Ulya Aligulova: What brought about your sudden switch of career?

Massimo Vitali: You know, you work as a photographer all your life—I did photography and cinematography—and at one point you don’t really know why you’re doing it or if you really want to go on. I wasn’t very successful. I think the results I got were terrible. So I thought that this time I must have a very good idea of what I really want to do. And before giving up, when I was around 50 something, I decided that I wanted to do something different, something that I really enjoyed—that was photographing people. I’ve always been interested in people, but if you have to go out for a stupid job, you don’t have the possibility. And it went well.

U.A. You’ve also mentioned before that your career was in fact precipitated by theft. Can you please elaborate on that unusual twist of fate that led to your current profession?

M.V. I was doing a fashion job in Milan and I went for lunch. I had all the stuff in the trunk of my car. I came back in and found that someone had opened the trunk and stolen two 4 x 5 cameras and a 6 x 9—the normal cameras, but left the big 8 x 10 that was in the suitcase. So I was left with this huge camera that, in fact, I’d only used two or three times. At that point, I just thought that God was telling me, “Now that you have this, you have to use it.” So I started using that camera. In the beginning, it was summer of ‘97, I thought, “I want to photograph people. Where do I find people?” So I went to this beach and the idea was to put the tripod in the water looking at the people from the front. I thought I’d do some photos in black and white, some in color. The idea was to take a picture every hour or so to have a chronology of what was happening. It didn’t really work out, especially because black and white on the beach just looked terrible. I wasn’t very happy with the results. But after about a week I developed the color film and thought, “Wow, these are not so bad. Maybe I could do something.” I made a large print and started going around with only this one print. It was the only photograph I had. I was going to see people, friends, photographers—I’d go everywhere with my print roll. People were like, “Yeah, it’s not bad, but it’s a beach. People don’t want to have photos of beaches.” But in the meantime, I started thinking that I believe in this. Eventually, people got interested. Then in ‘98 I went to more beaches and did more pictures. I actually started showing people seven or eight pictures. I went to New York and found this gallerist who was interested and said, “Okay, I’ll buy your two pictures and give you a show.” Today it would be unbelievable. No one who walks into a gallery in New York with a roll of pictures gets a show. But in ‘98 it worked somehow. Then I had other galleries in Italy, Switzerland… So I started doing things. In the winter, I couldn’t photograph beaches anymore so I started doing a project on discos. It was ‘98 and there was a disco craze in Italy; it was an important scene of music. And it went on from there.

U.A. Today, due to social media, we are constantly bombarded with new images and photographs saturating our attention. How, in your opinion, has social media affected photography?

M.V. I don’t know how it’s affected photography, but I know how it’s affected my photography. My photography relies a lot on the actual photo because my photos have to be seen from afar, then from up close. There’s a physical way of looking at them. If I have a picture on my Instagram, it’s not my photograph, it’s a stamp that represents it. There will always be more photographs, but what’s lacking is the concept behind them. If there’s no concept, for me, the photo is totally boring.

Ulya Aligulova, Massimo Vitali in ODDA Magazine n. 19, p. 88.