The Image That Documents

5 min read

by Simone Luca Pierotti and Alessandra Rosabianca (photographs by Francesca Mangiatordi) (fotografie di Francesca Mangiatordi)

In 2007 I worked for a photographer at the Magnum Agency. I was the jack of all trades: I printed, I cooked, I organized the archives, and sometimes I followed the "boss" when he went to take photographs for certain magazines. At the time I was living in New York where, in the field of photojournalism, among the young photographers I hung out with there was this race to be able to find just the right, impactful project and the photo that captured the moment. This has always been the case, especially in the years when photography was an artisan job that required specific skills, and the images that appeared in well-known newspapers were the only visual comment on a current event. I remember the day very well when I pressed my boss with a somewhat provocative, point blank question, "In your opinion, in a war, are photojournalists or doctors more useful?" He replied, “Photojournalists. They document history so that it does not repeat itself.” I admit that, although I felt a fascination for the adventurous life of the photojournalist, this answer did not fully convince me. What kind of comment would you give about this statement today?

In recent weeks, the very strong and grammatically perfect images of well-known professionals in the sector have been mixed with the flow of information and photographs produced by doctors and nurses, often passionate about photography, who have experienced the most dramatic moments inside the trenches. The photographers of these shots were the narrators of their own stories, experiencing and photographing the event from the inside. The first image we saw in the newspapers was that of Dr. Francesca Mangiatordi who immortalized a colleague of hers lying on a table after a work shift. Francesca is a doctor and passionate about photography. She is not a photojournalist but in a few hours, her images became icons of this moment during the pandemic. We felt the dynamics of the start and dissemination of these photographs were perfectly in line with our work. One of the aspects of Photovoice Project is to give those who live in a complex situation an immediate tool to tell their story and create advocacy. This is why we decided to interview her.

How did your passion for photography start and what does it represent for you?

«I started taking pictures when I moved to Cremona from Puglia four years ago. I arrived first in February and then my family joined me. During the first months I was alone, I attended a basic photography course. I didn't think that behind the images there were photographers with an immense cultural background. I discovered enormous literature.»

Being an amateur photographer means having an attentive outlook, as if the camera becomes part of yourself and of your way of observing reality. Considering this, how has photography changed the way you look at the world?

«With photography, I actually learned to observe very carefully, to observe the human being and his behavior and emotions. Many times I happened to be sitting in the square here in Cremona and I would watch people for hours. My work as a doctor leads me to always be careful to observe patients, many symptoms are visible. With photography, I have refined this inclination.»

Was taking the photo of your colleague instinctive or thought out?

«It was instinctive. I wanted to stop time in that moment. I wanted to remember those moments of great physical and emotional trial in retrospect. We tend to forget the little episodes and with that photo I wanted to remind myself how exhausted we were.»

Did you imagine it would resonate so much?

«I really didn't imagine it would have such resonance. When I look at the photo again, I can’t bare to gaze at it for more than a few seconds, I have to suppress my tears.»

What thoughts and emotions are hidden in that photo?  

«In that photo there is all the anger, despair, powerlessness in front of something greater than us, but at the same time, there is strength, humanity, a whole lot of humanity.»

If the camera were a megaphone, what would you like to tell the world?

«What would I like to say? We are not heroes. We are professionals who carry out our duties every day. We were professionals before February 20, and we will be tomorrow. I don't like to be defined as a “hero.” We don't have super powers. We are people with a great sense of duty, yes. And we have shown it precisely in this moment of great need. No one has held back. Indeed the nurses, the social health workers, the technicians, have made grueling shifts, sacrificing themselves and the time devoted to their families.»

Dr. Mangiatordi’s photography creates a shortcut in the iconographic system of classic photojournalism. The image becomes a window allowing us to see into the daily life of a person who is living the moment. This becomes the fundamental added value. It does not matter if the photograph is technically perfect in its details. Its genesis becomes the documentation together with the story it tells within its frame. In this case, the photographer is the doctor, allowing us to have an authoritative point of view and creating a feeling of empathy, a strong connection with that very moment being lived. It is precisely in the spontaneity of the shot that we find the authenticity of the testimony.