male trailing partner is harder or easier than that of a trailing woman, and why?
I wouldn’t know how to compare. Maybe there is more pressure on the man. I can tell you that I feel less the issue of “role” than that of remuneration. Not for a matter of economic need. And nor for “pride”. It is rather the idea of being recognized. And I believe recognition in society goes partly through earned income. Not completely, of course! Indeed, I do a bit of photographic volunteering – I mean for ngos and for those who really need it, but not for diplomats’ parties – and I am happy about it.
But you also need to be paid, to be recognized. People must understand how important this is. If you pay a maid 5, 10, 20 euros, why not the photographer? Do you know what? Now when I am asked to take pictures for free, I ask to sign a contract for the symbolic amount of 1 euro, just to reaffirm the concept of payment and professionalism. Maybe this way mentality will change a bit!
How do you think the life standard of a male trailing spouse could improve?
Those who accompany their partners abroad should get information about the professional chances in the country beforehand, maybe start learning the language, so as to arrive already prepared in the new destination. A website like Expatclic can truly help expats to get in contact with the future reality.
Moreover companies and organizations that send staff abroad could formalize the presence of the spouse, man or woman…in the payroll as well. As the Swiss do, I believe, for their diplomats.
A last word on children: how do they feel about all this? For instance, my children, when they were small, from time to time told me “you do not work”, and I always tried to explain to them that working is not only going out of the house and having an office and a salary. Have yours ever told you anything like this? Have there been moments when this situation has been difficult in relation to them?
For the time being the children “see” me at work, and at the same time I have the feeling they have a good understanding of the difference between me and Florence. But they might still be in the phase where dad is a “little hero”… In the end the person who puts most pression on me is… me!