reFramed: In conversation with Alessio Romenzi

“reFramed” is a feature showcasing fine art photography and vision-forward photojournalism. It is curated by Los Angeles Times staff photographer Barbara Davidson. twitter@photospice

Alessio Romenzi was born in Colle Sant’Angelo, a small village in the Italian Apennines, in 1974. After working as a carpenter in a factory, he graduated in 2009 with a master’s degree in photojournalism from Istituto Superiore di Fotografia e Comunicazione Integrata in Rome.  He then moved to Jerusalem to begin his career as a photographer. After one year working in Palestine and Israel, he went to cover the Arab Spring, with a special focus on Egypt and Libya. With the help of a friend he moved to Jerusalem, and then started working with wire agencies and humanitarian organizations. He later was one of the first photographers to be smuggled into Syria. His pictures have appeared in publications including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time magazine, Paris Match, 6 Mois, Newsweek, Polka magazine, Le Monde, Le Figaro, El Mundo, El Pais, La Repubblica, Corriere della Sera, Internazionale, L’Espresso, Der Spiegel, Verdens Gang (VG), The Guardian and The Telegraph. He also regularly works with major international organizations’ media outlets, including Amnesty International, the U.N.’s FAO, UNICEF, UNESCO, International Committee of the Red Cross, Save the Children, Terres des Hommes and War Child International. He  is based in the Middle East and his work is represented by Corbis Images and Emblema.


Q: How and why did you become a photographer?

A: I grew up in Colle Sant’Angelo, a small village on the Italian Apennines. I was raised on a farm and so my first interest in photography was nature. Wild animals were interesting to me and so I used to make pictures of animals just for fun. At that time in my life, I was working as a carpenter in a factory not far from my village. Three years ago I decided to take a course in photojournalism in Rome at Istituto Superiore di Fotografia e Comunicazione Integrata. It was my first contact with professional photographic reality and I immediately fell in love with it. I decided I wanted to try — I wanted to be a photographer, but not in Italy. I had already spent 35 years in my native country and it was time to see something else. With the help of a friend I moved to Jerusalem, and there I started working with wire agencies and humanitarian organizations. This was an amazing period in my life because I was learning something new every day by working with established photographers. I spent a year in Jerusalem, and then the story in Egypt broke. I traveled to Cairo and covered the events of Tahrir Square. It was a powerful experience. The uprising then spread to Libya and I was among the first journalists to enter the country. It was an unbelievable experience. I went in and out of the country several times trying to cover different aspects of the rebellion. Then my focus shifted to Syria. Its spring had started and I wanted to see it.

Q: You primarily work in war zones. Tell me about why you wanted to cover war zones.

A: I work in war zones for different reasons. Everything is pushed to the maximum. You act differently than in normal life. You live and feel differently, and I’m attracted by how people appear to me in those situations. Sometimes, the feeling I have is not like being among human beings. Fighters appear to be in an arena where everything is permitted; they are ready to kill and to be killed. The worst part for me is the civilians who are living in limbo and whose lives have been erased. They struggle only for survival. I imagine a modern battlefield is similar to battlefields from centuries ago, and this is another aspect that fascinates me. Nothing has changed. It’s like walking in a modern archaic era. When man is exposed to such events, he gets straight back to his animal origins. I feel so privileged to be present in such circumstances and to touch with my hands the events that we will find in the next history books.

Q: Do you think your photos make a difference?

A: I believe that pictures taken in war zones and crisis areas can affect who will watch. I can’t say for sure how many people my photos will affect but I think it is extremely important to provide as much information as possible so that people can build their own opinions about the issues of war. Pictures I take are tough and often frame something bad that nobody wants to see, and this is exactly what I want … to wake up the viewers and let them wonder about what is going on outside of their safe and warm realities.


Q: Tell me about Syria. How difficult was it to get into the country and how difficult was it to operate inside the country?

A: Syria is a difficult and extremely dangerous place. I went there for the first time in January 2012, from Lebanon. It was a real challenge because only a few journalists had illegally crossed the border at that time and information was scarce. I had a contact in Beirut who offered to help me enter Syria by sneaking through the mountains of the Bekaa Valley, but I didn’t trust him enough to attempt the crossing. I decided to wait and keep looking for another contact. After 10 days of research I met a smuggler who used to operate along the Syrian-Lebanese border. I went with him. He kept me in a little house in the Lebanese mountains. It was cold and there were no English-speakers around. Two days later I was invited to put a kefia on my face (as I’m not exactly Arab-looking) and we got close to the border. A couple of hours later I was on a small motorbike with two Syrian smugglers and one AK-47. We hid near the border, and when Syrian guards passed by us, we jumped on the motorbike and we crossed. Once inside, I realized that there was no way to have accurate information about the situation on the ground. In many parts of Syria, especially at the beginning of the uprising, there wasn’t a real front line, so you couldn’t tell which area was safe. I immediately started to build my own network of connections to try to move as safe as possible on the ground. I was extremely lucky to connect with a group of activists who welcomed me as part of their family. Without them, it would have been impossible for me to work in Syria.


Q: How do you manage your fear?

A: I experience fear, and the only way I handle it is to stay concentrated and focused on the situation at hand. Personally I always analyze what is going on around me…. I try to be aware of every single movement and noise made. I need to do this in case a quick decision has to be made. It’s also extremely important to have trustful people working with me. I try to work with people I can rely on in case of need or emergency – people who know how to get me out of the country or to medical attention. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. I’m not always so fortunate. I don’t always have the luck to be in such good company or the means to pay for a good fixer. So most of the situations I face are with my own good sense and experience. It goes without saying; you must have luck on your side. We just work to limit the risk as much as possible.

Q: Do you feel guilty about leaving the people you have covered when you fly home?

A: This is something I still have to work on. I feel guilty and I don’t think these feelings will ever disappear. I’m literally divided in two parts: emotional and rational. When I think of the civilians, the emotional side of me says that after I shared such an intense experience with them … after we laugh and sometimes cry together, I can’t just pack up my stuff and leave. This is something that always happens to me when I’m about to go home. To leave people in painful and dangerous situations and fly back to my place, wherever that may be at the time, is still more comfortable and safe. The rational part, on the contrary, says that I have to go and start telling other stories.