Paolo Raeli on his Dreamlike Portraits of Teenage Years

Paolo Raeli was born and raised in Sicily, and studied visual art in Palermo for five years before moving to Copenhagen, Denmark.
The Italian photographer has made a career, and developed a huge following, by taking candid portraits of his closest friends. They’re often out-of-focus images of a moment caught in the midst of movement. His images tell stories of friendliness, warmth and excitement, with all the ambiguity of exploring the boundaries of youth, as he invites the viewer to experience the memories he captured – love and freedom, abandon and masochism, intoxication and sex.
Paolo gives BJP an insight into what inspires his work.
How did you learn to become a photographer (training, mentors, teachers, photobooks, etc.)?
I am almost completely self taught, with just a little help from a very sensitive and caring mentor who also stimulated me to follow my feelings and be myself thoroughly.
What are the common themes, subjects or concerns that run through all your work?
I take pictures of my friends only. All the people in my pictures have some sort of bond with me and behind each picture there’s a real story made of friendship, emotions and often adventure. We like to experiment a lot and all my friends are very supportive and interested in what I do. They are happy to take part in my photo collection and I am grateful for that.
Can you describe what you’re looking for in a photograph – are there any particular aesthetic concerns, or are you purely led by your engagement with your subjects?
Right now I am in my “pink period”! I love taking pictures at sunset and at blue hour, when the light is soft and everything looks kind of out of a pink dream. I strive to communicate feelings and a specific atmosphere through my images, even when the content is subtle or slightly out of focus.
Who’s your favourite photographer?
I really appreciate the work of Nan Goldin and Ren Hang.
What’s the worst job you’ve done?
I am not hard of myself at all. I give myself time and I truly believe it’s okay to fail. I learn from my mistakes. There are pictures I’ve taken that I don’t particularly cherish, but I wouldn’t define them my worst job. Anyway if there’s something I regret it is taking pictures at a couple of stranger’s wedding when I started photography, because it might have been special for them, but I personally felt nothing.
What’s the best image you’ve ever taken? What was the scenario, and why do you like it?
If I have to make a choice, I would say my favourite picture is one I took in Rome. I’ve been walking around with my friends all day long and somehow we found ourselves just by the highway. Dangerous, but that thrilled us. My friend pulled her girlfriend close to the guardrail and kissed her, and I managed to capture it, as I always walk with my camera ready when I go out.
What’s the best photo you never took?
One of myself when I was sixteen. It was a very weird time in my life, I lost one of my dearest friends and I realized many things about myself. I dyed my hair electric blue and I used to walk around with this red hoodie and my headphones all the time. I have not even a single picture of that period and I regret that.
The one photograph you’d save in a nuclear apocalypse – your own, or someone else’s?
Just a single picture of my parents and sister (and dogs!) would be enough to keep me going.
Where did you grow and where do you live now? What are the pros and cons of each?
I spent most of my childhood in Sicily, which I deeply love but had to leave because of my strong desire to visit and live other places. Life is too short to stay just in one town! I live in Milan by now, but I’ve been around Europe a lot. The cons is that sometimes I miss the sea by my house in Sicily and my friends there. The pros are that I learn and grow so much and meet incredible people.
What’s your message to your younger self, in the moment they decided to be a photographer?
Don’t give up and don’t let others ever define you.
Find out more about Paolo Raeli’s photography here. Follow him on Instagram here.