Nola Minolfi shows a man who never saw the sea

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Nola Minolfi was born in Buenos Aires but raised in Milan, from where she and her family would regularly holiday in a remote village in the Italian Alps. To this day there are no cars in Chamois; in fact, there are no roads and the only way to reach the community of fewer than 100 inhabitants is by foot or cable car. The paths leading up to the six hamlets have no names, so when the postman visits he calls ahead to arrange a time to meet in the main square.
A key member of the community is 84-year-old Emilio, who Minolta first met when she began work on her project The man who never saw the sea. To find him she took a snowy trail from Chamois that leads to a bridge across a river. From there she followed the instructions written on a tiny map, telling her where to go after a fork in the path: “Turn right, down towards the altiport and then right again after the wooden cross. First house on the left.”
Emilio has two teeth, grows oat, barley and rye, makes cheese from the milk of white-headed cows and loves whipped cream, which he once made himself with an electric drill. He has lived a solitary life, only ever leaving to go abroad twice – both times to Paris – and to this day has no desire to see the sea. “There is too much water,” he told Minolfi.
Like Emilio, most of the older generation of Chamois residents have rarely left their birthplace, says Minolfi. “They didn’t have the chance, or the need, to know other valleys nearby. They know how to live and orientate themselves on these mountains – many of them know how to tell the weather by looking at the leaves, or at the animals’ behaviour. They know which plants are edible and which aren’t. When someone dies, the entire village comes to the funeral.”
The project may have begun in Emilio’s living room but the images of rolling, snowy hilltops, vast, forested landscapes and misty pathways are also interspersed with portraits of a number other individuals living on the hilltop. Among them are Father Bartolo, who visits once a week to say mass on Saturday, and teenage brothers Davide and Simone, who study down in the valley and fight their goats against those of neighbouring farms in their spare time.
Emilio, 85 years old. He spent all his life in Chamois. He never saw the sea.
Last year Minolfi moved to Chamois with her partner and dog, partly for her love of the place and partly to fully immerse herself in the environment and tell the story properly. “Chamois is a precious place that gives time and space between its mountains and woods, and is devoid of superstructures; where the relationship between people is based on an honest exchange of aid, collaboration and company – values that in big cities have become superfluous,” says Minolfi.
“Here, everyone knows each other by name and has a pure and genuine attitude. Chamois is an ethereal and remote place where there are few needs. It is a place that, although far away and isolated, can create many more connections than many other realities. It is a place that can teach so much.” This article was first published in the November issue of BJP, available via
From the series The man who never saw the sea © Nola Minolfi
From the series The man who never saw the sea © Nola Minolfi
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy