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Vincenzo Pietropaolo: Italian-Canadian Photographer Turns His Lens on Injustice

Born in Calabria, Pietropaolo taps into his immigrant origins to tell the stories of his homeland, his people, and social inequality everywhere

Vincenzo Pietropaolo

Vincenzo Pietropaolo sorting through his many photographs. Photo: ©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

“I wanted to show two things with my camera: the things that had to be appreciated, and the things that had to be corrected. Photography reveals beauty and truth. And truth sometimes is not very pleasant. I learned about the power of the camera when I was trying to take pictures in a garment factory on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. Because the owners were afraid that the camera could witness and record something that wasn’t right—like unsafe working conditions-- they made it almost impossible for me. If I had not become a photographer I would have been a human rights lawyer.”

Who hasn’t heard the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words? But a thousand words for what purpose? I wonder, to what extent does the photograph have the power to bring about social change or justice?  When the picture of the drowned Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi was published, donations to a Syrian refugee fund run by the Swedish Red Cross rose 100-fold.

Why is photography so powerful in telling a story and swaying human emotions?  This is the question that Vincenzo Pietropaolo, an Italian-Canadian social documentary photographer and writer, has been exploring throughout his professional life. Indeed, we could say from childhood, since even as a young immigrant from Calabria he was already using the lens to explore the experiences of his fellow immigrants and to take glimpses into worlds that were not his. His work has focused on the immigrant experience, working-class culture, and social justice issues. Vincenzo has not limited himself to the photograph to tell his stories; he has published a dozen art and photography books. He is also prolific as a photographic bookmaker, combining photographs with his own original writing. Pietropaolo’s photographs have been the subject of gallery shows, and have won awards, including the Cesar E. Chavez Black Eagle Award.

In this conversation, Vincenzo tells us more about the power of the photograph, his passion for issues, and the commitment to bringing change to society.


Maierato, Calabria. Photo: ©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

Tell us a little about your background, your connection to Italy, and how you ended up in Canada.

“I was born in Italy – a small town called Maierato, in Calabria. I came to Canada when I was 8 years old with my entire family, and we settled in Toronto.  Two years later, my mother, my sister, and I, along with one of my brothers, returned to Italy. My father was unemployed, and the reasoning was that it was a lot more economic for him and my brother to share a room as opposed to paying rent for a full flat for the family.

New York seen from Staten Island. Photo: ©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

Returning to Italy as a child to the home village, was very formative for me. I no longer spoke Italian but English (though I did speak the Calabrese dialect), and had to learn to adapt to their “strange” ways. I was from a big city going into a small rural town. We stayed two and a half years in Italy, and then returned to Canada, in 1963. So, I crossed the ocean in a ship three times. But now I no longer spoke English, and had to re-learn the “strange” ways of North Americans.

As a child in Italy, I saw many people leaving for “America”. And that made a big impression on me. The goodbyes were emotionally wrenching, because you were saying goodbye forever. Many years later I realized that my interest in immigration is rooted in that experience.”

Have you been back in your home town? Taken photos? For personal or professional purposes?

“I have returned to my home town many times. And I always take pictures. My camera is an extension of my body. Photography is about life, all moments in a day, and you never know when a good picture might be happening. So, it’s important to be ready.

My first trip after emigration was very emotional. There is something about the place where you were born that is endlessly fascinating. I fell in love with the ancient olive trees, “alberi secolari” we say in Italian – and I started to photograph them. That spawned a love of trees that resulted in photography projects about ancient trees. Whenever I fly back, as soon as I see the silver sheen of the olive trees, I get goose bumps.  Really, I do.”

Where Angels Come to Earth. Photo: ©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

What are some of your recent photographic projects?

“In the past few years I photographed religious processions and the piazzas of my town and nearby towns. Some of these pictures were included in my recent book, Where Angels Come to Earth: An Evocation of the Italian Piazza, which I did in collaboration with Mark Frutkin. I thought: if I am going to make a book about Italy and I am going to put some small towns, why not my town? It may not look that unique to me because I am so used to it, but it’s pretty amazing actually when you look at it objectively.

And then I thought of one of my favorite photographers, Paul Strand, who worked with Cesare Zavattini the filmmaker in the 1950s to make a book about a town in Italy. After searching and searching for the “right” town, Zavattini had an amazing idea: why not my own town, he said?  And that’s what happened. The book is called Un Paese: Portrait of an Italian Village, and it has been very important to me as a photographer.”

How did you discover photography and how did it become your primary form of expression?

“I discovered photography in high school, when I joined the camera club. I was rather shy and reserved, and I discovered that through the camera I was able to express myself – record things, look at things in a different way because you had to create compositions within the frame. I was captivated, and especially when I saw the first pictures being developed.

Construction workers in Toronto. Photo: ©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

It was like sheer magic. I realized that the camera was a tool for witnessing life around you. I learned about the power of the camera when I was trying to take pictures in a garment factory on Spadina Avenue in Toronto. Because the owners were afraid that the camera could witness and record something that wasn’t right–like unsafe working conditions– they made it almost impossible for me. And on the high rise buildings on Toronto’s waterfront, where I photographed Italian construction workers, who pretty much built the post-war Toronto. ”

What do you recall as your first important project?

“I read photo magazines voraciously, and I started to photograph my family, my grandmother in particular, who had joined us in Canada since no one else from the family was left in Italy.  My first series was called A Portrait of Nanna, which is how we called her in dialect. It was an extended portrait of 14 photographs. The last one was when she died, which sounds morbid, but it was quite traditional to do a death portrait.”

Portrait of “Nanna”. Photo: ©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

Are there any photographers that have particularly inspired you?

“Paul Strand whom I mentioned already, and Eugene Smith, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The magazines were full of their work. That’s how you saw photographs in those days–the 1970s–because there were very few art galleries that showed photographs. Then one day when I had already been photographing the Italian immigrant community in my neighborhood – Little Italy –I came across the name of Lewis Hine and his photographs of immigrants at Ellis Island in the early 1900s. I was quite taken by his work, and the more I learned about him the more important he became to me. Something that he said became my mantra: ‘I wanted to show two things with my camera: the things that had to be appreciated; and the things that had to be corrected’.

Well, that pretty well summed it all up for me. Photography reveals beauty and truth. And truth sometimes is not very pleasant. Lewis Hine used his photographs to create awareness for social change, especially his photographs of child labor which helped to convince the US Congress to pass legislation regulating (not abolishing, mind you!) child labor. After I ‘met’ Lewis Hine, so to speak, I began to consciously identify as a social documentary photographer. And my interest in immigration deepened.”

Your photos frequently come accompanied by words. Are words necessary to complement the image to achieve full expression?

“At its essence, the photograph is an objective representation of the reality in front of the camera. But that means that the photograph is also out of context, for the reality that it just captured is only a small part of the reality or realities that the camera itself is also part of.  When something is out of context, it can become ambiguous. Just show the same photograph to different persons, and each will give it their own interpretation.  When you add words, the photograph is anchored towards a certain kind of interpretation.  The words, by themselves, without the photograph, can be equally ambiguous, or empty of meaning.  But when you combine words and images, you create a far more powerful statement than either medium could on its own.  In my book Invisible No More, which is about people with intellectual disabilities, I combined photographs and stories (not with), and likened them to two threads that intertwine, as if telling the story two different perspectives. But in so doing, the combination becomes a third way of telling the story.”

Good Friday procession in Little Italy. Photo:©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

You work both in color and black and white. How and why do you decide whether you’ll take a photo in color or B&W?

“It’s like playing two different instruments. They both make music, but they sound so different from each other. Black and White forces you to compose a picture where the gestures, the action, or the moment captured are the essence. It is more abstract because you are reducing reality to blacks, whites, and grays. Whereas in color photography,  color is the principal mode of expression, whether  it’s the patina of the entire picture, certain exceptionally strong colors, patterns. How do I choose one over the other? I don’t really know, except that it’s not a rational decision, but an emotional decision each time.”

What led to your particular interest in narrating the stories of immigrants through photography? Is it because you yourself are an immigrant?

“Yes. That was the impetus originally. I am an immigrant.  But I am also a citizen, and because of immigration, I am a citizen of more than one country: Canada and Italy. To be an immigrant is to have been born elsewhere, and at first that means that you are an outsider in the new country; you are living in an in-between world; but later, the cards are reversed, and as an immigrant-citizen you have access to two worlds, two cultures, two languages. My immigrant experience formed the basis of my first major work, Not Paved With Gold Italian-Canadian Immigrants in the 1970s. It’s very much a personal book about my own search for identity as an immigrant.

“Not Paved with Gold”. Photo: ©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

Immigration has always been a fraught issue. When the picture of the drowned Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi was published, donations to a Syrian refugee fund run by the Swedish Red Cross rose 100-fold. Why is photography so powerful in telling a story and swaying human emotions?  

“Photography is powerful because it is visceral. You react to it instantly, even when you’ve barely seen the picture from the corner of your eye. We know that the camera records objectively–that is, as an instrument, it is purely objective in recording the reality in front of it–and therefore we believe it.  A photograph is the result of science. A drawing or a painting is the result of the human hand. Of course! A photograph, for all its objectivity, can be easily manipulated in the way it is shown to us: front page or middle of the newspaper; subliminally on social media; size; angle; color or B&W. I could go on, these are all elements in a visual language that we haven’t learned very well yet, and we therefore let ourselves be manipulated by the people /organizations who disseminate photos – like news media, institutions, political parties, and so on. The image of the drowned Syrian boy will live on as a symbol of our times through history, just like other iconic images have established themselves in little niches in our brains; the girl running naked her body scorched by napalm in Vietnam, for example.”

Can photography play a decisive role in bringing about social justice? Peace?

“It has been shown that photographs have often played significant role in increasing social awareness in people, which can then be useful in bringing social justice. The Viet Nam war was a prime example of that. Photographs of dead American soldiers returning ‘home’ in a casket helped to sway public opinion against the war. In reaction, during the Iraqi war, the US president ordered a ban on news coverage of coffins of American soldiers killed in that war. The list goes on.

“Harvest Pilgrims”. Photo: ©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

My own photographs of migrant farmworkers from Mexico and the Caribbean helped to put these exploited people on the agenda, at least. They were an invisible work force, and when I started exhibiting and publishing them in the 1990s, (Harvest Pilgrims, Mexican and Caribbean Migrant Farm Workers in Canada), Canadians asked incredulously in which country I had taken the photographs. Most people had absolutely no idea that Canada imports temporary workers to grow the food that we eat.

When dealing with social issues, is it a matter of capturing the “soul” of the subject or something else?

“Capturing the “soul” means being able to convey a sense of the person’s humanity to others, and you can’t do that unless they trust you. But that’s just the first step. The other part is that you are telling a story about a particular social issue, and so you have to narrate’ visually what the problem is, who the characters are, what is at stake. The photographer is a storyteller. And often the story is about a social issue is usually a story about social injustice.”

Has Covid-19 impacted your work in any way?

“Yes, absolutely. Since I photograph people, at the beginning of the pandemic, that was a real problem because the streets were bereft of people. So, I photographed the empty streets, and the shuttered stores. I didn’t photograph the essential –which is the people who were infected and who died, because there was no access to the long-term retirement homes where the problem was most acute.

Seeing the baby in time of Covid-19. Photo: ©Vincenzo Pietropaolo.

The problem for me has been how to convey the depth of human suffering of families who lost loved ones to the pandemic if there is no access. My first grandchild, was born a few days after Toronto went into a lockdown. At first, we could see her only through the window of my daughter’s home. I couldn’t photograph her, except through the window. And of course, I couldn’t hold her. It’s a metaphor for the pandemic.”

What projects are you currently working on?

“I’m putting the final touches on a book called Toronto in Photographs: Fifty Years of People, to be published in spring 2021. It’s about street photography during the past 50 years – which is to say from the time that I first picked up a camera and consciously started documenting the city that I had just immigrated to.  The book is a visual and written commentary on events and social issues that I witnessed and photographed through the decades: immigrants and ethnicity, social protest, police relations, racism, homelessness, Indigenous struggles, LGBTQ,+ movements, and celebrations; the collective losses and gains through the years. I love cities, and have photographed extensively in places like Havana, Lisbon, New York, Rome and Mexico. And Toronto, just like New York was in the 20th century, is the quintessential city of immigrants.”

Last question: if you had not become a photographer, what would you have liked to be?

“A human rights lawyer. This is a very noble profession. Devoting your life to fight for social justice.”

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