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Sara Dominici
"Sonny" | From the series Roma of Rome, Italy, 2008 Sara Dominici

Exhibitionist + Visual Art
Sara Dominici Explores Photography and Culture Through Curiosity and Compassion

May-June, 2008

Mental Contagion: What led you to your interest in documentary photography? What have you learned about yourself and others in this process?

Sara Dominici: Curiosity and the necessity to be confronted with “the other” have always been a part of who I am. The urge to be “there” in first person, to witness, consider and evaluate through my own personal experience, led me to photography.

I started using the camera as a tool to record and remember the faces and places I was travelling through. My relationship with photography has since matured, and I have been teaching my eyes to be eloquent, to show my story inside the story. I deeply agree with the Colombian writer G. G. Marquez when he says that life is not what we live, but what we remember, and how we remember it to tell it. 

Photography teaches me that it is my responsibility to choose how to see the world, and that it depends on me, on each of us, how to value what surrounds us.

Sara Dominici
Giulietta, 32 years old, having a cigarette in her caravan | Roma of Rome, Italy, 2008

Mental Contagion: The people you photograph are not subjects so much as they are people with whom you've shared experience. Can you recount a story that stands out as a shared experience?

Sara Dominici: I met Giulietta last January, when I went to visit a Roma settlement situated in the north of Rome, Italy. I was walking around, hands in my pockets and camera over my shoulder when I saw her from far away, sitting outside her caravan. Sometimes people generate a strong feeling of sympathy and interest in me, simply looking at them, and when it happens I want to get to know them. In Giulietta’s case, I knew I had to be careful. Roma people have a strong sense of belonging towards their own group and, as a result, they can be very wary of strangers, who they call “gaggio’” (literally the not-men, meaning strangers).

With Giulietta I was lucky, because the sympathy was mutual. She is a kind and strong woman, who arrived in Italy from Romania seven years ago. Giulietta has been living in temporary accommodations ever since, and now she shares a caravan with two beds with her husband and their two boys, 9 and 7 years old. When I met her, she had just come back from her working day, panhandling near the Spanish steps, one of the most visited attractions in Rome. She told me that if it’s her lucky day, she could earn up to five euros ($7.80).

As we chatted, I looked around the caravan. I am always mesmerized by the care for details that most people put into their homes to create a warm environment for their family, regardless of their possibilities. Giulietta turned her caravan into a small jewel. Hanging aloft were strings with colorful light bulbs and desiccated flowers, and the caravan door was upholstered with magazine clippings of flowers, covering the scratches on the door. She offered me coffee, strong and black in the Turkish style. She took out a chair for me and put a cushion with printed flowers on it. She sat on the bed and lit up a cigarette, but not before making sure if I wanted one too. Before leaving, she agreed to have her portrait taken.

Mental Contagion: How do you develop relationships with the people who you photograph? Do opportunities naturally present themselves through the people you meet, or do you find a way to connect with people who you would like to photograph?

Sara Dominici: Wherever I go, with or without my camera, I tend to talk a lot with people. I am fascinated by personal life stories, by the way people talk about themselves, their mimic, the tone of their voice, their eyes getting shiny or dark as the story unfolds—this has a magnetic power over me.

My interest in people, first of all as a person, and secondarily as a photographer, is the base upon which I develop relationships with my subjects. In this way, I encounter photographic opportunities along the way, while I am busy sharing life.

Sara Dominici
Sonny, 16 years old, sleeping in his bedroom
| Roma of Rome, Italy, 2008

Mental Contagion: Do you spend time researching the theme of your work before you travel, or does the theme present itself as you are become more familiar with the culture?

Sara Dominici: Before traveling, I research the history and culture of the place I am about to visit. I read its authors, listen to its music. I try to create a background of information that will hopefully help me to better understand a new reality.

I am aware though, that once I am “there” all the knowledge I have been assimilating will only be the tip of the iceberg of a much broader reality. I start my projects with the seed of an idea, conscious that only direct experience with the people and their culture will define the theme of my work.

Sara Dominici
Courtyard of a settlement | Roma of Rome, Italy, 2008

Mental Contagion: What are you feeling when you know it's time to take the shot? How often do you pass up the opportunity to photograph because it doesn't feel right?

Sara Dominici: I am an extremely sensitive and emotional person, and I try to work that to my benefit with photography. I listen to my primary emotions, and as soon as a situation generates strong feelings of fear, anger, sadness or happiness, I know it is time to press the shutter. Through framing, use of light and angle, I try to convey the synergy of elements unfolding in front of me in one click, one moment.

When the moment is not right I have to let it go, because it would not make sense to take pictures when they are not welcomed, if the element of respect is missing. It has no importance how interesting the situation is if it breaks the ethic of my work.

Photography has become an element of the dialogue I establish with people, a relationship where mutual respect and recognition is essential.

Sara Dominici
Adriana, 35 years old, looking for a new place to live | Roma of Rome, Italy, 2008

Mental Contagion: How and when do you get permission to photograph someone? It seems as though there might be an art to gracefully approaching this topic.

Sara Dominici: I work on long term projects, approaching the community at a very slow path. In this way I have the possibility to familiarize with the set of rules and values of the culture I am in, and consequently, I am able to tell beforehand when it is appropriate and when it is not to raise my camera. If I find myself in a grey area, I usually make eye contact, nod my head and slightly smile. This seems to generate a clear reaction, positively or negatively, that answer my doubts.

Sara Dominici
Aishwarya, 43 years old, outside of her caravan
| Roma of Rome, Italy, 2008

Mental Contagion: Can you talk about a time when you felt a deep connection with or compassion toward someone that you photographed?

Sara Dominici: The ingenious ability that people develop when coping with difficult situations always touches me. The care they put into every gesture, turning it into a beautiful act even in the frame of a crumbling away shack, is fascinating.

In a strenuous context like the outskirts of a growing megalopolis, Lima, where people live each day between sand dunes that go as far as the eye can see, I found myself witnessing with simple, beautiful and touching moments.

Oscar and Rosa, who have been happily married for more than 30 years, live in a shack in the east dune of the human settlement of Oropeza Chonta, Lima, Peru. Their dwelling has a thin sand floor and iron plate and paperboard walls. Rosa is sick in bed, unable to leave her room. Oscar has stopped working, because he doesn’t want to leave his wife alone. Their extended family of relatives and friends provide for them. Yet, Oscar and Rosa have managed to create a warm home environment, and with dignity and pride they welcomed me into their home.

When I first went to visit them, I found Oscar sweeping the floor of the shack, tiding up for my arrival. It is really difficult for me to describe how I felt in that moment. It was a mixture of compassion, commotion and most of all, I felt an overwhelming sensation of privilege for being their guest. 

We talked the entire time I was there. They offered me tea, asked me about Europe, about me, about my life. I didn’t take any pictures until the end. On my way out, I saw a frame hanging on the paperboard wall next to the front door. A hand-colored picture of Oscar and Rosa, young and dressed up.  

Sara Dominici
Portrait of Oscar and Rosa | Outskirts of a Megalopolis, Lima, Peru, 2007

Mental Contagion: At what point does it become obvious that you need to ask permission when photographing? Is it based on distance, number of people in the shot, eye contact or intuition? Are there gray areas?

Sara Dominici: I never photograph people if I realize that my presence is not welcomed. Every situation has its own peculiarities, and the line between acceptance and rejection can be very fine. If I don’t have clear signs, I use good sense and intuition.

Sara Dominici
The Zapallal settelement, founded in the late 1970s | Outskirts of a Megalopolis, Lima, Peru, 2007

Mental Contagion: Are you able to obtain funding for travel expenses for your documentary projects?

Sara Dominici: I usually make contact with local organisations, involving them in my project, and they provide me with accommodation and meals. This type of arrangement works really well for me, as it allows me to enter in the community and to be a part of the activities through local groups that have a good reputation and are trusted in the community.

Sara Dominici
Woman selling a handmade paper lantern | Outskirts of a Megalopolis, Lima, Peru, 2007

Mental Contagion: Can you relate one more story about a strong experience that you were able to document while traveling?

Sara Dominici: Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), is a traditional celebration during which people commemorate and honor the deceased. On the night of October 31st, I was invited to a party organised for children. As usual, I spent most of my time chatting with the mothers, while the children were running around in their costumes screaming and trying to scare each other.

A human settlement puts on a different feel at night. Looking at the sand dunes in the distance, where all the other settlements were, I could see the lights of the lamp posts, motionless and endless points of lights, and all around pitch black. It was magical.

Then a kid stopped, just in front of me. He was wearing an old man mask, and a jacket too big for him. At a first glance he seemed to me extremely vulnerable, inside that big jacket and on the background of a landscape so mesmerizing. But then I looked again, and I saw how powerful he was, proud of his costume, having fun, careless of the sand around him, careless of the shacks around. At that moment I shot the picture.

Sara Dominici
Child wearing an old mask during Dia de los Muertos | Outskirts of a Megalopolis, Lima, Peru, 2007

About the Photographer

Sara Dominici is a photographer living in London, UK. After acquiring a BA in Media Studies from the University La Sapienza in Rome, Italy, she moved to London to study photography at the London College of Communications. Since graduating in 2006, she has been working on personal long-term projects, and working as a photo editor and communications officer for London-based photographic agencies and NGOs. She is currently in the process of applying for funding to go back to Peru to continue her photographic project in the outskirts of Lima.

About the series Roma of Rome, Italy, 2008

The Roma (gypsies) form a group of approximately 160,000 in Italy, a minority of less than 0.3 percent of the country's population. In the city of Rome, almost 20,000 Roma are to be found. Most of them migrated during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, and may more have come from Romania since the country joined the European Community in 2007. The common Italian perception of Roma is full of prejudicies. Generally considered theives and beggars, Roma are emarginated from society. Even if some settlements are sometimes shelter to illegal activities, most Roma aren't criminals at all. An already precarious situation, it has recently become worse when Rome's city administration decided to move all Roma settlements 30 kilometers outside the city centre. Hopes for integration have become even thinner.

About the series Outskirts of a Megalopolis, Peru, 2007

The metropolitan area of Lima, Peru is expected to reach 10 million before the end of the decade, becoming a megalopolis. Today it is home to 1/3 of the Peruvian population. Rolling down the Pacific coast for almost 200 kilometers, most of its territory is located in the desert. In the city's north and south ends—the most populous districts of the MAL—human settlements have grown uncontrolled. Despite difficult living conditions and frequent lack of basic services, such as running water and electricity, people prefer life here than in the poor neighborhoods of the city centre. Less polluted air and more space usually determine the choice.

For more information, visit Sara Dominici's Web site.

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