The Land of Holes exposes environmental exploitation and injustice quietly ravaging the community of Brescia.
Over the past century, Brescia, situated at the foot of the Alps in northern Italy, has prospered. In a country often plagued by recession and financial crisis, the province and its city have experienced exceptional economic development thanks to the engineering and mining sectors, who carved gravel and sand quarries into the area for decades. Today, industry has shifted, but Brescia continues to thrive from the holes that still mark the region’s ground. “This is a rich, economically thriving area,” explains Italian photojournalist Mattia Marzorati, “but there is trouble under the surface.”
Growing up in a nearby province, Marzorati spent years taking photographs abroad until his father was diagnosed with cancer. He returned to focus on caring for his dad, with the aim of starting a project closer to home. As the photographer began to research, he quickly became aware of Brescia’s corruption, only an hour’s drive away from where he lived, hidden in plain sight. Marzorati set to work and the result is his ongoing series, The Land of Holes. “This story is important to me because in the past three years, I lost my uncle and my father to cancer, and also my grandmother of other causes. There are a lot of environmental scandals in Italy,” he says, “but Brescia is by far the worst.”
The decision to allow these huge quarries to be filled with toxic waste and uncontrolled production by big business and the mafia – secretly sanctioned by the government – has had disastrous consequences, inflicting harm on Brescia’s land and people. “The mafia saw money in the waste business, more profitable and less dangerous than dealing drugs,” Marzorati describes. “Foreign companies and waste from outside were invited into Brescia, radioactive waste from former Soviet Union countries was imported alongside other materials from Eastern Europe, this is not difficult to find.”
The area reflects the contradictions created by an unsustainable, self-destructive and entrenched economic system, its province paying the ultimate price. As a result, the Brescia area boasts the highest incidence of cancers compared to the rest of the country, hosts one of the largest incinerators in Europe, and has become the biggest radioactive site in Italy, with the widest and worst contamination of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) ever recorded in the world.
The Land of Holes holds up a mirror to the region, reflecting the horrors occurring on a daily basis in Brescia’s municipality. “The land is poisonous, fields and rivers are contaminated, there are ‘non-walkable’ parks, and children at many schools are forbidden to play on the grass,” Marzorati explains. “As you drive through Brescia, you see hills covered by grass, but if you look closer you can see they are not natural. This is where the waste is, there are landfills everywhere.” He adds: “You can’t really understand what is happening unless you fly over the land. The images that really shocked me were my aerial shots. From the highway, the land is so flat, you can notice something but not see it in perspective, when you go up you have a complete idea of what really is happening.”
“The industries keep the economy afloat so they don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to lose their jobs, and that’s it. It’s the main difficulty environmentalists face, to convince people this is a dangerous situation affecting them. As they bury their heads, it’s effectively killing them.”
Marzorati documents a myriad stories, both invisible and impossible to ignore, investigating the human consequences of a significant yet mostly concealed environmental change, with the resulting images being intimate and unnerving. After a lifetime as a breeder and farmer, Pierino Antonioli saw his cows seized and killed because their milk was poisoned due to PCBs. Waste is hidden under asphalt, asbestos deposited in flower beds, and land seized as radioactive sites for profit. Stefania and dozens of other women like her receive free beauty treatments while struggling against cancer. “Cancer is so common this happens in many salons in the area, the high rate of cancer has become normalised,” Marzorati explains.
There are tales of hope too. Wearing a yellow jersey emblazoned with messages, Carmine Piccolo runs around the area in memory of his wife, who died of leukaemia in 2014, and to raise awareness about environmental destruction. The activist group Flying Mothers fly over landfills to realise where their children are actually growing up, and the Stop Poison committee brings together voices in the community to pressurise the government.
But the environmental activists trying to fight these policies face stark opposition from institutions and the indifference of most of their fellow citizens, poorly informed and mainly concerned about maintaining their economic wellbeing. “They pretend not to see,” Marzorati explains. “The industries keep the economy afloat so they don’t want to think about it. They don’t want to lose their jobs, and that’s it. It’s the main difficulty environmentalists face, to convince people this is a dangerous situation affecting them. As they bury their heads, it’s effectively killing them.”
“Maybe my work can make people stop and think, but it needs to reach those who are not interested in these issues to really make a difference.”
For Brescia, and for Marzorati, the fight goes on. “Maybe my work can make people stop and think, but it needs to reach those who are not interested in these issues to really make a difference,” he says. “I hope people become more active after seeing my photographs. I want to return to tell more of Brescia’s stories, and keep my focus on the relationship between the environment and society; it’s quite clear this is the most important issue of our time.”
Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London.
She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.