Puglia’s undulating coastline on the Adriatic and Ionian seas offers respite to locals during the summer months, when temperatures can rise above 40°C in southern Italy. August in particular is a time when whole extended families flee to the region’s coastal spots to escape the prolonged, infernal heatwaves. But Puglia’s medieval hill towns, teetering on clifftops overlooking sparkling water, are out of reach to millions of Italians in the grip of economic hardship and many Apulians seek relief closer to their own doorsteps.
Photography duo Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni had been working together in Puglia on two projects focused on environmental issues before deciding to make their latest work, Bitter Summer, documenting holidaymakers on a makeshift beach in Puglia’s capital Bari, the largest port city in the Adriatic. “The idea for Bitter Summer matured during our stay in the region and is also connected with Valentina’s memories of the place,” says Caimi, a French Italian photojournalist whose work focuses on humanitarian and social issues.
The pair met in 2013 when Caimi was looking for someone to edit a mass of negatives and contact sheets that he had made during the previous four years for his book Daily Bread. At the time, fine art and documentary photographer Piccinni – herself a Bari native – was working as an art critic. “Her approach and ideas for the book were truly innovative,” says Caimi.
“So we started collaborating. We then decided to make a documentary project together to test if we could also work as a team outside of a studio, directly in the field. We’ve collaborated on many projects together since.”
Caimi and Piccinni both freelance for New York-based Redux Pictures and their reportage is published regularly in international media, including Time, Der Spiegel and Cicero, and by CNN and Al Jazeera, among other TV networks.
Bitter Summer focuses on a stretch known as Canalone Beach, which is actually a drainage canal that runs from inland Bari to the sea. “During floods it’s submerged by the excess water that spills from the sewers and from the smaller canals in cultivated fields,” says Caimi. “But in the summer, the canal becomes a makeshift beach for locals who have little economic means to go elsewhere and who can reach the spot easily on foot or by bus.”
Thousands of people descend on the area with makeshift tents, food and make-do cookers, prepared for an extended stay. Relationships intertwine and bonds form as the communal experience intensifies. Family troubles are shared along with love, pain, food and discussion. Sandwiched between the metropolis and the pop-up portaloos, an impoverished beachfront becomes a place of hope and dreams – “the recurring dream to be elsewhere”.
“Our documentary work always centres on people,” says Caimi. “Our approach is not scientific, but participatory. We get involved in the stories we want to tell – we live with the people we want to photograph. Involvement and participation are key to getting as close as possible to the stories we photograph. Because of this, our personal feelings and emotions emerge in our work. These are the foundations that form the texture of the photographic story, way beyond any good picture or particular aim.
“Our stories are about emotions, hopes and fears – the precious things in everyday life. What is happening on that beach in Bari was the perfect basis for our urgency to be involved in a story and recount every facet of human existence in diverse environments, which is exactly what interests us.”