Paolo Zerbini is still haunted by that lingering sense of distance and isolation small town youth sucks up like a dry sponge. The Italian-born, London based photographer captures this feeling in his photo book, Rough Ride Down South, via a series of suburban portraits and landscapes shot on a recent trip to Louisiana.
There’s a deeper echo here – of a journey Zerbini took to the states at age 17 in an escape from his childhood home – and the feeling of space and removal is palpable. It’s an experience the photographer had to displace, as while his home town still exists physically, the mental space in which he lived doesn’t.
Tempe Nakiska: The images really reflect that childhood or teen sense of isolation and displacement. What sparked this journey?
Paolo Zerbini: I often go back to my home town, and I often see how things change from my prospective. It alway surprise me, it puts me in a strange place. The feeling towards people living there still is mutating through the years, I have been making peace with everything.
However the feeling of a block, the inability to photograph those people directly pushed me to do the book, but to do it somewhere else. I was reading a lot from Andrei Tarkovsky at the time, so that was also very inspiring to create something that had the spontaneity of a memory but that is completely photographically constructed. I went and searched. I went hunting, more than fishing if it makes sense.
TN: What parallels do you draw between your home town and the American places and people you capture in the book? Is that small town ‘feeling’ universal?
PZ: Completely. That is it. The small town feeling is universal I think. But also I went to the states because the US firstly freed me from that feeling when I was 17. I left my town to go to the US for a year back then, and that was the beginning of the freedom from it for me. Then I must say that Louisiana was not random choice. It is a flatland just like San Benedetto Po (my home town) it is a wet land in the Mississippi delta, just like the big river Po was so present in my early youth. The weather is similar: humid, hot, sticky… and the people, they are not far off.
TN: What does home mean to you?
PZ: To me now it means two things quite distant from each other really and I feel very strongly about both of them. I feel now very much at home while cycling by the massive poplar plantations in my own town, as much as I do while landing over Stansted and the greenery of this island hits your sight in the most refreshing of ways. I spend a lot of time walking and photographing in the streets of North East London and doing that is a very homely feeling.
TN: Would you be a different person entirely if you had never left the town you grew up in?
PZ: Yes. And I would be a very unhappy person, just like the one I was before I did leave. A lot of my friends who stayed often tell me how brave I was when I left. To me they were the real brave ones to stay. I mean it, and I really respect them for staying there.
TN: That small town mentality – do you think it belies a greater feeling of belonging than an urban childhood might?
PZ: It’s very hard to speculate about that. But don’t take me wrong, I would raise my children in the countryside myself even in the same place I grew up – but I would be very aware of what that could do to them. I would be ready to expand their minds with stimulations and just be ready for their desire to go.
I don’t regret being born there or having grown up there at all, I feel that the most painful experiences are at times very essential to making you who you really are. The point of the book is in fact not to judge but just to transmit what I personally felt.
Rough Ride Down South launches tonight at Apiary Studios, 458 Hackney Road E2 9EG, from 6pm. The book launch will include a video installation by Roberto Crippa, Yuri Pirondi, Charlie Ryan and Paolo Zerbini.