I needed the ocean
I was in need of rebirth. Being born, in itself, is never enough for anyone, says Franco Arminio.
So I decided to play the game by revealing the shadows that had darkened a considerable part of my life: shame and embarrassment, resulting in erythrophobia, that is to say, the fear of blushing.
It is difficult to open your heart and reveal your innermost self to strangers, but the responsibility I felt in bringing these issues to light gave me the necessary courage.
Responsibility stems from a striving to understand what these issues represent and how closely they are related to the context we live in and how the latter feeds off them. The two opposite poles are in fact the individual and society, in which these feelings are rooted and pull invisible strings.
Above all, there is an empathetic responsibility towards the people who happen to be involved in this invisible warfare, well concealed between a school bench, a business dinner, behind a desk, a chance meeting on the metro or a phone call.
Very often, we are not even aware of our loss of freedom, even when the evidence is staring us in the face, let alone when lurking behind the scenario of our everyday existence.
These wars, these invisible prisons, leave the victims with a feeling that something is wrong, without having the possibility to extrapolate any understandable justification from the context, since the context is the world as we know it. Any sensation that might diverge from our cohesive existence in what we have accepted as normal, ends up being perceived as a cause of distress, a problem or a defect.
I have no interest in writing an essay on shame and rationality because I am neither a psychologist nor a philosopher, neither a sociologist nor an anthropologist. What I would like to do, however, is to make a brief diversion of intellectual speculation to contextualize the enormity of the question.
Individual and society
Shame and embarrassment are feelings which shape people’s behaviour within the framework of rules and ritualistic gestures of the community they live in. Any actions violating these rules clash with the external authority which, on attributing blame and condemnation, generates disapproval in others. Blushing is the sign that exposes one’s guilt to others, thus generating the oppressive meaning of “losing face” and the consequential desire to disappear from sight.
Authority may also be interiorized in the concept of conscience, and identified with the reason of a rational person. Man is the measure of all things and philosophical rationality becomes the ultimate sign of approval. To violate the internal authority is tantamount to contesting philosophy, and therefore entering into conflict with reason and rationalization.
The sense of guilt and social claustrophobia deriving from shame result in humiliation for the person who transgresses before the judging public (whether external or internal). Humiliation is the ultimate deterrent to rule breaking.
Authority ensures conformism thanks to people’s reaction to shame and embarrassment, which may therefore be defined as primary regulators of socialization, in as much as they go hand in hand with the contextual culture. Embarrassment is a sort of yellow card, indicating a breach of a rational or social rule; it is short-lived and restricted to the specific situation (it may also have a positive implication, such as embarrassment stemming from modesty). Shame, on the other hand, is moralizing and represents a dismissal; it is long-lasting and has a negative impact on personal integrity.
At this point a paradox emerges: these same controlling mechanisms start to go against society. If the person who has been ‘dismissed’ does not give way to sadness and depression, their humiliation will lead to resentment, jealousy, envy and the desire for vengeance.
In such a dynamic, lie the germs of how low man can descend: brutality towards humanity, in which a person is consumed by the sole desire to destroy society, or brutality towards themselves, when a person falls victim to the demons of inner anguish.
It must also be underlined that today’s authority has changed: no longer does it take the well-defined shape of tangible institutions (family, school, state, banks, companies etc.) but is now represented by the more subtle and indefinable market concept, meant as a productive, globalized, algorithmic and robotized system.
The obsessive strive for economic success and personal achievement is the real morality of our times. Lack of success leads to a feeling of guilt, personal failure, exclusion and invisibility.
Authority is becoming more fluid, free to move between internal and external spheres. The chains of power are concealed in the illusion of freedom, in which we are all free to reach success and personal achievement, on condition that it is economic. We are authorized to feel legitimized as we take part in this race, albeit labouring under unbearable burdens which deform the very nature of life itself.
Whoever looks elsewhere is an outsider, a loser, a burden for society, a walking corpse. Today, power seeks legitimization through the imagination: reality is not for living in, but for transforming competitively, as you produce and consume. Consume to produce.
Is this freedom? So long as we believe in it, yes.
Body of work genesis
For some years now, I have been reflecting on how to use photography to address the issues associated with shame but, for a number of reasons, I never managed to align my actions with my ideas. I have been in touch with psychologists and various other operators who, having expressed interest in the project, have tried to find a way of presenting me to their patients. What actually happened, though, was that the reporting and documentary approach towards people suffering from erythrophobia paralyzed me completely. To ask those who suffer from this pathology to be photographed, possibly during a crisis, is tantamount to asking them to experience a short circuit and an assault. An assault that is an end in itself, given the impossibility for photography to document anything as complex as this.
Even the conceptual approaches to the subject, which emerged with the operators, had the effect of paralyzing me, in this case, owing to their banality; the last thing I wanted to do was to present this topic in the form of a series of clichés.
I was at a loss with regard to solving the problem. I felt totally useless as a photographer and so the most obvious thing happened: I let it drop.
I was a fan of the Clash when I was of the right age to assimilate them and, as I see it, everything is a question of life or death; so, not only did I abandon the project itself, but I also gave up photography.
My separation from the camera led me to study other subjects and destiny would have it that I found a precious gift at the bottom of those new research projects: photography.
I adore circles.
Having found new eyes and encouraged by new encounters, it was only natural for me to approach the topics I had left unresolved.
The paradox of the camera lens I couldn’t come to terms with, that of putting a person who suffers in front of the camera in the uncomfortable position of being observed, was simply resolved by the awareness that my own perspective could speak on their behalf.
Mine was the perspective of an erythrophobic, the psychologists’ patient, a sick person.
What’s more, the camera came into my life as a mask for holding in front of my face while I observed the world. Photography offered a response to those vibrations. Photography was my way of taking a peek at the world, dictated by embarrassment and shame, it was a sort of sticking plaster covering a wound.
This work is based on a personal life experience: the aberration of embarrassment and shame that have become a phobia, in situations in which this mechanism should not normally be triggered. A mechanism which, according to psychology, may rightly be defined as a pathology and social phobia: in other words, erythrophobia.
What reassures me is that this distress is mine alone. I am therefore exonerated from the task – impossible for photography as I have already explained – to provide a sensationalistic description or narration of somebody else’s sufferings.
The study I am engaged in has therefore become the journey of a flawed perspective which observes the world from behind a camera, nothing more than this.
Hence the conception of a retrospective work on the photographs I have put together down through the years, ever since I started taking shots up to the present day. The connective thread of the photographs is their nature: all of the selected photographs have shot themselves. None of them were done on commission, as part of photographic sessions or for any particular reason. They are all photographs which have felt the need to exist, without any ulterior motive.
I reveal the space of my peculiar sense of unease, with the awareness of having filtered the entire world that has passed in front of me. For this reason, I thought I could find the key to handling shame in the photographs I had taken: in their oblivious existence lies all the awareness required for a good photographic narration.
I so love paradoxes, which always take the shape of a circle.
The photographic work project is determined by chance, destined to become the revelation of the topic being addressed.
I like to think of the camera as a torch attempting to throw light on the shadows that envelop me. With this work, I have put my trust in that glow, offering it the chance to live the dream of any light: to illuminate.
I seek a vision within a space, which contains the unease I felt and which has provided the backdrop to part of my life.
I have therefore decided to stop reciting the unintentional script and to ring up the curtain. I turn off the spotlights and go backstage, looking for the answers that are still concealed.
Ambiguous answers, of course. There are so many things I fail to understand, things I don’t know, that it would only be presumptuous and conceited to even imagine finding definitive answers. Just as it would be presumptuous to claim I could take intelligible photographs. We are already saturated with figures who, squalling from our touch-screens and inflated with their own certainty, want to clarify our ideas and teach us how to live in this world, like actors on a stage.
However, those who like fresh air need to leave the theatre.
What is the colour of the wind? I have made peace with the ambiguity of photography. It is only thanks to the ambiguity it generates that I continue to take shots. To increase my uncertainties and realise I know less and less. The fresh air of the wind is all it takes.
As always, the crucial point consists in having to decide whether to follow your own intuition or the rational paradigm dictated by society. This also applies to the use of images. The nature of photography is such that it cannot explain the depicted subject. Whoever attempts to do so, forces rationality on photography; if we consider photography to be no more than a mechanical device, then we perceive it as a mere representation of a narrow world, imprisoned within the bounds of individuality and social constraint. How can we possibly aspire to describe the world by means of its photographic reduction? It’s a blind alley.
Photography is a connection which, thanks to the energy that drives us, aligns us with something much bigger. I feel the need to stress the fact that this is not a process that leads to a self-referential attitude. Quite the opposite. This is the world and its driving force, a flow that chooses the forms in which to express itself. I am perfectly content to act as a vehicle.
The great force of photography lies in its bond with our nocturnal side, with the unconscious part of archetypes. In the darkness, things are constantly evolving and never still. As Tony Miroballo says in his research into photography as the archetypal expression of human language, photographs are a vehicle for carrying messages that go beyond the intentions of those who create them. There is such a thing as a language that existed before mankind and photography is one way of deciphering it.
Images become symbolic when generated by something we have within: they go beyond the objective reality of what is portrayed. By ‘we’, I mean both the creator and spectator of the image. For the ancient Greeks, the word symbol meant one half: the function of the symbol is to join two separate halves.
This retrospective work has led me to identify, to my utter amazement, seven archetypal symbols associated with shame which emerged from the photographs as I selected them.
Skin is a frontier element between oneself and others. Owing to its sensitivity, it reacts to internal and external stimuli; skin represents the balance between inside and out. The fear of blushing has torn that frontier apart, opening up a crack of vulnerability. My freedom has been violated and I feel imprisoned in something where I can only react, without being able to act.
The sensation of drowning in social claustrophobia is the consequence. The camera comes into play right here and measures my distance from the world.
Like a mask enabling me to live as an integral part of the present and of society, through role playing. The mask provides shelter from powerful archetypal affections and allows for an indirect relationship with emotions, which could overwhelm me if they were experienced directly “face to face”. It is in fact the lack of a mask that leads to total vulnerability: losing face is equivalent to dying. Hence the need to cover up and protect it.
The eye of others, that of authority, triggers blushing under the strain of a look that can detect weaknesses, revealing the real me and my vulnerability.
The hand contains the ambivalence of the destructive side of authority, which judges and punishes (with a slap) and the side that comes to my aid and covers my face when feeling ashamed.
The chair is a sign of power: the person in authority sits on the throne and the divine protection it embodies gives him the divine right. My phobia actually began at school: I associate the chair with the acceptance of one’s allotted place in life and the fear of subjection deriving from the teacher’s desk (cattedra in Italian: in fact, words pronounced “ex cathedra” means pronounced from the throne).
Finally, the wound reveals vulnerability, by becoming the symbol of the laceration required to identify an internal part in pain, to transform it and project it outwards towards its regeneration. In fact, it is through a crack that light comes in.
My task as a photographer is not to recount the world, but to look beyond it, by using photography to question the way in which we see it.
Today, I believe there is an urgent need to change the paradigm with regard to the direction the world should take, photography included. One of the priorities is that of conceiving a new way of looking at things, a new perspective.
My personal wish to everyone is to probe the darker sides, each one of us with our own torch, in search of humanity.
Evil does not have to be destroyed, but it needs to be transformed into good.
Translation by Ann Grigg.
Body of work link: https://www.smnriva.com/i-needed-the-ocean#1
Reference texts and authors
Zygmunt Bauman – Modernità liquida
Agnes Heller – Il potere della vergogna
Tony Miroballo – Fotografia esoterica
Paolo Mottana – Associazione culturale IRIS
Erica Francesca Poli – Anatomia della coscienza quantica
Taschen – Il libro dei simboli, riflessioni sulle immagini archetipe