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Andrea Spiga, the Photographer Who Immortalizes Centenarians

An interview with the young Sardinian photographer who renders immortal subjects of one hundred years or more with her high-quality shots

Photograph by Andrea Spiga.

Her project, Dna100, immortalizes subjects of one hundred years or more along with their diverse stories, all of which share one common denominator: that of having blown out one hundred candles. The life of these people, who Spiga has evocatively placed in the foreground of her photographs or with their hands entwined with rosary beads, has a sweet and sour flavor at the same time

Translated by Alyssa Erspamer

She is an artist, but she is also a passionate researcher of this phenomenon, and thus not satisfied with merely taking pictures of it – each of her works, rather, is an in-depth study, as in this series where she went to meet each subject in person, entering into their homes as more than a photographer, going beyond the formal structure of traditional interviews and investigating their personal lives, consecrating them in photographs which seem to be paintings that speak.

In this way the project Dna100 was born, a project which immortalizes subjects of one hundred years or more along with their diverse stories, all of which share one common denominator: that of having blown out one hundred candles. The life of these people, who Spiga has evocatively placed in the foreground of her photographs or with their hands entwined with rosary beads, has a sweet and sour flavor at the same time. 

Andrea Spiga.

I look at the photographs and I see faces and eyes that tell stories from a century ago, hands deformed by arthritis which still carry the signs of ancient professions fallen out of use. They are strong men and women like the granite that frames their land, they are flexible like the reeds in the wind from Grazia Deledda’s Sardinian novel which bend but never cede: they are the elderly centenarians which proudly stand for Sardinia’s name in the world.

The symbolic image of Spiga’s exhibitions is a photographic portrait she took of a 12-year-old girl, granddaughter of a centenarian, who represents the union between the past and present as the bearer of this particular gene, that of longevity. Spiga’s first retrospective at the Olbia Costa Smeralda Airport in Sardinia launched a series of engagements which will see her become the protagonist of this photographic experiment that is taking her all over the world.

Her photographs are rigorously in black and white as if to bring out the signs of time as it relentlessly marches forwards, but without easing certain traits of the hardened faces marked by the passing years. “The eldest centenarian is from Orotelli, 107 years old and a life spent between the fields and his family. Now he cultivates his passion: writing poetry in Sardinian. He likes being photographed, he knows that he will be passed onto history.”

Her shots are perfect, they are photographs out of time that speak, that tell stories, that are sometimes moving, and that provoke the imagination, all of them accompanied by beautiful poetic captions written by her collaborator, Doctor Barbara Morittu (“Put your hand here in mine, I want to tell you a story, like my mom did when I was a little girl. The fire crackled, my hand was safe between hers… How much time has passed, and yet I still remember her voice.”)

The term blue zone was originally coined in Sardinia by two scholars, Gianni Pes and Michel Poulen, and it seeks to identify the areas of the world with the highest concentrations of centenarians: in addition to Sardinia, Okinawa in Japan, Ikaria in Greece, the community of Loma Linda in California, and Nicoya in Costa Rica.

An interesting point: the countries that form part of the blue zone could capitalize on this “brand” of theirs by exporting related products to other countries.

In a few countries around the world, including the United States where everything rotates around the idea of “wellness”, there have been attempts to adopt a healthier alimentary regime so as to improve quality of life and life expectancy, to the point that there now exist aisles inside numerous specialized shops where it is possible to find food from so-called “blue zones.”

Initially, it was thought that the isolation of Sardinia insofar as it is an island was the determining factor in the genetic modification that produced such longevity, but, exploring further, it was discovered that this factor contributed only 20% to the issue. After interviewing numerous centenarians, the researchers themselves understood that “the social factor”, or the fact of being part of a community as active participants, was surely a determining element in their longevity as, in addition to general well-being, it maintained these individuals at a “high” psychological level.

In which provinces are we most likely to find these centenarians?
“In Sardinia the highest concentrations of centenarians are found in the provinces of Ogliastra, Trexenta, Barbagia, and Medio Campidano; obviously, the concentration is higher in certain areas than others, but we can safely say that the whole of Sardinia experiences this phenomenon.”

You were able to not only photograph, but also interview them: what do you believe are the determining factors of this incredibly longevity?
“They have always lived in small communities where everyone supports each other like a large family; they have travelled hundreds of kilometers on foot as they come from towns that historically have been poorly connected to an efficient railway network and, additionally, the use of cars was a luxury conceded to few. There are also many other determining factors, but, certainly in addition to a healthy diet and a physically active lifestyle, the fact of being surrounded by the warmth of a family and thus feeling important and at the center of a social life has contributed to their well-being. In addition to this, the religious aspect must not be undermined, as it is fundamental for them.”

I imagine that living in small realities in comparison to large metropoles or even small cities amplifies affective relationships and intensely reduces stress levels. What impressions did you have regarding their daily life in these micro communities?
“Let’s just say that there are definitely differences and they are noticeable! I’ll give you an example: the classic relationship between neighbors, often rather cold and detached even if cordial, in these places takes, on the contrary, the form of a constructive relationship placing elderly individuals in daily contact with people from all age brackets, which replenishes their energy and sharpens their intellect. The elderly individuals of the community are seen as sources of wisdom that transmit values and hand down traditions, and thus a resource for the entire community – they are conscious and proud of this fact.”

I cannot help asking you this question… and as far as their diet goes? An interesting question that everyone will want to know the answer to, I assume.
“It has very low levels of contamination, it is rich of foods with antioxidants and includes very little meat, which is anyways rigorously sourced from their pastures or raised locally, and many of their vegetables, fruits, legumes, and even cereals are grown locally in their gardens.”

“Another thing,” Andrea notes, “none of them mention death, as though they do not contemplate it during their time alive, as though they now believe to be immortal. This thing astounds me… but I sense that if you want to continue making plans for the future, you must absolutely avoid dwelling on death.”

How do they face the day?
“They certainly do not lack optimism! There are those who still knit, those who love reading, those who love going on walks and even biking – it may seem strange but it is so. Some still bring their flock to graze.”

Spiga tells me stories of extremely lucid men and women, with a strong memory, proud of their land, of their lives not devoid of pain as all lives are, and ready to keep contributing to their community. They are the guardians of a century that has seen immense progress in almost every field, but also war and famine; they have worked in the fields with their bare hands since they were children; they have learned to live with little; they have reconstructed a starved and destroyed country after the war and contributed to giving us our greatest gift, democracy. They have made history – they are history itself.

In memory of Paolo Racugno (Cagliari 1917-2018). To his memorable career in sports, as an illustrious lawyer, excellent equestrian, and extraordinary man.

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