A photographer, book publisher and academic Nicolo Degiorgis has travelled extensively and experienced different cultures during his work and study. Now based in Bolzano in South Tyrol, his most recent project has involved exploring the idea of ‘heimat’, a German word with no equivalent meaning in other languages, which denotes the relationship of a human being toward a certain spatial unity, often expressed as homeland. I asked Nicolo what does the concept of heimat means to him personally?
“It’s a feeling of belonging. Once someone tries to analyse it and tie it to a certain spatial unit, the meaning gets lost.”
In Bolzano Degiorgis showed us around his Rorhof publishing house which he co-founded. The premises used to be an old farm house which was established in 1496. Up until the 70’s it was used to produce wine and grappa. Later it would become the home of an avid book collector until he passed away in 2013.
It seems fitting that Degiorgis would sort of carry on the legacy in transforming the space to a publishing house. Degiorgis lives in a house pretty much next door to Rorhof and within walking or cycling distance to the university, where he teaches and gives lectures, and Museion, the town’s contemporary art museum, where he will be a guest curator in 2017. It seems a pretty idyllic set-up and enviable work/life balance.
What is it like working from a base in South Tyrol, do you get much inspiration from your environment and does it ultimately shape your thoughts and work in any way?
I guess the place does influence me a lot. It was a conscious decision to move back here, so that I could use it as a base and focus on long term projects. I was slightly sceptical at the beginning but ultimately it turned out to be a good decision. I feel welcomed every time I come back from my journeys but at the same time it also pushes me to travel and not get stuck in the same place.
In 2014 Degiorgis won the author book award at the Recontres d’Arles photography festival for his photo book Hidden Islam. The book showed pictures of Muslims living in Italy praying in makeshift places of worship including garages, shops, warehouses, sports centres and old factories. In doing so it drew attention to the fact that while there was an estimated 1.45m people of Muslim faith living in Italy there were just 8 mosques in the entire country.
The book elegantly works as powerful thought provoking photojournalism, documenting how Islamic religious followers in Italy are literally pushed out to the margins of society, deemed unwanted outsiders in the country and adding to the claims of growing Islamophobia in the West.
How long did it take you to produce the book and what was the process like?
It took me five years to produce the book. I shot the first images in early 2009 and since then, periodically, I kept photographing and mapping the places until 2013.
Looking back, the process seems very clear and linear – alternating editing sessions to various attempts in designing the book – but while it was happening it felt much more frustrating and chaotic.
Following on from the deserved success of Hidden Islam Degiorgis came up with an ingenious follow up. Hidden Islam had been reviewed by Sean O’Hagan for the Guardian and Degiorgis would use the online comments section for the article as the basis of a book which was called Hidden Islam 479 Comments.
The result a photo book with no photos. Working as both an addendum to the original Hidden Islam photo book but also something that could work as a stand-alone book. In doing so the work kept the dialogue going about the perception and treatment of Islam in Italy which was started in the original award winning book.
O’Hagan in reviewing Hidden Islam 479 Comments nailed a number of issues at play in its production. “Conceptually it works, too, both as an addendum to the original and as a strange, almost contradictory object that asks the reader to reflect rather than instantly respond. It has made solid something that would have been ephemeral, lost or soon forgotten in the deluge of opinion and debate engendered by digital media. 479 Comments is an interesting argument for the old-fashioned act of publishing on paper rather than online.”
What were to trying to achieve with the Comments book?
I guess two things: On one side I simply wanted to have a record of the discussion happening around Islamic immigration, to have it published and preserved in archives and libraries. On the other hand I wanted to underline the structural and conceptual side of the project.
Next year Degiorgis will be the guest curator for Museion, South Tyrol’s impressive contemporary art museum.
So what can visitors and the people of South Tyrol expect to see?
A series of smaller exhibitions around South Tyrol, culminating in a big show at Museion in September around the topics of Heimat and Fatherland. Between January and September I will also attempt to publish several new boooks of mine.
Finally, we asked Nicolo if he could tell us three of his favourite things to do in South Tyrol.
Obviously it’s by far the best for hiking. Törggelen. Doing books.