“Rodrigo Orrantia: […] One of the things that strikes me about your images is the feeling that people go to the beach to be seen. It’s more than just butterflies on a box for you – it’s about group behavior.
Massimo Vitali: Yes, people go to the beach to be together with other people. I think there are deserted beaches of course, but if people have a chance, they’ll go to a beach that’s not deserted.

RO: Is it about communal enjoyment? Perhaps this is a ling – a strand present throughout your work – with your images of pools and discos.
MV: Yes, like colonies of mammals that live together, like penguins. You don’t see a penguin on a beach on its own, and all the rest of its family away. They stay – all 20.000 of them – in one place. And [humans are] the same: they have to stay together. It’s very primal.

RO: So your idea of paradise, instead of being a long empty beach at sunset, is a crowded beach at midday?
MV: Yeah! That’s right. Absolutely!

RO: What was the biggest change in the way you photographed beaches back then.
MV: At the beginning, I was doing beaches with a more urban background, where there was something happening on the back and something opposite happening on the front. I shot people trying to rest, and behind them was the city, the factory. So there was this big contrast.

RO: But then there was a definite interest in nature and more remote locations, away from the urban beaches and open spaces in cities.
MV: Indeed. For the last number of years, the natural part became somehow a more important part of my work. And it was not just nature [and] how nature was reacting to this occupation by the people. One question that became evident to me was [whether] nature was really strong enough to fight back against what mankind is trying to do to it.

Eventually, the focus on people became less important and this fight between human beings and nature became prevalent. By the end of the 90s, I started to think about exceptional natural places or exceptional non-natural places. There was a bit of conflict.

RO: This brings us to a more recent series of work, entitled Capricci. As the title hints, these images refer to 18th-century Italian fantasy landscapes. Are these your own vedute de fantasia?
MV: In the last series, I started to introduce a more political view in the sense that I felt that people didn’t really understand all the drama that was within my very quite and pacific pictures. And so I decided to insert some appropriated images from the Internet into my very nice idyllic pictures, referring to things that happened in that same place. These appropriated images added a lot of dramatic content.

RO: Was the intervention a way to transform the beach into a stage – a place for you to talk about things that matter to you – for you own stories to unfold alongside the ones you find?
MV: Exactly. Yes, and you really think, “How can these people enjoy themselves and be on a beach without thinking about disasters and evil that happened in the world?” Everybody is on the beach to relax, to have fun. People cannot just think about the drama all the time. There is this ongoing contrast between the problems of life; war, disaster and the way we use our spare time to hide away from them.

RO: At first glance it is an idyllic image, but on closer inspection it reveals some hidden stories.
MV: Yes, absolutely. Beaches are very idyllic, but you know that behind them, there are a lot of stories. If you dig a little bit, take the top off, then there are a lot of problems – the human drama.

One of the pictures that I made that I’m particularly fond of is this picture of a beautiful beach called Spiaggia dei conigli [in Lampedusa] where the water is fantastic, people take it really easy, everybody is swimming, lying on the beach… There’s even a place where turtles go to nest. It’s a fantastic place and there’s also a beautiful little island, Isola dei conigli. Just one mile behind this little island there were some 600 people who sank [and died] in a boat trying to get to Italy from Libya two years ago.

How can you be on the beach without thinking about this? But also, when you are on the beach, you just want to be on the beach; you want to forget everything and enjoy yourself. That’s the contradiction in my pictures; there is always something terrible happening around us.

RO: The beach can also be read then as a space of protection. […] it’s a place where you can find solace from angst and negativity, a place to forget about the troubles of the world for a little while.
MV: Yes, and sometimes you can even forget you are very near to the places of drama. I don’t judge. But that’s us; that’s the way we’re made. Thank God we can forget.

Interview by Rodrigo Orrantia in Under the Influence, Issue 15, Spring/Summer 2015, pp. 252-253.