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Italian-American Photographer Records Life in Ancestral Village

  • Jean Marino

Over the past eight years, American documentary photographer Susanna Lucia Lamaina has returned many times to her family's ancestral home, a remote farming village in the southern Italian mountains, to take photographs. Lamaina grew up listening to her grandfather's stories of Garaguso.

"He constantly talked about Garaguso," she recalls, "the people, the landscape, his family, what he did there as a boy, his adult life there."

Tommaso Lamaina immigrated from Garaguso to Philadelphia in the 1920s in search of work. But he never let his family forget the place where generations of their forefathers had lived.

Lamaina says through his stories, she had a real vision of what the village was like and dreamed of developing her own relationship with a place she was never able to visit with her grandfather, who died when she was a teenager.

A journey into the past


In 2000, with years of experience as a professional photographer behind her, she decided to begin an annual pilgrimage to Garaguso to capture life there on film. She found it fascinating.

"Antiquity and modernity live side by side," she marvels. "You can see a 45-year-old man herding a group of sheep, and on the other side of the road, a man of the same age is driving a BMW."

Garaguso is a farming village, home to about 1,500 people, in the mountainous region of Basilicata, located in the instep of Italy's boot. It's one of the most remote and least developed zones in the country. After decades of emigration, it's sparsely populated. One out of seven of the people who remain can't read or write.

Lamaina's photos show a Garaguso that seems hardly to have changed in centuries, an anachronism compared with a very modern Italy. Taken in black and white, they show the winding cobblestone streets and ancient buildings of the historical centre. There are donkeys, loaded up with kindling for the open fires and stoves, which still warm the houses. She points to other facts of life in 21st-century Garaguso.

"We don't have a bank. There's no hospital. There's no theatre. There are no restaurants. There's no outside entertainment. Although everyone has a cell phone, there are no home computers."

There are portraits of men with gnarled faces, wearing black pants and white shirts from a past era. There's the local baker, whose family has been selling bread in the same building since the late 1700s. There are women with white hair and no teeth, dressed in black.

"The older generations of women still maintain the tradition of wearing black after the husband passes away," she explains. "My grandfather had passed away first. My grandmother lived for 15, 16 years more after his death, and she wore black all that time."

Family connections

Arriving in the village where her family had lived for generations was like a homecoming for Lamaina. She grew up in an inner-city neighborhood of Philadelphia, in the bosom of an immigrant southern Italian community. At home, some of her relatives spoke the dialect of Garaguso, in preference to English, and she recalls a feeling common to many first- and second-generation Americans.

"As a kid, I always felt this duality, a dual personality, of going into the English-speaking community and then going back into the Italian. It was almost like being a ping-pong ball."

But despite her family connections, she says that the locals of Garaguso were wary at first of a woman walking around the countryside on her own.

"One of the questions I was constantly asked was, 'Where's your husband? Do you have any children?' And the answer was, 'No, I've never been married. I don't have any children.' So the next question was, 'How come?'" she reports with a wry laugh.

But over the years, the reserve has lessened.

"One person would have a photo. Ten people would find out about it. Then they'd come find me and say, 'Oh, can you make a photo of me today? Are you free to make photos of me today?'"

A life rich in what's important

Lamaina admits, and her work shows, that life in Garaguso is not easy. The locals work from sunup to sundown in the fields, tending their crops and animals. They eat what they produce. Little is imported and nothing goes to waste.

But she believes it's rich in the things that matter, like generosity, hospitality and family ties. In this respect, she says, the village has something to teach those who see her work.

"Another world besides globalization is possible, and it's very important for us to create communities, to live in communities and to know that everyone in the community matters."

She says seeing how this works in Garaguso has given her hope for other communities.

Lamaina recently held an exhibition of her work in Florence, where she now lives. She's also giving a copy of her images to City Hall in Garaguso.

After eight years of recording life there, Susanna Lucia Lamaina's not ready to put away her camera yet. She says she has many more photographs to take and hopes her work will put her family village on the map.

Her grandfather, Tommaso Lamaina, would have been proud.

Those interested in learning more about Susanna Lucia Lamaina's work may contact her at susannalamaina@yahoo.com.

This radio story features the music of Musicanti di Bacco, a group of musicians who sing the traditional folk tunes of various regions in Italy, including those of Basilicata.

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