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IMMIGRANTS IN FLORENCE

by Keith Barber

There is one photograph in the exhibit La Vita Che Viviamo (The Life We Live), that captures Endia Beal’s talent for building trust between herself and her subjects.

Beal, a Winston-Salem native, studied photography at the Studio Art Center International in Florence, Italy after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill last year. Beal’s exhibition is currently on display at White Space Gallery in Winston-Salem through Saturday. The photographs document the seven months Beal spent with Senegalese immigrants in the city known as the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance. The photograph entitled “Hands” says everything about her ability to form a bond with her subjects as well as her virtuosity as a photographer. An extreme close-up of Beal’s hand clasping the hand of an immigrant, the photo simultaneously evokes feelings of compassion and connectedness to people living on the margins of society. “Hands [are] a very intimate way of touching. Hands tell a story. I really wanted to reflect that intimacy in this photo, from just taking portraits to being able to touch,” Beal said. “Hands” also reflects a breakthrough in Endia’s relationship with the Senegalese immigrants. For three months, she spent time on the streets and back alleys of Florence with the immigrant street vendors who sell designer goods for the Cosa Nostra, otherwise known as the Italian Mafia. Beal did not carry her camera during that time to get to know the African immigrants that come to Italy looking to escape the hardships in their homeland. When Beal finally started taking pictures, she found her subjects were natural in their environment. “I wanted to create something deeper than the sitter and the photographer, something that would transcend those levels because sometimes you can see photographs and you can tell that there was a photographer — there was someone taking a portrait,” she said. Beal has some experience depicting a side of society most people would rather not see. “I did a documentary of the Crips and the Bloods in Durham — that was the basis of me starting a documentary of places that I saw beauty in but that were dark,” Beal said. But by bringing those in the shadows out into the light, Beal hopes to raise awareness of social injustice not just abroad but at home, too. Beal drew parallels between the racism and discrimination the Senegalese face in Italy to the way illegal immigrants are often treated in America. In Italy, Beal, an African-American, experienced discrimination up close. “I felt the racism toward them,” she said. “People would stare at us like we had done something to them — you feel so many things. You feel sorry because there’s nothing you can do. As an artist, I felt like the one thing I could do was get this story out.” Through personal research, Beal discovered a recent surge of discrimination and racism directed toward immigrants in Italy. She attributed the growing tension to a marked increase in immigrants coming ashore in the country and a declining Italian population. However, unlike Latinos in the US, the Senegalese have no method of recourse against injustice and discrimination in Florence, Beal said. The portrait entitled “Gili” has a special sentimental value to Beal. The diptych, or two-piece photograph, depicts the first Senegalese immigrant who first allowed Beal inside the world that most visitors to the birthplace of the Renaissance would overlook. Over the course of seven months, Beal and Gili developed their own way of communicating, a personal language that incorporated elements of French, English and Italian. Beal said she hopes the photograph creates a mood in the audience that matches Gili’s feelings of sadness and longing for his homeland. In another photo, Beal used soft focus on three immigrants listening to hip-hop music on headphones while walking down one of the narrow alleys of Florence. Two police pass in the frame, and Beal gives the viewer the sensation of motion. Beal said her first priority during the project was to be an observer and to never give her subjects instructions on how to pose. In “Solo,” Beal captures an immigrant named Radouan enjoying a moment of contemplation. The natural feeling of the photo gives the viewer a sense they are tapping into a special world without any filter. Beal is committed to completing the story of the Senegalese immigrants by going back to the country where their journey began. The talented 24-yearold is researching funding to take a trip to Senegal and document the conditions that led the immigrants to flee to a foreign country. “I feel like the story isn’t completed,” she said. “This is the end of the story, but it would be interesting to go to Senegal and photograph the beginning.”

Endia Beal stands beside her photo entitled “Solo” as part of herexhibit, La Vita Che Viviamo (The Life We Live) at the White SpaceGallery in Winston-Salem. The exhibit, which runs through Saturday,documents the seven months Beal spent with Senegalese immigrants livingin Florence, Italy. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

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