Gaia Squarci is a photographer and cinematographer based in New York, contributor of Prospekt agency and Reuters. She studied Art History at University of Bologna and photojournalism at ICP, International Center of Photography. Gaia focuses on documentary issues, and her work leans toward a personal approach that moves away from the descriptive narrative tradition in documentary photography.
She attended the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2014, and in 2015 her installation Broken Screen has been selected for the exhibition reGeneration3 at Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne. POYi recognized her work as lead cinematographer for the the short documentary “Healing Bobby” with an award of excellence in 2014, and her photography project “My grandmother’s last months” won the same mention in 2017.
Gaia’s work appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Time, Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, VICE, Huck, The Guardian, Newsweek, PDN, De Spiegel, Internazionale, Io Donna, among others.
Hi Gaia! Who or what led you to photography?
I have been attracted to visual arts since I was a child, and I studied Art History. When I was in college I thought I wanted to become a curator, but I sometimes felt that my studies were too remote from the life that unfolded around me. If it is true that good art never is really detached from life, I think I still had to find my place, my role in that equation. During those years I was writing art reviews and wall texts for exhibitions in Bologna, and that’s how I came across photographer Giulio di Meo. Giulio, whom I followed on a few trips and assisted in his workshops, is the person who made me fall for photography. Now a dear friend, he has taught me in my formative years how the camera could be a personal, specific way to learn about the others and myself. Giulio is as a professional the same he is as a friend. Reserved but captivating, generous, respectful and deeply caring.
After those years I studied photojournalism at ICP, which put my world upside down again, introduced me to video alongside with photography and somehow taught me how to stand on my legs even when it feels awfully hard.
What do you love most about your job?
Well, It changed me. I think I can reasonably say for the better. I would be a completely different person if I hadn’t come to it. I used to be very shy and I still am to a certain degree. Photography forced me out of my shell to look for a contact with others, and there are endless situations I would never had found myself in if it weren’t for photography. It has the power to gift life experience, and it offers an excuse to be where you don’t belong, without feeling like a complete stranger.
I also consider photography an effective tool of self-analysis, if approached with some degree of honesty. I keep noticing how even if at times I’m just observing, I’m always part of the tension that appears in the photos. If I’m detached, assuming, patronizing, scared, if I’m just imitating something I’ve memorized from other images instead of really looking, it all shows.
One of our favourite works is Mars on Earth. Could you tell us something about this project?
Laurence Cornet, a writer and great friend I often work with, showed me an article about the mission with a small photo of a plastic dome on a volcano in Hawaii. Confused, I learnt that six researchers were living in that dome for eight months to simulate the conditions of life on Mars. Laurence is an explosive character whose ideas are often wild and surreal. I’m often on the same page, but of a more pessimistic, skeptical nature. At first I though it was a joke, then I tried to understand how legitimate the mission was. When I learnt it was financed by NASA I was sure there would be no chance to get access. Clearly I was wrong on just about every level.
“I like surreal contexts that maintain a little bit of mystery. I prefer photos to suggest an atmosphere, a state of mind…”
The researchers involved in the project lived in hard conditions, with limited communications with the rest of the world. How did you approach them?
The mission, started by the University of Hawaii at Manoa, was aimed at monitoring human reaction to isolation in an environment that doesn’t look like Earth, in perspective of the launch of scientific trips to Mars involving the presence of human beings of the planet. The researchers wore space suits with internal oxygen ventilation for short journeys out of the dome, they were in contact with the rest of the world only by email and pre-recorded voice messages, and they had very limited water supplies. Eight minutes of shower a week for eight months. Think about it. Scientists were testing their psychological response to these constraints, aware that in a space mission the human component, if it breaks, can cause damage as crucial as a technical failure would. Their isolation was the core of the experiment, so we couldn’t meet them while it was ongoing. We traveled to Hawaii a few days before the mission ended, and met the researchers in the moment they got out of the dome for the first time. They were stoked to see tropical fruit on the outdoor table for their first fresh breakfast, but aside from the marvel at the feeling of sunlight and wind on their skin, they seemed incredibly well adjusted. They were chosen with criterion. They worked in aeronautical engineering and a range of other sciences related to astronomy, so they already had an “astronaut mentality”. When I entered that dome and breathed its air I instantly felt trapped, claustrophobic. I couldn’t have lived for a week in there without going mad. That day we asked the researchers if after that experience they would enroll on a trip to Mars when the technology would make it possible. All six of them said YES, without even waiting for the end of the question.
Your work has been published in many international publications. Which one did you enjoy the most and why?
It’s a complicated question. The work I care about has been mostly unassigned, published after completion. Some of the editors I know are good friends whose advice has been invaluable over the years but I hardly ever worked with, and some others have been buying stories sporadically. I rarely had a continuous relationship with a specific publication. That said, I recently enjoyed working with Chiara Nonino and Alessia Glaviano at Vogue Italia, Haley Hamblin at Mashable, and I’m grateful of the trust Denis Curti, former director of Contrasto, put into my work for a solo exhibition in Italy. I love working with Francesco Merlini and Samuele Pellecchia at Prospekt, the Italian agency that distributes most of my stories. They’re friendly yet professional, they value the integrity of the photographers’ work and are always available for advice. Robert Pledge’s multifaceted culture is an endless source of inspiration and Adrees Latif at Reuters is an editor who’s been very supportive over the years, and he’s known me since my first steps. He comes from a completely different perspective in his approach to photography, and this makes me appreciate even more the respect he has for my work.
You travel a lot and every time you come back with beautiful images. Is there a trip that has a special place in your heart? Why?
Mexico has cast a spell on me. I felt at home there in a strange way. I traveled in the center and the south of the country, working mostly in rural places. I was impressed by the farmers’ deep connection to the land, a bond they cultivated through observation, hard work and spirituality, throughout history.
I also admire Mexicans for their resilience. I hope the following anecdote can explain what I mean. One night last April I was on a bus to Tenosique from Mexico City. A long ride, which ended up to be about 12 hours longer than expected. It was dusk when the bus stopped on the highway behind a line of cars. I knew buses are easily assaulted at night and went to ask information to the driver. He was passive, not trying to be any helpful, didn’t know. I was the only passenger who seemed to be awakened by the situation, the others just waited in silence. After hours we learnt that the citizens of Balastrera, Veracruz, had staged a protest at the toll booth asking the governor for the construction of a local hospital and a road. They wouldn’t move for the next twenty hours. The traffic was blocked for miles. Federal police was useless in easing the negotiations or finding alternatives for thousands of drivers. At dawn people started getting out of their vehicles. Men went to the borders of the highway and came back with big pieces of concrete, and dirt. Women and children helped. In about an hour they filled the space between the two senses of march in the highway and helped one vehicle at a time to make a U turn. Cars and even buses were able to go back this way, and find an alternative route. I kept thinking of the same incident happening in northern Italy. Everyone would have been raging, yelling for hours without moving a finger. Mexican citizens were let down by any form of authority that should have provided a solution for them. Even the bus driver was the last one to come down and help. The collective reaction was sadly prompted by the awareness that this is just how it goes, but it was remarkable nonetheless. People knew they had to make it work by themselves, and acted instead of complaining, perfect strangers joining forces.
“I would be a completely different person if I hadn’t come to it…
Photography forced me out of my shell.”
Do you have a recurring theme or stylistic element you incorporate in all the projects you work on?
I believe the story comes before the style, so I rarely consciously try to force recurring elements. Stylistic components come from my taste, from what captures me when I experience other work, be it photography, painting, sculpture, cinema or theatre.
I like surreal contexts that maintain a little bit of mystery. I prefer photos to suggest an atmosphere, a state of mind, rather than taking on a descriptive or explanatory role. Of course in documentary photography there’s the desire to communicate a message and images are a vehicle of information, but when I have creative freedom I like to shoot work that informs without telling the viewer what to think, and makes imagination travel.
What’s next? Are you working on a particular story at the moment?
I’m working on a long term project about people’s relationship with volcanoes, in different parts of the world. Eruptions are associated at once with destruction and fertility, they “made” earth as we know it, but the barren volcanic ground often reminds us of other planets. I’m working on a different theme for every volcano. They all have something to say about us and the way we perceive ourselves in connection to our planet.
If you hadn’t followed your dreams and become a photographer, what do you think you would be doing now?
My mother is a psychotherapist, and I found out that in any story I work on I’m always looking for psychological implications, putting myself in someone else’s perspective, trying to get into people’s head.
I considered working in that field when I was younger, but don’t think it could have worked out. I could give many motivations for this but it really comes down to the fact that I’m not patient enough, and I also suffer sitting in a room for most of the day. Then, I’ve always liked many different kinds disciplines in the field of dance. Dancing cleans my mind. Could I have been a dancer? It’s one of the very few careers that makes your life more unsure and schizophrenic than photography, so I better make this one work.