“I grew up with my parents’ stories about L’Aquila and they were the most prevalent image I had of the place for years. The stories of their everyday life, their excursions to the Gran Sasso mountain, the places they would meet, the meals they had with the family of their friends. All this had already made L’Aquila a familiar place”. With these words Stefania Orfanidou, a young architect and photographer from Greece, introduces her peculiar relationship with the earthquake-ravaged territories, where she has situated her photographic project, Pendulum.
It is through photography that she revisits in her memory and reconstructs the city devastated by the natural disaster. This is how she defines that special connection she has as an architect making photographs with a “land of fictitious roots”, as she perceives and describes L’Aquila. She was working on a project entitled Cold Turkey, concerning symptoms of deprival in rehabilitation from substance dependence. During her time there, she realized that a new body of work focused on L’Aquila was perhaps taking shape, starting from a pile of photographic material that could not be ignored. Returning to Athens, Stefania contacted the photographer, Nikos Markou, the first person to assess the material, who also contributed to the very first editing. “It took me two more years before I decided to put a book together and self-publish a limited edition of it in Greece. So I had full control on the printing process”, explains the artist.
But why L’Aquila? Because the beauty of that remarkable historical Italian city is connected with the story of her parents’ lives. They met there while studying at university university, and stayed on for some years before returning to Greece. So L’Aquila is an important place in almost all of Stefania’s childhood stories, and the reason that when in 2009 she learned about the earthquake in L’Aquila and its suburbs, that she refused to look at any kind of image regarding its destruction. Finally, in 2015, she went there on her own to work on the reconstruction of the city. It was not Stefania’s first time in L’Aquila, when she came to spend a whole year there, not as a visitor or tourist, and it was to bring about something catalytic in her relationship with the territory.
“The post-seismic terrain though had dramatically altered life in the heart of the city centre”, observes the artist. The sense of being in a ghost town collided with her pleasant memories and was quite traumatic. Photography was the medium for healing the split giving her a means to accept and refamiliarize herself with the new condition of the city.
She considers her photographic work to be a reflection of hope: going from point zero when the earthquake struck until some time in the future when reconstruction will be complete.
It is not by chance that in most of Pendulum’s photos, structures that recall ancient temples appear, the Acropolis and other typical classical details. A house full of historical books and a country surrounded by archeological sites, contributed to Stefania’s deep interest in architecture and her vision of history and art. The reuse of materials from older temples, walls and structures to build new ones, or the construction of new buildings on the same sites as older ones, designates the imprint of the passage of time and cultural and historical continuity. “In L’Aquila the work of the architect was ‘proclaimed’ almost a sacred act”, said the artist in the interview.
A word about architecture and photography. Stefania recognizes in her professional life that her work as an architect allows her at the same time to perceive the urban and natural landscape in both a detailed and detached way. From this perspective, photography is like the words on a piece of blank paper, constructing a new landscape. When studying to be an architect photography became an easy and accessible way to depict thoughts and notes in a visual way. “The focus on details, the images that worked more as a social comment, my own reflection gazing back at me from plate glass windows, became not only my new ‘notebook’, but also the source for a different kind of personal narrative that also embraced social issues”, concludes Stefania. Photography put her on the path towards experimentation and creativity. Her favourite poet is Mario Benedetti (Gracias por el fuego) and Italo Calvino, with his rich imagination and his polymorphic narration, along with the film director Alain Resnais are without a doubt part of Stefania’s cultural background and sources of her artistic inspiration.
Written by Costanza Francesconi
Images © Stefania Orfanidou