A group of young women, reflected in glass (© Rossena Petcova)

Matera: A city of beautiful change

56 photographers, 28 countries, three months of photography, research and experimentation, resulting in thousands of images that explore the nature of Matera and Basilicata. But why?

The ups and downs of Sassi di Matera

There is no doubt that the city of Matera in southern Italy is breathtakingly beautiful, filled with fascinating architecture, churches and delicious food and drink. However, this exciting and bustling city, rich with history has undergone something of a journey to reach today’s prestige and find itself on the ‘must visit’ list of European travellers, attracted by its stunning (and Instagrammable) natural cave dwellings, resident artisans and boutique hotels. In fact, Matera has undergone a complete transformation.

As recently as the 1950s, the ancient town of ‘Sassi di Matera’ was considered an area of extreme deprivation, and its ancient cave dwellings (which have since earned the city Unesco World Heritage status for being one of the first human settlements in Italy), were cramped, unsanitary, squalid and a risk to health, to the extent that the generations of families who lived there were relocated for their own safety. Subsequently, the caves were left abandoned and the town empty until a concerted period of work began to breathe new life into the area. Today the families of Sassi di Matera may have long departed, but the history and culture of the region has not, and in 1993, the city bid for, and won, the position of European Capital of Culture for 2019. It is this extraordinary renaissance that represents an opportunity to document the real Matera and the story of its people, past, present and future.

This was the challenge presented to the participants of ‘Visions from Europe’, a three-month artistic residency where photography students from 28 countries, mentored by professors from the top photography schools in Europe, explored the city and created a body of work that explores Matera in the context of one of five key themes:

Ancient Futures: the relationship with nature and landscape

Continuity and Disruptions: a story of ingenuity and resilience

Utopias and Dystopias: radical new models which challenge assumptions

Roots and Routes: the possibilities of mobility

Reflections and Connections: art, science and cultural citizenship as catalysts for a new model in Europe

Each armed with a Canon EOS RP, the students had an opportunity to delve deep under the skin of Matera, it’s people, places, history and future and create a place of debate for the people of the city and those drawn to it. Organisers from Matera European Photography and Matera Diffusa describe the outcome as “an original and contemporary vision of Matera and Basilicata.”

An older, shawled woman stands on a cobbled street, holding a photograph in a frame.
“Matera reminds me of my hometown of Bethlehem, the architecture is very similar. People are very friendly and very kind, so I have the same feeling. It’s a very nice, small town. I think it’s essential to stick to the original narrative of the people and allow them to use me as their platform.” (© Samar Hazboun)
An older woman wearing with short blonde curly hair and large blue sunglasses and a blue biker-style jacket stands on the street in front of a group of young people in a doorway.
“I heard that there is currently no one living in Sassi. It’s just hotels, craft shops, things like that. So, for tourists. Which actually is like an open-air museum. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s beautiful to walk in the little streets, but to see real Italian life you should go elsewhere, I think.” (© Nick Hannes)
A young person with dyed green, grey and blue hair, wearing a green t-shirt and checked kilt.
“Matera is a very important city because it’s one of the oldest cities in Europe. My role is to show the themes that are fascinating, inspiring or touching and show them to the public who may see them in a different way.” (© Anne Spelzt)
A woman in a red dress, shawl and veil, stands by railings, overlooking mountains.
“The millennial history of Matera can teach how all culture is made from different inputs throughout history. I think Europe can learn a lot from what Matera is experiencing and what it has achieved. I’m interested in the relation between bodies and space and how people gathering has effects on cities and landscapes.” (© Michele Spatari)
A black and white image of three men in lycra, standing in front of the buildings of Sassi di Matera.
“Matera gives me the impression of a city that’s searching for its own future. On one hand it has this history, on the other hand it’s located in a kind of underdeveloped region in Italy.” (© Dirk Gebhardt)
A barren black and white landscape, with a large rock in the foreground.
“It’s a very enjoyable city with lots of ancient architecture. In Latvia we don’t have such things.”(© Ernestas Tatlauskas)

The Palazzo Viceconte was a most appropriate location to host the photographer’s exploratory works before they were donated to the archives of the city. Situated at the very top of Matera, it encompasses views across the city, while its subterranean gallery makes a simple, reflective statement that suits the nature of the project perfectly. Under the sensitive curation of Francis Kohn (Lecturer on Photography and Journalism, former President of Photography at AFP) and Cosmo Laera (Professor of Photography at the Academy of Arts of Brera and Artistic Director of the Matera European Photography organization), the exhibition sets out to be a ‘photographic tribute’ to a city that has seen so much change and has much to share with the world.

The curators meticulously planned out the exhibition, mapping out a virtual exhibition before filling the walls with the photographers’ works.

Alessandro Stanzani, Canon Europe’s Executive Vice President of Information Technology Communication Group feels a sense of great privilege in being able to support ‘Visions from Europe’, describing it as “an exhibition of inestimable value, intercepting talents and creativity through the entire Europe,” and sums up the experience as “an exquisite catalyst of creativity.”

Find out more and see the full gallery from the project at Matera European Photography.

Written by Paolo Tedeschi

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