Semaine 11/52  – « Blu » de Cuny Janssen

Introduction by Patricia Pulles : 

Originally I had planned to stay in Naples for a couple of months, but I fell in love with the city, and have made it my home for the last seven years. From the very beginning, I invited artists to come and stay in the city, and explored it with them. It was a way for me to share my passion for Naples, and led to the creation of Il Ventre di Napoli, the artist-in-residence project. I soon realized that Naples has a great many children, and discovered that the city not only has the highest birth rate in Italy, it also has the highest percentage of unemployed youth. Which made me wonder whether Naples might appeal to Cuny Janssen, a photographer I’ve known for 15 years. She photographs children in relation to their rural or urban surroundings, and travels the world, engaging with different cultures, seeking to connect with them through her images.

Cuny Janssen did indeed come to Naples, and returned to the city during different seasons. We roamed the city together, ending up in all kinds of places. Such as the poor working class neighbourhoods Forcella and Sanità in the heart of the city; the more middle class area of Vomero on the hills surrounding Naples; La Gaiola, an abandoned villa in the wealthy Posilippo district, standing on the rocks facing out to sea; the city park ‘Villa Comunale’, the landscaped grounds of the Museo di Capodimonte, or the Botanical Gardens, a tranquil, verdant oasis on the bustling Via Foria, and the serene courtyard of the Santa Chiara church. We also visited a Roma settlement in Giugliano, a suburb of Naples. Here, we met a group of Roma living in inhuman conditions, and Roma children who don’t go to school at all. When we returned six months later to see them again, we learned that the municipality of Giugliano had ‘moved’ the Roma community to a different – heavily polluted – area, where living conditions were even worse.

If you watch ‘Scugnizzi’, a Neapolitan film by Nanni Loy made in 1989, you realise that, when it comes to poverty and the unemployment and crime that goes with it, very little has changed in the last thirty years. The film follows a group of teenagers in the juvenile prison on the island of Nisida, as they rehearse a musical to be performed in the Royal San Carlo Theatre. The boys have been detained for all kinds of things. One was dealing drugs, another refused to carry out a gang hit, thus forfeiting the chance of working through the Camorra, while another is committed to taking care of a young prostitute he’s deeply attached to, despite the dangers. It is a snapshot of the youth issues that still haunt Neapolitan society today.

Through my work teaching English at various Neapolitan schools, I grew quite close to a number of children. I was amazed by my 10-year-old students’ nuanced grasp of language. In class, when I pointed to something, describing it with the words: ’That is blue’, the children responded indignantly telling me that, in Italian, there are many specific terms for the colour blue. My English blue was not simply blue, it was celestial blue. In addition to which there are azzurro, turchese, blu oltremare, colbalto, indaco and so on. The Neapolitan ‘blu’, which surely echoes the surrounding landscape of sky and sea, runs deep within the soul of the Neapolitan.

Look at the football team of SSC Napoli – their kit is azure. Whether from Roma families or wealthy backgrounds, Cuny portrays the children of Naples in a wide variety of moods: dreamy, melancholic, curious, provocative, shy, withdrawn, confident.

For onlookers and sitters, the way Cuny goes about preparing for a photo shoot is much like witnessing a theatrical performance. Unpacking her professional equipment, erecting the tripod, setting up the camera, then disappearing beneath the black cloth, recall the performances of Totó (1898-1967), a beloved Neapolitan comedic actor. “That’s how Totó did it too!” everyone shouts. Even sitting still for long periods while being photographed makes it an intense experience, which Cuny often rewards with an explanation of how the camera works, and what she sees through the lens from underneath the cloth.

Regardless of their outward appearance and background, Cuny portrayed each of the Neapolitan children as an individual. “I believe”, she says, “that there is no difference between people, rich or poor, well-educated or simple. But in odd juxtaposition to this, each individual is unique. Every person is formed by different experiences in life and every person creates his own mixture of general human qualities. At the end the discovery of that individual in each and every person – worthy, dignified and authentic – is a phenomenal one.”

Blu by Cuny Janssen
texts (eng.) by Gabriele Conrath-Scholl and Patricia Pulles
104 p with 80 coloured photographs
300 x 245 mm, softcover with double folded dust jacket
58,00 €