by Polina Shubkina

How growing up in Sicily shaped you as an artist and influenced your decision to study photography?

Glauco Canalis (G.C.): My childhood in Sicily was beautiful and wild. I hit the streets quite early, at the age of six or seven, joining the kids forming gangs in my neighborhood, going around playing and fighting with other kids from the nearby areas. A very common scenario for those, who grew up in the south of Italy during the late 80’s early 90’s. Being the youngest in my group of friends, I had to face daily challenges of all sorts to compensate the age gap and prove that I was as brave as my older peers. Playing football, hitting the windows and running away and other naïve games. We had a lot of beef going on with the nearby gangs of kids. We often would fight each other’s at the margins of our “territories,” water balloons and stones in the summer, snow, rocks, and firecrackers in winter. The link to the territory, the manhood we were trying to emulate as kids, the conflict and sense of ownership and projection over a place and a group of people, are coming back through my photographic work. I think that these little elements shaped the necessity of being a storyteller and photographer today.

The anger and wilderness of the streets were contrasting to the environment in my family's house. My father was a Latin and Greek lecturer and an amateur musician and photographer. Like many people of his generation, he had a darkroom at home. Our house was full of photographs and images; my father used to show me the photos from his trips, using the projector, he set up in my bedroom.  

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015  

You were born in Piazza Armerina, can you tell us something about your city?

G.C.: Piazza Armerina is a relatively small town in the heart of Sicily. It preserved monuments of its glorious past, over 100 churches dating back to the 1100 a.C., and the heritage of the Roman Villa protected by the UNESCO. A vast estate from the Roman era with floors entirely covered in mosaics, depicting chapters of the Roman and Hellenistic epic. But its modern history also has some exciting moments, for example, the rise of a Hippy commune in the late 70’s, whose presence has influenced this little town. The hippy phase didn’t last too long, but many people who took part in this experience decided to stay, and I found myself going to school with kids whose parents were Swedish, Danish, Swiss, German, British, etc.

It was a unique experience for a boy from a small Sicilian town in the middle of 1990's.   Unfortunately, now Piazza Armerina is in a state of financial and social crisis. Since the end of the first decade of 2000’s, there has been a massive emigration. The majority of local youth is moving away right after finishing the high-school to undertake formative paths abroad or in the north of Italy. The lack of response from the institutions and the slow process of adaptation and general versatility of the job market has forced many youngsters to move out, affecting the city’s economy and culture.

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015  

In your project 'Sicily 49', you are combining archival historical documents with your photographs of contemporary Sicily landscape, investigating the relationship between Sicily and the United States after 1942-43. In your opinion, what is the current state of the Sicilian-American relations? Did the US influence Sicilian culture in any way after the end of the war?

G.C.: Sicily 49 and the investigation on the relation between Sicily and the U.S. is an ongoing project, and it makes a relative point of my entire artistic research. My opinion on the Sicilian-American ties is highly subjective and based on personal suppositions, which have no scientific nor factual validation, as much as on the information I have acquired through reading contemporary and old literature on that matter. For example, the book “Sicilia Armata” by Antonio Mazzeo (a Sicilian journalist whose research focuses on the militarization of Sicily and the Mediterranean) in which he describes how the U.S.A.F. – US NAVY Miltary base of Sigonella has been equipped with over 17 Predator Drones in the past 15 years. In one of his recent articles, Mazzeo claims that the air-traffic slow-down in Catania International Airport in October-November 2017 was due to classified U.S.A.F. operations happening in Sigonella. 

 © Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'Sicily 49', 2013-2016

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'Sicily 49', 2013-2016

Since the post 9/11 era, the position of Sicily has become more critical for the U.S. military strategies and operations in the Middle-East, Mediterranean, and North-Africa. Sicily is the southernmost point of Europe; its geographical position resulted in the long process that turned Sicily into a military facility, especially in the past 20 years. Relatively recent example, the construction of M.U.O.S. the latest generation communication facility built to improve the communication between Control-Centres and Unmanned aircraft carriers, aka Drones, visible in my project Sicily 49. Regarding the cultural aspect, the American Military presence has possibly served the popularisation of basketball, surf, and skateboarding among people living around Sigonella, Catania and the east coast of Sicily before the mainstream media brought these trends from across the Atlantic. This cultural phenomenon is explored in the book “The recent History of Skateboarding in Sicily” by photographer Claudio Majorana.

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'Sicily 49', 2013-2016

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'Sicily 49', 2013-2016

Where are you based now? Could you please tell us about your time at Plymouth University? Any professor or teacher that has allowed you to understand your work better?

G.C.:  Currently, I live in London. I relocated here right after graduating from Plymouth University to do an internship with the publisher MACK Books in early 2015. My experience at Plymouth University has been incredibly valuable for critical thinking development and a more thorough understanding of the photographic medium. Professors Jem Southam, David Chandler, and Liz Nicol have carefully shaped my artistic practice towards the substantial form of documentary photography. During my grad school, I was lucky to meet photographers Martin Cole and Luca Nostri, whose work undoubtedly influenced my practice.

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015 

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015 

Why a project on San Berillo? Tell us about it... 

G.C.: I started the project on San Berillo while residing in Catania shooting "Sicily 49". Moving around the east coast of Sicily from Catania is easy. I was hanging around the district, fascinated by its decaying architecture and aura for which it seemed an impenetrable tangle of streets that you wouldn’t dare to cross at night or in the quietest hours of the day.  I felt a natural attraction to walk in these alleys, and so I started pushing myself more into it, in the meantime reading about this places history and gathering information. When I discovered that this district had been a "thorn in the side" of every administration in Catania since the 1950’s, an area with lousy reputation incapable of recovering by itself; I realized the project was already there.

In the past years, many photojournalists and documentary photographers have been focusing on the migration crisis, depicting struggle and death occurring in the Mediterranean. Not many people were still thinking about what’s happening in the places where the survived migrants settle and create new lives. In my opinion, the San Berillo district is reflecting the effects of the second generation of migrants living in the area, becoming Italians, or Afro-Italians as I love to state these days.

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015 

Tell us about your process. Do you talk to people you photograph in this district? What are their reactions to you? How often are you coming back?

G.C.: Before I started taking any pictures in San Berillo, I spend a long time hanging around in the district, talking to the various local people. I have built a stable relationship with the Senegalese community. And I am in a continuous dialogue with the local Italians running an active citizens group "Comitato Cittadini Attivi Sanberillo", which works on creating activities to hold together the community through different practices. Currently, they work on restoring an old building in the district's center, to create a hub for the locals, where they could hold classes, meetings, exhibitions. The association also helped Franchina, a former prostitute operating in the district, to publish her first book, which has been a critical reading for my understanding of the place.

San Berillo is known as the city’s red-light district, and it once was one of the biggest open brothels in Europe. Taking this fact into consideration, I have decided to focus on the diversity of its demography, and on its uncomfortable political position within the city of Catania, rather than just photographing the sex-workers, who unfortunately became a touristic attraction. Several international photographers came to San Berillo, paid the subjects to get their picture taken and left without the more profound understanding of this place. After building a relationship with the people living in the area, I have shot only the individuals, with whom we have achieved mutual respect and confidence. I have done all I could do, as far my confidence and respect would go.

Are there any stories you heard from your subjects, that influenced you?

G.C.: I have met a lot of people: from the first priest, who opened the doors of his church to the Senegalese refugees and heroin addicts in the 80’s; to the refugee kids from Gambia, Mali, Senegal , who crossed Africa to reach Sicily; to the sex-workers, who have seen how the place was changing during the decades. Though there is one story that became particularly important for my understanding of the area. Francesco Grasso (aka Franchina), a former sex-worker who still lives in the district, wrote a book “Davanti alla porta” – “Outside the doorstep.” The book's title refers to the practice of standing outside the doors of the local prostitutes working in the lower flats accessible from the streets. Her story is incredibly compelling because of its honesty, the simplicity of the language and striking truth coming out of her memories, crossing the past 40 years of the district.

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015

I would like to share one paragraph, which I believe, creates a raw portrait of the people from San Berillo. It's taken from the book 'Davanti alla Porta'-'In front of the door' (Malavita e Altro in: Davanti alla Porta – Testimonianze di vita quotidiana nel quartiere catanese di San Berillo - Ed. Museo Civico Etno-Antropologico ed Archivio Storico “Mario de Mauro” - Scordia) by Francesco Grasso.

« Our neighborhood never followed moral and civil rules, nor has it been a part of honorable society or under the Mafia. Even the Mafia marginalized us; its members did not come to us, not to shame and dishonor their families. They would not get their hands dirty with the business of prostitution, and above all, no man could have intercourse with the prostitutes in San Berillo. We were a separate entity, none of them could talk to us openly, however as soon as they thought no one was watching, they would come all covered up on cold and rainy days and have sex with transvestites and prostitutes. Also, and again in secret, the Mafia members would loan money to the brothel’s mistresses to then blackmail them with 50% interest rates on loan.

Everyone has been tempted and corrupted by the San Berillo district. Even the most unexpected members of the society. Priests in civilian clothing were coming here to satisfy their sexual instincts with prostitutes. Everyone, for one reason or another, has contributed to the survival of these few remaining alleys. The walls of these, now empty houses, are still soaked with sperm, and their floors, washed and re-washed, are still saturated with erotic pleasures. The air is drenched with early sexual desires and the first orgasms of many Catanese, who were initiated to the joys of sex in this very place.

I believe this neighborhood to be, for better or worse, a symbol of Catania, and my heart belongs to it. People here may have lived in crime, promiscuity, immorality, and damnation, but it is here, that they feel free from any laws and rules, from any frame of mind and social prejudices, because it is here that all human instincts are set free.»

© Glauco Canalis from the ongoing series 'San Berillo', 2015 

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that played a role in the establishment of your artistic practice?

G.C.: My early influences were  Jem Southam, Francesco Jodice, Vincenzo Castella, Pino Musi, Trevor Paglen and Taryn Simon. Coming to Plymouth, I discovered photographers Richard Misrach, Edward Burtynsky, Larry Sultan and several other names. Meeting photographers Peter Fraser, Tom Woods, Martin Kollar, Gregory Halpern and Ron Jude also affected my understanding of the medium. Ron Jude’s work became one of my primary influences regarding aesthetics. His book Lago published by MACK is among my favorite photo-books of all time. I appreciate the gentleness of its colors, the sequence, composition and hermetic language it adopts. 

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

G.C.: At the moment I am working on a documentary project in London. I would love to come back to Sicily for an extended period and finish both projects Sicily 49 and San Berillo, to get together with a designer and finalize them into the book form. On the other hand, I am thinking of a few curatorial projects, one of which is based on the history of the hippy commune in my hometown, and the other will deal with my father’s archive of images.


Glauco Canalis
Urbanautica - Italy