Roberto’s portfolio holds fantastic portraits of people from the tribes from all over the world. From Cambodia and Indonesia to Sweden and Germany, Roberto’s skill to capture stunning mimics of people’s faces will leave you breathless.
In order to understand the story behind these photos better, we asked him a few questions…
When we take a look at your gallery, there are so many different faces looking at us in the same fashion. Is there really any difference between emotions of someone from India and Sweden you manage to capture?
Emotions are usually pretty the same (happiness, sadness, loneliness, anger, astonishment, etc…) but how frequently do you encounter those is different from country to country. In my experience, it is easier to catch happiness in Indo-China for example, rather than in Europe (with all due respect to Europe). I guess it could be due to the culture, religion and habits of the subjects. To take a picture to someone living in the Western world could be often interpreted as an invasion of privacy while in the Eastern world most of the people like to be photographed and consider it a funny game. Moreover, it is not so uncommon to meet people asking to take a picture together with you!
How many photos do you take before you can say – “Yep, this is the one”?
I always feel quite emotional when taking portrait photographs, and worry that I won’t capture exactly what I would like the photograph to portray. Because of that, I take an average of three to five photos, which can vary depending on the situation, aiming to perfectly capture their features. Sometimes an opportunity happens for few seconds before it fades away and you have to be ready to catch it as fast and better as possible. That is mostly the case of street photography.
What really caught our eye are photos of Dani warriors. Having in mind that this tribe was discovered in 1938 (from an airplane) but it wasn’t until 1961. when they were caught on film for the first time. What is your story about this tribe and photographing them?
That’s true, those photos have been taken in Papua, the Western part of the island shared with New Guinea and belonging to Indonesia. In particular, they have been taken through many villages along the Baliem Valley. During more than one month travel across Indonesia, I spent almost two weeks trekking along the Baliem Valley from one village to another in order to discover interesting and real slices of Dani tribes life and culture. I was travelling alone and as a backpacker. Before starting the trek I filled my backpack with sugar and cigarettes. I traded these products for a place to rest in a hut of the village and fire to boil the water to drink. Other than sugar and cigarettes, I also brought with me some coloured balloons. I prefer not to give either money or candy to children because I consider candy dangerous for their oral health. I usually give children pens and crayons but Dani children cannot write and they don’t have any paper to draw. So I thought that balloons could work in that case. I preferred to trek without any local guide in order to be able to approach Dani people as spontaneously as possible. The Dani people are generally very shy, however, they’re extremely curious. When I first arrived at their village, I was amazed by the way that they communicate – they often walk hand in hand with you and hold onto your shoulder.
Although the women are very reserved, the children are the complete opposite – they’re full of energy and eager to learn about the western world. Every time I entered a new village, children were the first to notice me. As everywhere around the world, after few seconds of shy and curiosity, it turned into a big party. At least, until the elder of the village appeared to me. All the children became quiet and respectfully intimidated, stopping their laughs until I finished introducing myself to the chief by the usual never-ending handshake and glance exchange. Because of my mentality, moments that impress me are often “true”, natural and simple events. I remember, for example, when I met a Dani elderly compelling man collecting leaves to use as tobacco while I was trekking. We interacted together using only hands and smiles. He offered me his leaves. I thanked giving him sugar and cigarettes. It was a moment of great intensity and energy. I will never forget his smiling eyes and our farewell handshake. Simple moments that truly are worth an entire life. I’m still feeling shiver now while writing…
Wow. That really is touching and amazing. Such cultural diversity.
According to that, is there a difference between taking a photo of a child from a tribe and children elsewhere? By this I mean how do you approach them and how do they react to being photographed?
The greatest difference would be their reactions. Dani children were so astonished and curious at the same time about my camera and my activity. Since tribes living in the remote areas of the valley could meet less than few dozen of tourists per year, I guess that for some of the younger children it could be one of the first times they’ve seen a camera. Their feelings and reactions are well shown in some of my photos. But as every other child all around the world, after few minutes it was nothing but playfulness and joy.
What’s the weirdest situation you found yourself while photographing?
The weirdest situation I found myself while photographing is concerning to my travel to Malaysia and in particular while I was trekking through a jungle of Sabah, one of Borneo’s region. I was so concentrating on taking a picture to a strange complex of trees that I didn’t notice a big male orangutan camouflaged right few meters away from me! I noticed it only thanks to the noise it made when uprooting and ate branches around it. It was a huge exemplary! I could not believe my eyes and for a moment, I was stuck between fear and wonder.
Is there any specific portrait that is your favorite?
There isn’t a specific portrait I ever favorited but for sure there are some portraits I prefer with respect to others. Usually, I have a favorite couple of portraits for each travel. Behind every single picture, I can remember a little story, feelings, situations and in my opinion that aspect makes me prefer one shot to another. Because of that, it is pretty common that portraits I prefer are not liked in the same way by other people and vice versa.
Now a bit about technical stuff. What is your favorite gear setup?
My gear is a good tradeoff between quality and size/weight. This issue is very important when travelling. When I take portrait picture I like to use a standard lens. In my gear it corresponds to an NIKKOR AF-S 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5G IF ED VR. This lens allows to me to shot natural images but it requires me to move a lot in order to find the best point of view. My camera is a NIKON D600.
What would be your advice to photographers when approaching people to take their portraits?
I usually spend a lot of time walking along the streets and among people. I like to think that I don’t choose the subject or the moment, but they are catching my attention. Anyway, the choice of places and time are very important for the quality of the final result. I usually prefer the early or late hours of the day, when shadows aren’t so marked and most of the places are seldom overcrowded. Furthermore, the choice of the lens is very useful to obtain the desired results.
Is there any particular part of the world you plan to visit next that you find interesting for your photography?
The first countries of my wishlist are Myanmar, Namibia, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan.
Is there any specific method you use to capture these fantastic facial expressions? Like, do you ask them to look at you at certain fashion, or do you just wait for the perfect moment?
Photography reminds me that the simplest things in life are also the most important ones. I really hope my photographs reflect this philosophy. As far as possible, I prefer spontaneous and natural expressions of my subjects. In most of the cases, I approach the subject with a smile. In my experience it’s the best international “business card” you can show to someone. A couple of words exchanged before to snap the picture complete the work. They’re always so amused, and often share stories of their lives with me – which is amazing. Once the picture has been shot I usually like to share it by showing to subject the image on the camera. In most of the cases, it makes the people amused and proud of the result and, on my side I gain a new friend!
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