Davide Monteleone’s Spasibo

“Whenever you take a picture, of course you get involved,” Davide Monteleone tells an expectant audience during a tour of his new exhibition, Spasibo, at London’s Saatchi Gallery. “I always joke that I spend more time drinking tea and talking with people than taking pictures, but then all of this [talking and building relationships] will come out at one point or other in a picture.”

The Italian photographer, and member of VII photography agency, is in London for the opening weekend of his Carmignac-winning exhibition. Monteleone won the fourth Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award for his work in Chechnya, and spent four months, based in Grozny, producing work off the back of his winning proposal. More than thirty of his images are on show at the London gallery until 03 November.


The Award, now in its fifth year, is the brainchild of Edouard Carmignac – director of the French foundation of the same name. The Award’s aim is to provide one photojournalist each year with the financial means (€50,000), and support to produce an in-depth photographic report. Carmignac sets the theme (every year a different region, usually a lesser-known area of conflict, is chosen), which the winning photographer, who is selected by a jury of photojournalism experts, responds to. Each winner goes on to produce an exhibition and book of his or her work.

Monteleone’s project is an exploration of the identity of Chechnyan people inside the region after years of conflict and war, he tells the audience. There have been two main wars in the Chechnyan Republic, he explains – one in the 1990s, and another that ended in 2009. But now, although the physical threat of violence has all but disappeared, people still live under the oppressive rule of President Kadyrov, who is “deaf to what’s going on and only hears what he wants to hear. This is how he rules the country… there is only one way to live, and if you want to live in a different way, you have to leave”.

The title ‘Spasibo’, which translates as ‘thank you’, is used ironically by Monteleone, given the current conditions in which the Chechnyan people live; “People don’t protest anymore, and everything is really quiet”, he comments.

The Republic has an ambiguous feel, he says, and there is a sense of something beneath the surface. Monteleone mentions one image as an example – what he calls ‘the phantom’ picture. In the image, a girl looks as though she is getting married, but she is in fact trying on a wedding dress. The picture is symbolic for Monteleone – it is representative of a hidden, underlying malaise, he infers. “You can feel something in Chechnya… the phantoms of all the people who have died in the wars or been kidnapped”.

For the photographer, ambiguity is a key theme of the work, both in terms of Chechnyan identity – as complex and multi-faceted as it is – and the nature of photography itself. “I was going around with a huge tripod and camera – I wasn’t hiding, or trying to snap pictures. There may appear to be nothing happening in a place, but there is always some hidden detail. [The work] is reportage, but at the same time I’m playing with the ambiguity of photography, which has the potential to make something even more ambiguous.”

When working on the series, Monteleone had an idea of the images he wanted to take, but “did not want to interfere with the scene in front of me… I don’t want to bring my emotions to the viewer or force him or her to think something.What I’m doing is completely neutral – well, that’s the attempt. I do a lot of research,” he adds. “I need to read a lot about something, to see how it is, and to hear lots of opinions… then I collect all this information and play with it.”

The series is Monteleone’s first in black and white, he says, when we speak after the tour. “I wanted to create images that are perhaps more classical; [the series] is a homage of sorts to reportage. I’m at a point in my career where I wanted a change – to do something different.”

Immediately noticeable is his strong use of light and shadow. “This is probably part of my Italian background. In Italy, you go into a church and see Renaissance pantings… you accumulate a lot of things in your life,” he continues, thoughtfully, taking the conversation off in a new direction. “You see a lot of things, read books, and collect information in your mind, and then, when you re-see something, you take the picture.”

In the exhibition, the large-scale prints range from towering portraits, intricate landscapes featuring breathtaking mountains, and quieter domestic interiors. His images of Grozny, for example, show a city being rebuilt and trying to shake off its past. The images are both beautiful and chilling; contemporary in feel, yet they also allude to a dark past. They touch on complex topics such as the co-existence of Islam and Christianity (one image of a huge outdoor Christmas tree next to a mosque beautifully illustrates this), and the presence of terrorism, both in real terms and as a spectre of the past, but Monteleone refrains from passing judgement or telling the viewer what to think.

“I think it’s more interesting when you don’t pretend to testify the reality of the world. What reality? I go somewhere, I take pictures, I come back. If I go somewhere on another day, I will see something else. Of course you have an idea of what you want to see, and what intrigues you, but the magic of the photographs is precisely that – the viewer can make his or her own stories. Photography is completely ambiguous, but it’s always been this way.”

Mostly working alone, Monteleone got to know local people during his time in Chechnya, and had a fixer to help him; “but not someone you find in the Yellow Pages,” he jokes. “You go to a place and meet people, whom you get to know, and who help you.”

Of the topic of aesthetics in photojournalism, Monteleone believes it’s a matter of balance. “If you exaggerate the aesthetics of the image, you can be criticised, but if you [privilege] the content, then you can also be criticised. Taking pictures is a form of visual expression… composition and the aesthetic is part of the medium.”

Ultimately, it’s about taking the viewer on a journey, says Monteleone. “When I make a book, for example, I work on it as a movie editor – I like to put a frame alongside another one. It could be chronological, emotional, or narrational.. for me, there are no rules.”

As we go our separate ways, Monteleone touches on the topic of photojournalism, and how he believes it has changed in recent years. “You have to start thinking, ‘what’s the meaning of it now?’, and ‘what can you do within it?’ I’m interested in journalism, and I need this reality – I need a subject, which is tangible – but I like to play with the medium of photography, although I’m not a conceptual photographer. All this recent discussion about photography and reality, photography and truth, I think is bulls**t. You speak the truth, but you can leave a bit of mystery. I don’t lie to the viewer, but at the same time I [like to] leave this ambiguity.”

Stay up to date with stories such as this, delivered to your inbox every Friday.