A Drop in the Ocean (2014)
In collaboration with Milo Montelli
Sergio Romagnoli was killed in 1994. He was 37 years old. Despite an official investigation at the time
and subsequent enquiries by his family, the circumstances surrounding his murder have never been
fully explained and remain a mystery to this day.
He was a Professor of Natural Sciences and Geography, a passionate naturalist and also a keen photographer,
frequent traveler and accomplished adventurer.
An ardent anti-militarist, Sergio was a highly active supporter of many efforts to protect and preserve
the environment; fighting a live long battle to document and denounce the dangerous pollution of the
River Esino near his home in Jesi, a small city in the province of Ancona in Italy.
At the time of his murder, Sergio and his wife were living on Sao Tomè and Príncipe, a small island
nation in the Gulf of Guinea off the West Coast of Central Africa. They had ventured there to do
voluntary work in an orphanage for visually impaired children during a particularly tragic moment
in their lives; following as it did, the recent death of their baby son Luigi, who had died after a serious
illness at the age of one.
The photographs gathered in this project, dating back from the 70s and 80s, are but a few of those
Sergio Romagnoli produced during the course of his short life.
Our primary interest, besides a human fascination towards his incredible story, lied in the possibility
to interact with a rough body of images; free of any artistic claim, Sergio’s work reveals itself in tangible
pureness, a comforting companion during the long hours spent leafing through his albums.
Both simple and impacting at the same time, these photographs disclose an explosive photographic
sensitivity, clung to the awareness of the real and to one’s own history: an experience of encounters,
journeys, research, aimed at discovering, knowing, understanding. The act of seeing as common denominator.
Photographs that could be defined as merely amateurish – it’s no coincidence that the term ideally
justifies the imprecisions an enthusiast is more likely to run into – melt into others of scientific nature,
driven by an almost obsessive need for cataloguing that involves the plant life above all.
By triggering the relationship between such different approaches – however detached by labile
boundaries – our attempt was to give voice to the unconsciously authorial potential lying within Sergio’s
work, which would have otherwise never be brought to light. An unsolved possibility, overshadowed
by a visual bearing that could be assimilated to that of a child. Hunting high and low the environment
in which he is growing up, he crawls into the slow, wearing task of understanding himself
and his role as a human being in the world.
We did not conceive this project as a collection of archive photographs, or ourselves as curators.
With great honor and gratitude, we pay homage to the musical score left undone by a composer now
gone, leading the orchestra towards a new symphony of voices, colors, and silences.
A Drop in the Ocean – Sergio Romagnoli
Sergio had the exotic charm of an explorer. He was not a photographer in the strictest sense of the word, but he had the “eye” of a photographer and used it to study reality, humankind and nature, managing to express, through the thousands of photographs he took, a lot more than was shown in the actual photograph. What strikes us visual beings is precisely this immediate sensitivity, free of language, closer perhaps to the purity of the photographic act. But does this purity exist? Or is it just a useful reverse view? There are photographs that are striking because of their participation with reality, and we are prompted to speak of empathetic photography. Sergio does not hunt, nor does he wait; he absorbs snapshots of reality without judgement or precise answers. His gaze questions incessantly, yet does not impose. Even when the photograph is scientific, to be used for cataloguing, he seems to recognise a common approach, an opening beyond repetition, the intuition of uniqueness in generalisation, an accidental meaning that is revealed beyond the apparent communicative regularity of the image. Sergio is wave and wolf, tree elephant and mountain? There are so many travels. Sergio Romagnoli looks at his interior being through the evidence of his physical presence and interrogates the world in a continuous variation of distances. From the macro, in an attempt to capture elements of the “all”, to a wider field that still does not seem to capture enough; a constellation of images that is a challenge and a flow, a single story and a universal story, an observer where the eye wants to see even closer, to enter, to disassemble, include and at the same time broaden itself, distance itself in order to see more and beyond. I recognise the vitality of Sergio’s face in the images, something mysterious and energetic running through his history that does not stop, transforming itself again and again. A Drop in the Ocean shows this movement well, playing with scale and distance, with assonance and association while delineating the existence of an absent, yet very present, man. And I ask myself what it would have been like to speak with him. What would have I asked him? A drop in the ocean is better than nothing, writes Sergio, who is more or less the same age as us, with a family, wife, a recently lost child. He is anti-military, in love with the environment; who knows what it would have been like to meet him face to face, for us to look at one another within our generational discards. In the meantime, his eye is there before us, as if he were watching us, and he calls upon us to examine other possibilities of existence. If I could only have had that experience. Well, while looking at his photographs, I can get a glimpse at what I might have felt, and I ask myself how to examine this life. Not only his images, but the care with which he conserves them. His slides, his albums. There are two photographs where the profile of his dog is placed next to him springing out from a rock, and it seems like they are telling the same story. Although it is difficult to explain what that is. It is almost as if we can hear Sergio’s voice, as clearly as if it had been recorded on cassette. Despite everything, he begins powerfully, driven by an empathising power, a power of sharing and identification, as natural as ocean drops collected in a bottle, ready to travel, to impart the message of new worlds to be explored. It is natural to wonder whether this sense of continual, powerful transformation can manifest itself in this way once again, among us, the unidentified recipients who, on returning to his objections, collecting these intentional remains, become the successors, ready to give them new voices, new directions. The work on the photographs of Sergio Romagnoli is exactly this: a transformation and a continuation of his path. Alessandro Calabrese and Milo Montelli reopen his archive and arrange it with thousands of his images and writings, a new translation of his exploration of humanity and the visual. The sequenced images outline an initial pathway for our thoughts, a sketched history, an invitation to fill in the spaces and continue the observation, to overwhelm the discrepancy between the visible and invisible, between the full and the empty. The relationship with the archive never abandons nostalgia, even when it forces that particular function of proximity for which vernacular photography, precisely by virtue of the presumed lack of expectations with regards to the public or an intention, seems to get closer and bring closer the reality and sense of verisimilitude of the image. We find ourselves in a dialogue with a multitude of voices, in which Sergio, photographer-naturalist-man, remains the trigger of an open movement. And, like every interrogation at a certain point, there comes a time to stop. The pauses in this work are junctions that appear with minimum direct intervention on what we are given. The few photographs accompanying those taken by Sergio have the power of the gloss of an ancient, obscure language, and create a bridge between the personal, intimate approach and an open dialogue, leaving us, the participants, in a dimension of experience that speaks to us here so clearly. Once again we are reminded of title of this work and its reference to water and its immersive dimension. The multiplying effect of dialoguing voices harmonises with the first person, singular and plural, and reconnects in an unexpected way with the power of the real. With him, and with those who speak on his behalf about his life and his world, we find ourselves observing a thousand details and then, tired at last, we finally let our eyes wander.