The threat of an aggressive disease ravaging the olive trees in Italy is documented in Caimi | Piccinni’s new book

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All images from Fastidiosa © Jean-Marc Caimi & Valentina Piccinni, courtesy Overlapse

Blending a variety of photographic techniques, the duo draw on the power of photography to tell a story of a heritage at risk of eradication

In 2013, the first outbreak of the plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa was detected in Puglia, southern Italy. Native to the Americas, the aggressive bacterium raged through farmlands causing various diseases, including olive quick decline syndrome. It has infected and killed hundreds of thousands of olive trees, some over 100 years old. Land once rich with olive harvest is now haunted with the skeletons of dead tree silhouettes. The Italian heel, as the Puglia region is nicknamed, is responsible for some 40 per cent of Italy’s olive oil production, and supplies around 12 per cent of the world’s. Yet as infections persist and containment has been slow, the disease has continued to spread and is slowly crippling the economy and the families behind it.

Not long after the outbreak was detected in 2013, Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni travelled to Puglia. Piccinni is originally from the region, which was partly why the photographic duo, also known as Caimi | Piccinni, became interested in the story. That, and the suspicion that the reports they were watching and reading were sorely underrepresenting the complexity of the situation and the experience of the farmers directly affected by the epidemic. 

Rocco, 80, a farmer from Acquarica in Salento has his olive groves attacked by the xylella disease. He is desperate, as he lives only on the income from olive oil and his small pension of 500€. He said he wishes to die before all his trees do. 6 001

“We wanted the materiality of what we were doing to be exactly like the farmers’ land and soil […] like a ritual, as [the farmers] were doing with the land.” 

Caimi | Piccinni began by speaking to those farmers. “People are always at the centre of our stories. We start from there,” says Caimi. They spent time in the countryside – in the village of Gemini, where the first outbreak was detected – and interviewed and photographed the families who have cultivated and cared for the land over many generations. Not only did their livelihoods depend on the olive trees, but their entire existence was deeply intertwined with the nature and climate that surrounded them. While there, Caimi and Piccinni were hosted in an oil mill. They set up a darkroom and began developing the film they were shooting on the spot. “We wanted the materiality of what we were doing to be exactly like the farmers’ land and soil,” Caimi explains. “We wanted to make it like a ritual, as [the farmers] were doing with the land.” The duo leaned into the challenges of developing film in the heat and dust of the Italian summer. “We wanted all of this to go into the pictures.”

A family of land owners in the early years of 1900. A "bad luck" person was cut out from the picture, probably imputed to a poor olive harvest year.

As the threat of the bacteria unfurled and travelled north, so did Caimi | Piccinni’s investigation. They spent time in the agronomic research institute in Bari, learning about the science and analysis of the bacteria’s behaviour and movement along the land. The images they shot here are more clinical, well-lit and precise. Some zoom in to the geometric compositions of cells and molecules of plant samples using a microscopic camera, resulting in images of dynamic patterns one can hardly believe were created by organic forms. “We decided to renounce and give up on a monolithic visual approach,” the duo explain. “Why should we put our vision in front of a documentation that requires different tools? [In other projects] we also use our digital cameras, so why shouldn’t we use all the tools necessary to convey the story as precisely as possible.” As the duo continued the research, they continued to respond to the subject when it came to choosing how to photograph it. At times, they renounced their cameras completely, and made use of archive imagery to denote the agricultural and cultural heritage attached to centuries of olive oil farming. 

Together, these storylines form a new book, Fastidiosa, published by Overlapse. From the moment you hold the photobook in your hands, feeling its thickness and weight and thumbing through the various textured papers, you sense that the narrative ahead will be intricate and visually stimulating. Held together with Swiss binding and a fold-out cover, the immersive experience considers the images not only for their documentary function, but their storytelling potential.

“We wanted to use the material not just in a didactic and narrative approach, but also to use the images for their power to evoke and bring the reader into the story. To leave space for the imagination, to raise questions, to put the reader in some kind of enigma of doubt.” The didactic approach was “useless” they say, preferring to tease out “the energy that is hidden inside the picture”.

Specially prepared shoots of spontaneous olive xylella resilient trees are grafted into multi centenary dying trees. This experiment, run by agronomist Giovanni Melcarne is part of a larger project to find solutions to the xylella pest. According to his theory, the xylella bacteria is blocking the xilematic vessels of the branches but on a lesser extent the main tree body. Trees die by suffocation in absence of green leaves. Implanting xylella resilient new sprouts, there's a chance of saving the whole tree.

The book also speaks to a wider issue. It warns that the gravity of the Xylella fastidiosa epidemic is symbolic of a natural environment weakened by climate change and human neglect and greed, in Italy and the rest of the world. The use of pesticides and chemicals has weakened the trees’ natural immune systems, for example, making them more susceptible to diseases they might have previously been able to fight. “It sounds obvious, but we tend to forget that this is a crucial aspect of our lives,” says Caimi. 

Though the crisis is far from over – the disease has also been detected in France, Spain and Portugal – the photographers felt the project was finished. The textured pages are heavy with angst and trauma, but conclude with a sense of hope. In recent years, local agronomists have conducted extensive research into genetically engineered olive trees that are immune to Xylella fastidiosa. However, creating a globalised olive ‘super tree’ eradicates the nuances of that special, local Italian biodiversity. It may not be the ultimate solution, but it is a sign of progress. “It ends where the new story starts,” says Caimi of the book. “And there is optimism.”

Fastidiosa is published by Overlapse and is available now

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.