The Italian-born photographer documents subcultures and subjects from all over the world in his work, here he tells us why the underground scene is his greatest influence and inspiration
With an array of documentary projects varying from fetish meetings in Miami to the earthquake in Haiti, New York based-Italian born photographer Alessandro Zuek Simonetti has amassed a body of work that portrays his keen interest in documenting niche cultures and subjects. Introduced to photography as a teen through a family friend who shot for the local newspaper in his hometown, he began to document many of the underground scenes and movements to which he was affiliated including, graffiti, skaters punk and squats; these heavily influenced his approach and informed the distinctive photographic language of his work today – raw yet carefully composed.
Despite coming from a photo journalistic background, his method and style of shooting is often from a fine art perspective; with a specific creative vision and outcome as opposed to a mere visual account of the event(s) taking place. Renowned for gritty and intense yet distinctively stylised photographs, which are often shot in black and white, one of Simonetti's main aims is to create timeless images, with the underlying philosophy of finding beauty in the unfamiliar.
Dazed Digital: You moved from a small town in Italy to New York where you have been living and working for six years now. How do you think the city has supported your growth as a photographer?
Alessandro Zuek Simonetti: I grew up in a small town with 50,000 people. For some reason [my town] Bassano del Grappa was really open in terms of getting influence from outside but Italy as a whole is still a really complex place with restricted views and I cannot imagine myself living there now. My ex girlfriend from NYC came to visit my hometown once and at some point while we were in the main square she was like, "where are the Asians?! Where are the black people?!" I love the diversity and culture in New York.
I cannot really stand places where everybody looks the same anymore...or where people wear red jeans! NY is a tough place to live and work but I don’t get the same energized vibe anywhere else. I think my time spent here truly corresponds with a phase of my life where I am becoming more conscious of myself as an artist and as a man.
DD: During the early 90s you began graffiti writing, how did that particular street culture influence your ideology and the work you produce now?
Alessandro Zuek Simonetti: When I got into graffiti at the age of 16 I didn’t know that much about it and my approach was kind of naive. Over the years my friends and I developed an awareness that was rare for Italian kids. We were into niche cultures such as Punk, HC and hip-hop. All these scenes were on the extreme left side of politics in the early 90s. I was a part of the second generation in Italy that was responsive to the graffiti scene. You really had to build yourself from zero at that point in both a technical and cultural way; it was when the DIY philosophy still made sense. We were trying to find our own style - also in the way we were dressed.
At high school the small group of kids that were into that scene stood out from the rest - at that time if I saw someone with Puma’s on his feet it meant he was into hip hop...for sure! I believe that [being a part of] these particular underground scenes allowed me to develop a really singular, artistic language.
DD: Which particular project from your early work would you say is the one where you really established your personal photographic language?
Alessandro Zuek Simonetti: Probably the documentary I shot in Miami about the underground fetish meetings. That was probably the first project where I sat and thought about what I was going to document and how I was going to do it. I planned a sort of map I wanted to follow in order to avoid an easy and cliché way to tell a story about fetishism - even though I had no idea of what I was going to see there. I think that method of planning before hand helps to build a solid content and aesthetic.
DD: You are labelled a “photojournalist” but your photos often take on a more artistic appearance, how did that develop?
Alessandro Zuek Simonetti: As you mentioned, my photos have photo journalistic roots. I like to document real life – like people in their own social environment. I have a growing desire to go beyond purely documenting what is happening in front of me. A few months ago, a Brooklyn based artist wrote to me after he saw a few shots I had taken of his work saying, "Your shots are nice but they have a bit of a dark feeling, bordering on violence and that’s not really what my work is about."
I read that quote and I felt so happy; it was like a personal confirmation that I surpassed the boundaries of being mere documentary photographer, like I had the ability to create my own personal vision of reality - crafting something that wasn’t even recognisable by the artist himself. This is what I try to do with all my photos; create distinct and iconic images.
DD: What do you think your most iconic image has been this far?
Alessandro Zuek Simonetti: So far, I think the image of the pigeon flying in the Chinatown sky in Manhattan is the most iconic image I’ve shot. Even if shots of birds, along with dogs and guns are probably a subject overlooked in the history of photography; a few weeks ago I met this skater from Oslo and he was like, "I've got to show you something!” he rolled up his shirt sleeve and showed me his fresh tattoo. That pigeon…
DD: What projects/collaborations are you looking forward to launching next?
Alessandro Zuek Simonetti: I’m working on two pieces for a project based in Italy, I’m about to print a new publication with the photos I shot in Jamaica in January as well as working on the second edition of the publication “Small Kings”, another project I shot in Jamaica with my partner in crime Anicee Gaddis - a journalist based in New York. I’m in the process of putting together a show with my friend Cheryl Dunn at Patricia Armocida Gallery in Milan and working on an Exhibition based on the concept of printing - working with a risograph machine at the Tank studio in Venice.
Text by Zeyna Sy