Caimi & Piccinni

Rome, Italy

Jean-Marc Caimi and Valentina Piccinni collaborate since 2013 for documentary and personal photography projects. They focus on contemporary subjects, with a particular attention on the human aspects of each story. Their works are regularly featured in the press and media worldwide: The Guardian, Die Zeit, Politico, Le Monde, L’Espresso, Internazionale, Wired, GQ, Newsweek, The Sunday Times and many others.

They are recipients of several awards such as the 2021 Planches Contact, the ISPA Award for best photo story, The Sistema Festival “Reset” Award, the 2020 PHmuseum Of Humanity Grant in the solo show category, the 2019 Sony World Photography Award in the category “Discovery”, the 2018 Istanbul Photo Book Award, the 2016 Gomma Grant for best B&W documentary work. They are exhibited throughout Europe and Asia in galleries and festivals, such as the Biennale Für Aktuelle Fotografie, Delhi Photo Festival, Lumix Festival, Fotoleggendo, Phest, Voies Off.

So far they published six books, with “Fastidiosa” (for Overlapse) and “En Présence De L’Absence” (for Éditions Bessard) being the most recent. Books also include the trilogy on cities in transition comprising “Güle Güle” about Istanbul, “Forcella” focused on Naples and “RHOME”, which was shortlisted at PHotoESPANA Best Photobook of the Year 2019. “Güle Güle” received a special mention at Kassel Dummy Book Award 2019 and was finalist at Luma Rencontres Dummy Book Award in Arles and was shortlisted at Arles Author Book Award 2020 and Prix Nadar 2020.

Where are you guys from and where are you based now? Could you tell us a little bit about both?

We are a mixed team. Valentina from Bari, Italy, and Jean-Marc from Paris, France but both have lived in Rome for a long time. Valentina has a degree in Art History and is a former art curator, specializing in photography. Jean-Marc has a background in journalism and photojournalism and worked for many years at a music magazine. We have been collaborating as a team on documentary and personal projects since 2013. 

Stories must be told. Photography is a direct ethical means of conveying an important message and raising awareness. What responsibility does being a photographer entail today? 

This is a huge responsibility, because images have a strong impact on a public increasingly addicted to superficial news that merely confirm a preconception or are sensationalist photographs. Subverting the rule of a quickly consumed image that is exhausted in the space of a glance, could create a short circuit in the audience, triggering a virtuous mechanism of awareness.

Layered images that are not immediately self-explanatory, visually engaging projects with carefully selected multiple elements, as well as a strong connection to the human side of each story and the subjects involved, are all very important aspects of our work. This kind of working method is also essential for ourselves, as it is a crucial way to be deeply involved in the stories we document, while maintaining the most unbiased approach possible. 

Your work has come to transcend collaboration. It has become fusion in a single language. What is it like to create with four hands?

We are a very well-established duo, as we have been working together for 8 years: we have so far produced about 40 stories for magazines and a number of engaging personal projects that have been published as books. We have published six books and the latest one, “Fastidiosa,” about a plant pandemic in southern Italy, has just been released by the British publisher Overlapse.

We started collaborating because we quickly realized we had a similar approach to photography and shared an expressive language, which has been refined over the course of the projects. Our work involves a great deal of research, planning and deciding on a precise visual approach, all of which lead to an organic and coherent team end result. 

Your human approach to the stories you tell is clear, so what is it like to dialogue with the vulnerability that follows? How not to be consumed by the contact and total immersion of burning realities?

Being in close contact with our subject, trying to establish a human relationship, bridging the distances, cultural or social, that are inevitably present, is one of the most important tasks of our documentary work. This shapes the way projects can be photographed, gives us the ability to learn key elements of each story through people’s direct experience, and opens up important opportunities. It is not just a field reporting strategy, but rather a human experience that takes us through a process that we hope will enrich us as people.

This element of human growth is why, even while covering difficult realities, we are able to deal with the psychological impact. Avoiding being just distant witnesses to complex human stories by experiencing them firsthand is a healing element, a starting point for personally and honestly elaborating what we have witnessed. 

Tell us about your experience with war? On the road and at the front. What are your fixed points in the creative process?

We are not war photographers in the strict sense of the word. We are interested in human stories related to extreme conditions, such as war. That’s why our approach in telling war stories does not focus on the battlefield, but rather on what happens “backstage”, which is a highly revealing environment to get a real, in-depth view of the ongoing events. We lived for a while on the front lines of the Donbass war back in 2014, in a Ukrainian military training camp near Donetsk. We did a few different projects there, including one called “War Dreams.”

We asked soldiers going to the firing line to close their eyes for a few minutes and pose for a polaroid portrait. We then asked them to write their thoughts in our journal, where we taped their portrait. To us, what we collected is an important record of what is in a soldier’s mind, his motivations, his fears, his hopes. This goes beyond any bias or position towards the warring parties; it is a straightforward way to trigger reflections and raise awareness of such dramatic issues, stripped of any sensationalism or graphic war pictures. 

What has the pandemic left inside you? And which attitudes do you think a creative person should not abandon nowadays? 

We worked a lot during the pandemic. We made two stories related to that unique moment in human history, one about teenagers in isolation and the other about the Islamic community during the first Ramadan in isolation.

We decided to experiment with an obvious but conceptually new image production tool: the camera on the subjects’ phones or laptops. We accessed the boys’ lives through zooms or similar chats, and they shared with us their daily routines in solitary confinement while we photographed them from a distance.

It was a collaborative way of reporting on their new temporary living condition. A similar exclusive insight occurred as we documented how the Islamic community approached web-only group meetings. Prayers, recitations, and commentaries of the Surahs were being streamed live on social media, from Mecca to Jakarta, from North Jersey to Lagos, with sermons broadcast from the most disparate places: empty mosques, universities, town squares, well-appointed rooms, and completely bare garages.

It was an extraordinary documentary experience. Probably what we should not abandon is the urge for photographic experimentation and curiosity about humanity and the stories we can be taught. 

What are you working on at the moment?

Many things are happening. We just finished a new work on an environmental disaster in one of the most touristy areas in Italy, near Pompeii. We also have to present the book at the summer festivals of Arles and Cortona On The Move. We have an exhibition about the book project in Puglia, where the story was carried out. We will have a busy summer. 

Where can we find you online?

Instagram: @caimipiccinni

Words: Nicole Oike