Photography is a cataloging of humankind, it is a journey between cultures and countercultures

Alessandro Simonetti‘s photo gallery is a magnum opus of social research, it is a cataloging of humankind, as one of his academic theses quoted, which in the sporting element has found a muse and an ideal canvas. From New York playgrounds to Jamaican surfing, from Fuerteventura’s migrant football to legendary Senegalese wrestling, Zuek’s refined eye manages to reconcile aesthetics and substance through a sense of the moment and context. It all starts from the desire and urgency to portray the essence of every human being and the diversity of a world that withstands homologation, Simonetti quickly lets us understand, telling us about a quest that began in northeastern Italy and continued in the vortex of the Big Apple.

“I started photography when I was about 16 years old. It was a natural and osmotic process. Bassano del Grappa, the town where I grew up, was not exposed to huge inputs, but it was unusually rich in terms of culture. Skate, graffiti and music made up a cross-cultural scene, which served as a prelude for my artistic pursuit. I was raised by hardcore, hip hop, punk and reggae concerts, and in these kinds of environments I understood how important it was to be among people. My photography is based on this social ideal, the need to observe and talk about those around me. Glen Friedman’s ‘Fuck you all’ was my bible, because it embodied the eclecticism of those 1990s and highlighted the endless connections between the different underground scenes. But cinema also gave me so much. ‘La Haine’ and ‘Do the Right Thing’ triggered an aesthetic mechanism in my mind, as did ‘Wild Style’ and ‘Style Wars,’ two productions dedicated to the writing universe. Sports gave me less, I had two women at home and I never saw a Gazzetta dello Sport or a Formula 1 GP on television. The only contacts with this world were the ‘schedine’ that my father, a former boxer and son of a boxer, filled out at the bar, as well as my grandfather’s waits for events like the Giro d’Italia or the Palio di Siena… I only played baseball with real passion and continuity, I was probably attracted by the exoticism of this sport and was shortstop for the Crows, my hometown team, for years. In general, I grew up in a much more artistic environment; I also attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, where I was able to range from classical to more experimental perspectives. When I met photography, however, I immediately knew that it would be with me for the rest of my life”

And photography determined huge choices in Zuek’s life, such as moving overseas, where, in his early twenties, he received a human and artistic calling that was impossible to ignore. In the whirlwind of New York at the turn of the millennium, Simonetti found his own Eldorado, overcoming a monumental cultural clash and joining an inspired circle populated by urban subculture pioneers and artists destined for legend. In the city where everything speaks of movement and contamination, the Italian photojournalist’s aesthetic and cultural quest was perfected, forming a highly identifiable and structured stylistic paradigm.

“For me it was a journey to the Mecca. I didn’t speak good English, but I felt the need to close a cultural circle and explore the city that had inspired me the most. That city then became my home for almost two decades. New York is an endless source of treasures, subjects and stories. For four years I photographed ‘The Cage,’ the famous West 4th playground, one of the most iconic basketball and sports venues in the world. I believe that context is the manifesto of New York City’s narrative potential and social logics. The first few weeks the players called me a ‘fakeass cameraman’ and yell at me to go away. I was the only white photographer, and I was European. After some time, however, I managed to get accepted; one of the prominent people in the community even went so far as to call me ‘official photographer.’ He used a joking tone, but he made it clear to everyone that my status had changed. We can say that the series on the West 4th sums up what photography is for me.”

But streetball is only one note in the sporting flow that repeatedly weaves Simonetti’s photo gallery. Travels, cultures and, above all, countercultures have allowed Simonetti to get in touch with atypical microcosms, where the athletic effort is converted into a fundamental tool for the overall knowledge of each subject and the respective existential dimension. Technicality and curiosity are the cornerstones that define a magmatic, yet linear production, divided between iconic portraits and reality without filters: a documentary investigation that never stops relating surface and depth.

“Street cultures marked a complete break from my brief experience in organized sports. In the 1990s, countercultures were at the antipodes to football fanatics or motorsports. Skateboarding and snowboarding, on the other hand, attracted me because of the absence of rules and serial uniforms. The origins of these two sports were not far away; I could easily get to the source of the pioneers and connect with them. During and after adolescence I felt that I was part of something new, which was strongly related to music, cross-cultures and a different concept of ‘uniform.’ That’s why I was always attracted to the cultural aspect of every sports scenario, I’ve never cared about the numerical or statistical aspect. I’d rather have a kid playing in the street than the World Cup, for instance. Sport, then, is everywhere. In Jamaica, for example, the athletic element and its disparate facets are everywhere. In that country I photographed Usain Bolt, but also jockeys, surfers, skateboarders and unknown boxers. In Haiti, shortly after the earthquake, I happened to focus on a small football team. In Fuerteventura I found migrants playing in the desert dunes, while in Senegal I documented traditional wrestling. In my vision the historical-anthropological setting is more important than the aesthetic appearance, it gives the shot a different value and weight, it gives it concreteness. In the past I have been inspired by many portraits taken of celebrities like Tyson or Ali. Their photographs in the ring are certainly evocative, but if I have to think of an iconic shot, I don’t think of a Tyson jab, I think of his picture in slippers and robe, escorted by his personal tiger… It’s all about energy and narrative power.”

Energy and narrative power have also shaped the ‘commercial’ production of Simonetti, who in the American promised land has had the opportunity to observe and crystallize with his own lens also the fashion scene. Again, an evolution produced by a long process of assimilation, which began during the teenage nights, between streetwear and workwear, and continued overseas, contaminating with the communication needs of commercial and fashion brands. Today, however, the journey of ‘Zuek’ continues where it all began, in the ‘Bel Paese’, where his lens has decided to return in search of new, old inspirations.

“When I first picked up the Reflex camera, clothing coincided with the concept of atypic uniform, it was a ‘militant’ era. There was a theme of belonging to a certain scene, and that belonging was defined by what you wore. If I saw someone wearing Puma Clydes or Suede, for example, I knew they were connected to the hip hop universe. In the early 90s I collaborated with one of the first Italian streetwear brands, I still remember a shoot with a giant SUV together with the rap group Colle der Fomento, for the time it had been something unusual. Many years have passed since that type of aesthetic and I realize how recently it has invaded high fashion as well…. Many years have also passed since my move to New York and I recently decided to move back to Italy. My eye was used to the city soul, I no longer felt the same inner drive, I needed an exciting challenge and a new chapter in my life. And I think it will be interesting to go back to investigate Italian subjects after all the information I assimilated overseas. I long for this interesting and paradoxical visual challenge. Our country is also an excellent base for traveling to Africa or Asia, where I will definitely produce reportages in the future, always carving out space for the sports element.”

Photo Credits: Alessandro Simonetti

Text by: Gianmarco Pacione