In December 2009 and January 2010 I held a self-portrait workshop at San Camillo, a community for people who are terminally ill with AIDS. Having survived my own drug-dependency unharmed, and having lost most of my friends to AIDS without having seen them die, working in such a community meant I could give back my good luck, confronting the scary disease and maybe learning something about terminal illnesses and death.
The experience literally turned me inside out, which is what I was looking for: this is one of those positively shattering experiences I’ve always got into since I was in my teens. Already during my presentation, the inmates continued to interrupt me with the sort of uncomfortable questions I really appreciated. Educators said that they had never heard them talk like that…! They were all ex-drug addicts.
When I told them about my own dependency with heroin, and that I didn’t take any more drugs since 1981, one asked me “Are you sure you will never take drugs again?” I answered “Yes.” The same one replied “How can you be so sure? I didn’t take heroin for 17 years and then I did…”.
He was right. Who knows what the future will bring? We cannot be sure of anything. If misery falls upon me, if I become very ill or in deep inner pain, I could decide to take drugs to relieve the pain. Nevertheless, I don’t think I will, because I am not willing to escape anymore. I want to live through the pain and suffering to come, or, the joy and the beauty, with my heart and mind well awake, and able to understand the world and my fellow humans.
A whole day and a half of individual self-portrait sessions followed, and sixteen patients and educators participated. Some accepted to lie down on the floor, climbing down from their wheelchairs or being hoisted down by a weird machine I had never seen before. Others decided to stand.
I had an image in my mind I wanted to accomplish. I had just come back from London where an important curator had advised me not to mention that the collaborative self-portraits of HIGHER SELF were produced for therapeutic purposes, because “art must exist for its own sake”. This made me feel that I had to be more extreme, to protest against this bourgeois idea of art: if the art world rejected the therapeutic purpose it meant that my work was uncomfortable, so I had to scream even louder. The existing separation between art and therapy is intolerable. Art and therapy are two faces of the same coin, if we’re talking about the best art and the best therapy.
I imagined a desperate cry, a terrifying or terrified scream. An image which made people uneasy, because it represented THE primordial cry of the suffering human being. The cry for all the dead, the suffering, the tortured, the sick. We have grown too used to see images of pain in their context, so a de-contextualized image of suffering can be unbearable. So I added something to my instructions, I asked them, as usual to choose between RAGE, DESPAIR and TERROR, but performing a silent scream, stretching out their faces into a Greek mask, and letting all their emotions go out their mouths.
And Salvatore, from Pompeii came and produced that image. He happened to be born in the same year and month as me, and many other coincidences with my own life. I was deeply moved by the whole sequence he took. I didn’t manage to understand it fully. It looked hermetic… but I could see a very sick and thin man expressing a huge charisma and strength. He seemed to be performing a shamanic ritual: the solemn expression on his face, his sophisticated gestures in other photographs. I kept looking at the pictures, at our chosen picture, then at him, astonished and so moved to see my inner image becoming real, I broke down and cried. He broke down too, so we hugged. It was one of those few encounters in life. He was like my alter ego: he went through the same steps as me, but with a completely different outcome.
I kept talking to Salvatore regularly for about two months. I wanted to understand what it means to be so close to death. His attitude and rebellious behaviour reminded me a lot of my own, so he was the perfect Virgil who could get me into the inferno. He was always in conflict with everyone in the community, he said “Rage and hatred keep me alive”, and I knew exactly what he meant. I asked him to write his life story.
Salvatore was born in a poor family in Pompeii. His father had to migrate north to Milan to find a job and the whole family followed in an endless journey on a train in winter. He was seven then, dressed in his Sunday suit with short trousers and his best shoes. When he stepped out of the train, there was snow all over so he slipped to the ground. He could recall the gloomy atmosphere in Milan's suburbs, the lack of joy in people's faces and his family's isolation, compared to the warmth of the enlarged community in his hometown.
He wanted to study history and literature, but his parents could not afford it, so he started working at 14. Soon he started to try drugs, like most of the teenagers in the area, and never stopped since then. Nevertheless he never ceased to read Homer's epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, again and again, and identified completely with Achilles, his personal hero.
Salvatore agreed with me on the choice of the best work. He wanted to cry out his extreme rage and pain to the world and was very happy to have his self-portrait published as widely as possible. Salvatore deeply understood my project and could easily see the epic, the greatness in everyone of us. It’s never too late…
Rosario is on a wheelchair and cannot speak, but his gaze, his expression is so moving, he doesn't need to say anything. His eyes seem to express extreme sadness but also empathy for others and sweetness. He decided, with a gesture, he wanted to photograph himself lying down. Educators helped him get from his wheelchair to the floor and take off his shirt. His tattooed chest revealed another life and a handsome southern man. One of his arms was paralysed with a tightly closed fist, making him look like a warrior with a sword in the photographs, which he loved...
While looking at the images, I proposed a closer shot, because I loved the expression in his face, and he agreed. We was also very happy to have his photograph published as widely as possible, probably to convey his “message” to a wide audience.
Giorgio was a peasant, son of a peasant. He was the one who asked me uncomfortable questions during my presentation and interrupted me all the time. He didn't want to take off his shirt, so I proposed a headshot. Technically I couldn't manage to frame only his face, the shirt was in the picture and I was visibly disappointed because of that. He looked at me as if saying “you didn't get it, I took a great photograph!” That evening, back home, I reframed his self-portrait really close, and suddenly understood he was right and I was wrong. He looked like a Greek God, the King of all Gods, Zeus...
He had his eyes closed in the whole series he shot, with a slight grin of satisfaction, as if he was rehearsing death, and feeling it was not too bad. I was awed by his wisdom.
Salvatore and Giorgio used to share the same room, but quarrelled all the time. Giorgio said Salvatore was unbearable and disrespectful, and Salvatore said Giorgio was always breaking his balls. During the group work we did on the images, in which each of them worked on the other's photographs, they invented beautiful stories making the other a true hero. Since then, their relationship changed completely and they became close friends.
The educators and me were a bit concerned about the group work at the beginning, since relationships were difficult between them, but we decided to let them work on each others photographs and invent stories on the pictures, and the result was amazing. Kings and queens, epic heroes, soldiers, lovers and free spirits were the characters they invented, going through dramatic and sometimes hilariously comic situations.
During the whole workshop and months later I continued to think about my own relationship to these people. At the beginning I saw myself as really lucky, thinking I’ve managed to survive and they haven’t. I felt somewhat guilty –why me?-, because I knew my family had more resources than most of theirs. I thought I had made it and they hadn’t. But maybe they’ve made it too… We tend to see sufferers as victims, but probably this was the life and death experience they were looking for, which doesn’t mean they won’t suffer from it. I’m not judging or blaming, I’m trying to see the positive side of their lives: each one of us is a speaker for humanity, so that others see what man can become, and learn from it. Our mission as spectators is very important, to make their courageous act useful: to feel their emotions as we feel ours, to listen to our own reactions to their despair, to find in ourselves even the physicality of their situation, to mirror ourselves in them so that we don’t need to literally go through their experience to learn from it. It’s like training to become really Humans…