They tried to dissuade her at the beginning of her career, but she didn't stop. And when they told her “being a photo journalist is a man's job” and that “a woman shouldn't go to certain places”, Betty Colombo went anyway. Now brings us to strange places, to help us discover how prodigious life is
She walked for kilometers in the regional Campo dei Fiori park and had a drone fly over it to see what happens to a forest, something miraculous, after a devastating fire; she went into an experimentation center for cancer research, where mice are venerated and even have “biologist mothers” that take care of them; she observed surgeons perform a lung transplant and stood among a team of forensic doctors to show us human organs are works of art. Her projects, La Riparazione and L’anima del corpo, tell the exceptional ability of humankind, the environment and animals in self-renovating. Moreover, the series brings us to discover the magic hidden inside us, as we often ignore it’s there. An extraordinary world often left unseen.
What do a burnt forest, an operating room and a center for cancer experimentation have in common? The concept of repair brings them together. Sometimes nature can be damaged because of humans or because of internal processes, but if it's true that it can be damaged it's also true that it has the ability to renovate itself, thanks to itself or thanks to humans. And it's exactly the same thing that happens to humans and to animals in the operating room, that's why I put pictures of burnt nature taken after the Campo dei Fiori fire (Varese, editor's note) next to ones of a chest operation, an operation on a cat's femur, reconstructive plastic surgery on a burn victim and those of mice in a center for cancer experimentation. There's humans taking care of animals and animals helping humans save themselves from cancer; nature that regenerates after a fire, the new skin after an intervention and a lung that breathes again after a transplant. Even if every single project can stand on its own I liked the idea of this connection between nature on fire, humans getting burnt and both of them being born anew.
If you look at the forest from above today, it's hard to see what's burnt, there's lots of colors, ferns, branches and masses of leaves. Everything lives again
What would you have never expected from the forest that actually happened? That nature is able to renew itself in a marvellous way and in such a short time: it's been only two years since the fire, and there are ferns two meters tall. Next to the burnt trees there's dozens of new ones. This happened because the seeds that were on the ground flowered thanks to the heat generated from the combustion and just a few weeks after, thanks to this phenomenon, there was lots of low vegetation. If you look at the forest from above, it's hard to tell what's burnt, there's lots of colors, ferns, branches and masses of leaves. Everything lives again.
And what struck you the most in the operating room? I expected a gruesome environment, but instead the mood is relaxed, sometimes romantic, and it's this feeling of peace that I wanted to communicate in the photos. I felt a great security and great faith in the people (the doctors and surgeons of the Lorenzo Rosso team at the Policlinico of Milan and the Davide Melandri team at the Center for Burn Victims in Cesena) and in what I was doing. It's an incredible feeling, when they open the chest you see the pulsing life of a person, you see the lungs inflating and the heart, in the middle, beating. You don't think about the blood. Even more emotional is when the surgeon replaces the sick lung with the healthy one, they need a lot of time to reconnect all the parts and allow the new one to live tied to the body. When it arrives, by helicopter, it's inside a fridge, it's opened and it's full of air, which is the last breath of the person that donated it before dying. Then it's prepared, put into a bowl with ice and then a cut is made at the base of the bronchi and the lung deflates, it's then put in the hole where the other one used to be and it's slowly connected. When the lung inflated and started breathing everybody in the operating room looked at each other and smiled. There was absolute silence, but it was as if they were saying: “Ok, we did it, we gave you something”.
In the operating room I expected a gruesome environment, instead the mood is relaxed, sometimes romantic
They say that nature doesn't do anything by chance, do humans? I remember one time when I was in an orange field in Sicily and I discovered something interesting. The owner had me notice how the grass was covered by three leaf clovers. She told me that they pop up when the oranges become heavy and the branches bend, so they're there to soften the fruits' fall, so they don't bruise. When all the oranges are gathered, suddenly that green blanket, as if magically, disappears.
Why is photography needed? When I was studying in Brera a teacher preached that photography should be able to communicate a whole scene on its own. I, as a photojournalist, do not agree. If you use words to tell the story behind it, the situation changes for who wasn't present and I want people to perceive exactly what it was. For example, in the part dedicated to experiments on animals, the one on test animals in the cancer research center, I can't say where I took the photos to protect the researchers; often people can't make a separation between the animal they have in their home, the ones they eat and the mouse, which can save their life. We have to be more aware of the fact that, for our survival, there are studies that must be carried out, even because in the field of cancer research there is no western country that allows researchers to experiment a drug on humans if it hasn't first been tested on animals. You can't do tests on people that are already ill. For those that imagine mice living in situations that we see in certain photos, I'd like to say that in the lab I visited they even have “mothers”, as the two biologists are called that take care of their well-being. But I'm not bringing an opinion to the exhibition, I'm just showing a fact, a story that each person can interpret freely.
From the documentary work La Riparazione, she moved to an artistic approach with L’anima del corpo, in which organs are immortalised like jewellery and consigned to eternity. How did this choice come about? I fell in love with that incredible perfect machine that keeps us alive during the making of La Riparazione. As I was shooting, I thought I would like to isolate the individual organ, to better understand it and tell its story. So I contacted the San Luca Hospital in Lucca. After seeing my images of transplants, they decided to support me in what was unique documentation: the photographs of removed organs captured as if they were still alive. To be precise, they lay suspended in a softbox and lit by 60 LEDs. Then the organs are filled with liquid to give them the right tone, so I can photograph them as jewels floating on a black background. There are no special post-production tricks: the photos are simple images taken with my camera. The black background is the non-colour that embodies elegance. My organs tell their story in their preciousness, in their uniqueness. People must understand the absolute value hidden in every fold, muscle, cavity that lives in us. In fact, L’Anima del Corpo is a project of celebration; we never think about how extraordinary we are. We never wonder how we are made inside.
I would like to point out that my team consisted of seven women: myself, the hospital manager, a surgeon and four forensic doctors. In short, the fair sex in all its power.
What would you like the public to take away from the exhibition? I would like people to ask themselves some questions and have a discussion: I would love to stimulate awareness and consciousness. The images I've chosen are strong, some are full of energy, some are more fragile, and bring along decisively different emotional reactions.
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Silvia Criara - Journalist, born in Milan. At the age of 5 she asked for a pool for her dolls as a present but she didn't receive one. So she had an idea, she took a wooden drawer from her dresser and filled it with water to put her Barbies in it. From that moment she has never stopped following her ideas and resolves herself to talk about people who bring on the bravest ideas to promote social rights, through contemporary art, photography, culture, and design. Stories of creative resistance that she discovers all around the world. She dreams often, even during the day.