Ferdinando Scianna, A Photographic Homecoming In Sicily

From portraits of world famous authors to pulsating religious rites in his hometown, Sicilian photographer Ferdinando Scianna has an expansive body of work. A major retrospective is on display now in two locations in Palermo.

Locals in Scianna's hometown of Bagheria (Ferdinando Scianna)
Locals in Scianna's hometown of Bagheria (Ferdinando Scianna)
Manuela Gandini

PALERMO - The straight line that leads from the sea to the central heart of Palermo is called Corso Vittorio Emanuele. And right now, along this picturesque avenue full of shops of souvenirs and miniature saints, rows of banners flutter in the air to celebrate the Sicilian photography master Ferdinando Scianna.

The photographer is back on his native island with a double exhibition, "Ferdinando Scianna e la Sicilia, da Porta a Porta", curated by Doretta and Laura Landino. Some 70 images of Sicily are displayed inside two spaces, the Loggiato San Bartolomeo and the Oratorio S.S. Elena e Costantino, at the opposite ends of the sprawling avenue, at Porta Nuova and Porta Felice (two of the thirteen doors of the ancient fortified wall).

We spoke with Scianna, 68, who is as well known as a chronicler of everyday Sicilian life, as he is as a globetrotting photojournalist for the Magnum agency.

"I think that mine is a permeable photography. It needs to be enhanced, accompanied by all the mental, ritual, literary, philosophical or existential experiences that can nourish it."

The best Scianna images offer an anthropological narration that reaches the depth of the human soul: you see it on those grainy images, both large and small black and white photographs, of the religious celebrations of his hometown of Bagheria.It is a pulsating river of humanity, compact and fearful, tender and superstitious, that parades down the narrow streets of the city.

"Moments that I like to remember are those, unfortunately all too rare, in which, perhaps beneath my home, the reality seemed to miraculously coalesce so that I could grasp a unique and meaningful moment."

A rising humanity

This is how reality, through his lens, becomes poetry. His photos show ancestral atmospheres, such as the solitary volcanic lava that brushes and burns the land. The motionless world of rituals comes to life in a context that emerges from the rubble of war to discover the existence of cinema. It is the great story of a rural, poor, violent, uneducated and sublime humanity that rises to its feet.

That beloved epic has also been told by legendary Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, who in 1963 visited the first exhibition of the young Scianna. The author was so enthusiastic about the photographs that he left Scianna a note of congratulations.

A deep friendship was born between the two artists; and later, the author would write the text for Scianna's first book, Feste religiose in Sicilia, that was awarded the Nadar prize.

Scianna moved to Milan in 1966, where he began to work as a photojournalist and special correspondent for the weekly magazine l'Europeo. "I learned how to do the job thanks to all the criticism my work received," the photographer recalled. "The most frequent comment to the first pictures was, ‘What is this shit?""

For l'Europeo, he would travel everywhere from the musical festival in San Remo to Bangladesh for the epic floods. In the mid 1970s, the editor sent him to Paris, where he met legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and would become the first Italian photographer to ever join the Magnum agency.

For Scianna, photography is like writing with light. "It is both the world and you doing the writing," he says. His work is a place without hierarchies: an image that is reportage, artwork, advertisement. It may be the picture of misery, a garment worn by the top model Marpessa or the illuminated blindness in the portrait of Jorge Luis Borges. It can be dry land, sea, space, or the face of Martin Scorsese holding the picture of his mother in the woods. In these two exhibitions, Scianna tells about the blood ties between men, of the visceral and dramatic relationship between them, their land and God.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

Ferdinando Scianna - Palermo - Loggiato San Bartolomeo and Oratorio S.S. Elena e Costantino - until January 22.

Photo - Ferdinando Scianna

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!