City of L’Aquila, Italy, 6 April 2009. 3:32 am. An earthquake with a magnitude of 6,3 hits the whole area (the epicentre is the city itself) leaving 308 people dead, over 1,600 wounded and 65,000 homeless. A catastrophe that activated an impressive rescue effort with volunteers coming from every part of Italy. But to this day, thousands are still homeless, living in huge tent cities built outside the area. And hundreds really lost every single thing: home, possessions and family.
The daring idea for this year’s MINI Clubman tour started out almost by chance at ITS#EIGHT, during a breakfast chat between ITS#PHOTO jurors Michele Lupi (GQ Italy Director) and photographer Ari Marcopoulos. A photography project documenting the homeless people of L’Aquila living in the tent cities outside the earthquake area. It was clear from the beginning that this would have been a moving experience, something that none of the participants would forget…
You might not remember what this “MINI Clubman Tour” is all about! The winner of the MINI Clubman Photo Award has the chance to work with an iconic photographer on a travelling photo shoot, the result of which will become a special exhibition presented in Milan and published with a dedicated article in GQ magazine. ITS#EIGHT winner is Saana Wang, who presented a project on the district of Hujialou in Beijing, picturing old rooms and apartments located above the city streets. The Photo Jury chose her as the winner because she made an original body of work combining documentary and fiction while addressing social displacement due to the building spree in contemporary Beijing. So this is the plot. Now let us tell you the actual story.
The tour started out in Rome where we met on 27 September for a presentation dinner attended also by GQ Italy Director Michele Lupi. The team was so composed: photographers Ari Marcopoulos, Saana Wang and Alberto Novelli, journalist Angelo Pannofino, EVE Production responsibles Pablo Chiereghin and Michele de Facchinetti. The departure for L’Aquila was set for the next morning.
The arrival in L’Aquila was not as expected. From the highway the city did not look like it was struck by an earthquake and we still felt no contact with the disaster that hit the area. The base for the tour was an hotel in Paganica, a 10 minutes drive from L’Aquila. Upon arrival we were welcomed by Daniele Bendandi, president of the “Associazione Casa dei Cuori” that works to help the people in the tent camps – especially children – live a normal life and keep their minds away from the tragedy by organizing moments to mix and games for the little ones.
Daniele took us around town and it was soon clear how dramatic the situation still is. We visited no entry town areas, we entered two tent camps and talked with the people living there, we had the chance to see areas and situations that have not appeared in the media… We saw kids playing football in a desolated soccer field regardless of the ghost-like shells of crushed houses surrounding them…
Tuesday 29 September, the toughest day of the whole tour. We entered the town of Onna, where the earthquake hit with all its violence. Walking around makes you feel useless, like there’s nothing you can do to change what happened. Engineers Alberto Maiolo and Davide Scarabat together with firemen from the Trieste Fire Department explained us how the earthquake hit and the reaction of the buildings to the shakes. They also told us about the building recoveries taking place and what firemen are doing. We happened to see a family staring at the excavators taking away the rubbles of what once was their house… and we really felt like we were not supposed to be there. But it was the same family members who walked towards us and told us their story. They told us about how that night the earthquake hit and their house fell down and they fled from the windows, about how all of the houses around came down…
We then moved to San Gregorio, another area that was completely destroyed, and entered L’Aquila, which is now a ghost town. Nobody lives there anymore. Some buildings look apparently normal, but after a close look you can see they’re full of fractures, with huge parts missing from key structural points in the walls. The view of the historical centre of the city – that includes 99 churches – is shocking: all buildings stand only thanks to support structures built around them, and the feeling is that of a war zone. It looks as if time stopped on 6 April.
The next day we visited Paganica, the town we were based in, which is quite different from all of the surrounding areas since it was only partially destroyed by the earthquake and people here are striving to live as normally as possible since most of the main facilities are still standing. Here schools, supermarkets, barbers and drugstores are still working. Outside the local school we met with a very friendly guy from Rome named Giordano, father of two little girls, who invited us for a coffee in his newly built wooden house. Ari, Saana and Alberto took pictures of their everyday life, and Ari had the chance to realise his idea for a video: the daughters of Giordano told their story of the earthquake in front of the camera. As if it were the simplest thing to talk about, they told us how they woke up that night and saw the furniture shaking and falling, and cracks and rocks all around… how they ran to their parents bedroom and broke the glass of the blocked door to step in… Mum and dad were buried under rocks so they started crying, and dug with their tiny hands to help them out. Finally dad could stand up and free mum and so they all ran outside… They told their story and they did with such a normal voice… The experience they lived and the strength with which they faced disaster made us feel insignificant, with our normal lives and useless everyday complaints.
In the afternoon we visited the new earthquake-proof homes delivered by Italian prime minister Berlusconi the day before where Ari, Saana and Alberto took plenty of pictures and in the evening we moved to a hill looking over L’Aquila to take some panoramic pictures of the town. At night, we moved to a tent camp for a brief photo session there.
The next day on Thursday 1 October we left Paganica and headed back to Rome, from where everyone would go back to their homes. Every experience makes you different but trips of this kind change you deep inside. We went there and our main purpose was to work on a photo project, but most of the time our attention shifted from photography to the amazing life experiences that people there were so kind to share with us. We met with people who stood an unbelievable challenge with incredible dignity, people who kindly accepted us and struck us with their warmth and willingness to tell us their stories.
The photos of the tour will be displayed in Milan with a dedicated exhibition sponsored by MINI in collaboration with GQ Italy. We really hope you will find the time to pay a visit and look deep inside these pictures. Look carefully. Hidden amongst absolute tragedy and infinite strength you will also find the values that really matter in life.