Mezzogiorno, a look away from Bella Italia

The market in the Ballarò neighborhood, in the center of Palermo. Roger Wehrli

In his picture book ‘Mezzogiorno’, Swiss photographer Roger Wehrli delves deeper into a subject that has been with him for years. Moving away from the Bella Italia of the tourist destinations, he shows us the daily life of the south of the country.

This content was published on 13 November 2022 – 09:00

Roger Wehrli, photographs and Thomas Kern, text

In one of his photographs we can see a mountain road that ends up disappearing with a sharp curve. A part of the right side of the road has fallen off the cliff, revealing large sinkholes. Initially, Roger Wehrli’s photography speaks only of that detachment that can be seen with the naked eye. However, a second look reveals another meaning. The image does not refer only to a force of nature, but to the failure of an absent and indifferent state power.

“In Italy you always have the feeling that the situation is getting worse, or even that there is no hope. But then you discover that the worst is endless. Again and again,” says the photographer.

The consequences of economic misery are visible in many places in southern Italy, in Sicily even more than elsewhere: abandoned industrial buildings, dilapidated bridges, dilapidated roads, demolitions instead of new beginnings. That is not likely to change even with the new government, which promises to put citizens first. A third of the families living in the south are considered poor, while in the north only one in ten is.

Wehrli knows well the subject matter reflected in his photographs. A long research process precedes the images of him. Or maybe he too just has to see life. His partner is Italian, her parents moved to Switzerland to work and stay there.

“The more you visit a country, the more questions arise,” says Wehrli. The photographer has found many of the answers to these questions by traveling, observing people’s lives and conversations.

A family waits for the baptism ceremony in front of the entrance door of the Cathedral of Palermo. Roger Wehrli

Wehrli’s images radiate calm, in stark contrast to his characters whose lively discussion and motivated cacophony in a Sicilian bar we can imagine. His approach is characterized by tranquility, he does not seek spectacularity, what interests him are the living conditions and the daily life of the people he meets.

the mob landscape

It is not apparent at first glance in his photographs, but a good part of them are taken in the places of origin of organized crime, the Italian mafia: the Calabrian Ndrangheta, the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Neapolitan Camorra and the Sacra Corona Unita from Apulense.

Immortalize images in San Luca, Calabria, but also in parts of Sicily or at night in the Quartieri Spagnoli from Naples, requires not only technical knowledge, but also courage. However, Wehrli does not allow himself to be overwhelmed. Behind all this there is a deep conviction that documenting situations raises awareness and therefore, in the best of cases, leads to improvements.

The images of your bookexternal link They are complemented by a text by Leonardo La Rosa, the photographer’s old travel companion. His is more than just an introduction to photography: it is the result of a collaboration. On the title of the book he writes the following: “At a certain moment (…) the Mezzogiorno, the South, became something regrettable, backward, a non-place of incapacity and -ultimately- of crime. Today the Mezzogiorno it is the figure of a country that sets out to seek its fortune in the north. Although not all leave. And those who remain become tough and resistant, people who do not forget how to dream, but do so with a look of bitter irony”.

Adapted from the German by Carla Wolff

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Mezzogiorno, a look away from Bella Italia