1st March 2013
Interview with Renowned New York Photographer Joe Zarba
Joe Zarba is a highly esteemed Italian-American photographer who is based in Brooklyn, New York. He has kindly agreed to share his fascinating background and his thoughts on Sicily with the readers of Sicilian Connections.
Good Morning Joe. Please can you tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in photography?
First, may I thank you for the privilege of this interview.
I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and grew up a very happy child in Union City, NJ. As a child the saddest thing was that my father, who grew up in Sicily, died when I was 13. This event has coloured and shaped my entire life.
I spent the major part of my adult life teaching photography in a middle school here in Brooklyn, NY. It was something I always wanted to do, but never thought I’d have a chance to do, so I never gave it a second thought and then it was dumped in my lap so to speak. There were two cameras and two enlargers at the school and I proudly say I developed (no pun intended) a very reputable program over the course of 20 years. Ironically, I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 26, which was quite a while ago!
As far as instruction, I am completely self -taught, having gotten my first camera from my father-in-law of my first marriage. The camera had no light meter so I wrote down every exposure and under what conditions I shot until I really learned light.
I read everything I could get my hands on and I still have the major periodical that taught me everything. It was an issue of a magazine called Modern Photography and the article was entitled, “Everything you Need to Know about 35mm Photography” Even though we are in the digital age, I consider it still to be a classic of basic fundamental photography.
While the technology changes, the science remains the same. A special thanks goes out to Jim Marsh, who needed a place for his enlarger and used my basement. It was Jim who taught me how to print.
My photography now is really relegated to my images of Sicily, many of which can be found on my blog siciliabedda-beddasicilia.blogspot.com
I have ideas for lots of projects but four grandchildren happily fill up a major part of my life.
One project in particular, is finding, interviewing and photographing people who were born in Sicily, emigrated and then went back, a story in reverse so to speak. We’ll see what happens with this, but if anyone knows of people in this category, I would be forever grateful to speak to them.
Can you please explain to us your connections to the island of Sicily?
I grew up in an Italian culture. My mom was born here, also in New Jersey of parents from Campobasso on the mainland and my father was raised with his three brothers and two sisters in Sicily before he and two brothers separately emigrated to the U.S. I used to sit and look over my dads’ shoulder as he wrote letters home every week. Phone calls were out of the question.
My mother who passed away in 2002 was as wonderful as any child could ask for but I was always a daddy’s boy. My mom was the disciplinarian and he always protected me! When he died, there was a hole in my heart which I carried with me, mostly unconsciously, until 1988 when I made my first trip to Sicily with my wife Susan whom I credit with being the driving force in my finding my father’s family, connecting, building a relationship and giving me the closure I never had.
On that trip, we happened to drive to Nissoria (EN) where my two aunts and uncle lived. Fortunately, there was a guy from Queens NY staying with them who did all the translating as I knew only American-Italian which was just a combination of Italian words, real or imagined. I never got the story of why this guy was there or his connection but this was a beginning.
It wasn’t until about 15 years later, when my wife Susan noticed that most of my photos, whether here or there, were of older men. She stated the obvious; “Joe, you are looking for your father”. After having been to Venice to photograph Carnevale three times, she said, it is time you went to Sicily to find your family. The obviousness of this statement changed my life. Fast forwarding, In October of 2003, I believe it was, I wrote an e mail to the ‘comune’ in Leonforte where I knew my cousin was (the aunts and uncle had all passed away by this time). I was almost glad they didn’t respond because of my language fears and the thought of having them believe I was a relative.
Anyway, the following February I went to Carnevale in Acireale, Sicily “armed” with a photo book of our entire family including my cousin Angela when she was a child. One Friday it poured and all the events were cancelled for the day. I said, what the heck, and I decided to drive to Leonforte trying to time my drive so the ‘comune’ would be closed for ‘pranzo’ and maybe for the weekend! Well, they were open! I took a deep breath, walked in and introduced myself. All of a sudden I was mobbed and apologies were given for not having gotten back to me. They remembered the email as soon as I introduced myself!
We chatted, they took all my information again and promised to do a search and get back to me. This being the town where my dad grew up, I did not want to leave so I just walked the town looking for the oldest people I could find to ask if they knew anyone with the last name Zarba not knowing that in Sicily it is pronounced differently as Zarba`. After a few hours of ‘No, mi (or ci) dispiace”, I decided to return to Acireale.
As I was going down the hill, a little old fiat cinquecento pulled in front of me, motioned for me to get out of the car. The man inside was the same man, Gianmaria, I met in the ‘comune’. He handed me a post it with information and told me to, “Go back into town, go to a bar and ask for help. THIS IS YOUR RELATIVE”! I reluctantly did just that and a man in the first bar I went into KNEW my cousin so we walked to her apartment, (which is the same apartment my father and his siblings grew up in) rang the bell and this woman and her daughter came down. He told them, “This gentleman is from New York and SAYS he is a relative of yours”. I showed her the book and she knew it was true because there she was with her mother, aunt and uncle.as well as those who emigrated. The story goes on and on but I could feel the hole finally closing.
How did it feel to finally visit Leonforte, the town that is so important to your family?
It is one thing to visit the town but can you imagine going to the same home your father or mother grew up in? I still get goose pimples thinking of it! Of course it has been renovated but walking the three floors is a journey in my father’s mind and shoes. I imagine conversations he may have had with his parents, brothers or sisters. I imagine what it may have looked like one hundred years ago as he was born in 1902. It is something so personal that trying to describe it takes away from the actual experience.
You often share your beautiful photographs of Sicily on your blog. How do you try to portray the island through your images?
First of all, thank you for the compliment. Sicily is a state of mind. It is as my wife Susan once said, “A feast for the senses”. It is a journey into a past so riddled with hardship and pain, yet the island speaks of indestructible beauty. Its’ people are not the stereotype associated with the disinformation presented by Hollywood but ever helpful, kind, and considerate. They are, as we all are, the products of our collective past and as such, each and every one of them carry a little bit of the history of conquest that went before them as well as the resolve to live that has been the reason for their continued existence today. There is an historical beauty and timelessness in each and every person whom I have met. In photographing the people there, I am going back into time as every person carries a bit of the Sicilian collective past. One only needs to know a little of Sicilian history to see it.
What are your favourite places to photograph in Sicily?
Though we are fortunate to have an apartment on the eastern coast in Sant’Alessio, I just love the interior and western Sicily. It, more than the eastern part, reflects the past in a much more physical way and speaks to me.
While I realize one can’t live in the past, there is a timelessness in these areas that is slowly being stripped away in its’ eastern counterpart. While Sicily needs development, I truly believe that profit and greed will tear at its’ soul stripping it of all the lessons its’ glorious history has to teach us.
My first love is the people, I see something unique in every Sicilian no matter where.
You are currently based in Brooklyn, New York. Which aspects of the Sicilian culture do you see reflected in the culture of second and third generation Sicilians living in America?
Sadly, it is slipping away. One needs to find the, “Old School” families to retain the stories, history and true meaning of what it means to be Sicilian. Families simply don’t have the time to be together like in “The Old Days”. Finding a job (if one can) may take one hundreds of miles away. The lack of leisure time and the bombardment of the media with meaningless trivial pursuits certainly doesn’t foster the continuation of family traditions. The emphasis on work which was the hallmark of all immigrant families, not just Sicilians, has been replaced by the mantra of making money.
Despite the obstacles, there are groups here and there that are swimming against the tide. One such avenue is Arba Sicula, an organization founded by Dr. Gaetano Cipolla of St. John’s University to promote the language, culture and history of Sicily.
Growing up in America has had advantages, because of the needs of American industry at the time. On the other hand, it has done nothing to help us preserve our glorious history as a people. Yes, we fought and fought to preserve and continue our culture through the family unit, dinners, festivals, the church, labor unions etc. but this age of consumerism and the fact that we spend less time together as families are chipping away at our collective past.
By the way, it is also rare now that Italian is offered as a course of studies in city high schools, no less Sicilian. Take away a people’s language and their history is not far behind.
What do you love most about living in Brooklyn?
Despite what I have stated, Brooklyn offers a wealth of information and proximity to all cultures, not just Sicilian or Italian. The more one is exposed to other cultures the easier it is to come to the conclusion that we all began in the same place and we share more in common that not. For example, in doing some preliminary research, I found out, not with 100% certainty, that my family history originated in the Middle East, Iran to be exact. It is exposure to world culture that makes Brooklyn such a progressive place to live and raise a family…. or not.
What are your favourite places to photograph in New York?
So many it is hard to focus (here we go with puns again). Anywhere there are people. I love the Mermaid Festival in Coney Island, Brooklyn that is a celebration of the summer solstice. People get dressed up as mythological characters from the sea and everyone wants to be photographed. Every January 1st a group of people who all used to be of East European extraction, make the news by going into the water also in Coney Island. The theory is January 1st should be very cold and therefore making for a light news story. I also love to experiment and now I am into this Infrared “Thing”. I have a camera that shoots only in IR as it is called. IR is a part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can’t see but exists and cameras can be specially adapted to capture its invisible to the human eye, light. It is eerie, and unpredictable. Generally, if one hits it right, blue skies go black and all living things, since they give off heat, make for ethereal images by giving a glowing appearance. One can visit my blog as mentioned earlier to get a sampling. I love it! I could go on and on. I get in moods which often times dictate where I will go and what I will photograph but it never competes with my images of Sicily.
I don’t know what lies ahead but I just want to end by repeating what Goethe once said,
“One hasn’t seen Italy until one has seen Sicily”.
Thank you for this fascinating insight into your photography and background Joe. I wish you the best of luck with your presentation and all of your upcoming projects.