After four years of research between Nigeria and Italy, the photographer Andrew Esiebo and the sociologist Annalisa Butticci are finally presenting their work to the larger public. Esiebo and Butticci’s fruitful collaboration produced one of the first studies on African Pentecostalism in Italy – the Catholic country par excellence. Their experimental approach, which mixes technologies and methodologies such as sociology, art history, film and photography, generated a photographic exhibition, a film documentary, a photographic catalogue and an academic conference – all from the small city of Padua in the North of Italy.
G. Paoletti: You have been working on a huge project. It lasted 4 years and it involved an incredible number of steps and media: the research, the conference, the exhibition, the book, and the documentary. How did the project start?
A. Butticci: The project had a slow beginning. It started in 2008 with just a few interviews with these new African religious leaders in Italy coming from Nigeria and Ghana. The project is looking at the encounter between Christianity coming from Africa and Italian Catholicism. The idea is to look at African Pentecostalism and how it landed – is landing – in Italy. Studies in global Pentecostalism are huge. There is a huge literature on it, but we wanted to highlight the peculiarity of what is happening in this country, a country that is dominated by the Catholic Church; a country that is now facing a new religious and cultural pluralism.
What is Pentecostalism?
A. Butticci: Pentecostalism is one of the expressions of Christianity. It has a very passionate way of believing and belonging. Pentecostals believe in deliverance, believe in divine healing. So it’s a sort of religion that reconnects the mind and the body because the body is the protagonist of this new relationship with the divine. You can understand that such a passionate religion is really a challenge to the Catholic Church that is very strict, that has a strict liturgy; a religion that tries to minimize the manifestation of the supernatural, of the divine power, of deliverance. The encounter between these two expressions of Christianity is at the core of this research.
How did the project start for you Andrew? How did you get interested in churches and religion?
A. Esiebo: I grew up in a Catholic Church; I was used to the same Catholic doctrine and its very structured belief system. Then I joined these movements in Nigeria: what got me intrigued was the various ways they use to profess their faith. I naturally got interested in documenting those things that reflect their material world, the dynamics in which they profess their faiths, through emotions, the use of objects, the way they use the media to reach out to people. I started in 2006 and then Annalisa got in touch with me saying that she is working on something similar. It wasn’t very difficult to think of collaborating with her and that’s how it started.
A. Butticci: Since these religions are very passionate, I felt that there was a need for a visual term. Photography, video and audio recording were the methodological tools that we adopted. The project tried to experiment the encounter of social sciences such as sociology and anthropology and photography. I wanted to complement sociology with materials that could be shared with the community of scholars, students, but also with the general public. There is this very bad attitude in academia: it seems that scholars only write for themselves, their articles remain in the circle of academia. I thought that it was important to share this research with the broader public and it worked out.
Did you start working together in Nigeria?
A. Butticci: Yes, in Lagos. We did our first fieldwork in Nigeria, and then Andrew started his fieldwork here in Italy as a photographer and as a filmmaker. We presented our work this June after one year of fieldwork. We have been working together for one year before presenting the first outcomes of our research and we will present the final delivery report of our work by the end of the year, December, which are an exhibition, a documentary and a photographic catalogue.
A. Esiebo: Working with her from an academic point has given me the insight in how to go deeper interpreting some of these works or imageries. For the fieldwork she made it much easier, because she had been working in the field already. When I was working in Nigeria I was working independently, but not very intimately. I was working from the distance – which a lot of photojournalists do – keeping the distance from my subjects. But with her I was able to get the intimacy that I was missing when I started alone. Becoming intimate gave me the chance to understand this people’s frame of mind, especially the believers.
Andrew, you are generally associated with photography, was it the same for you to work with photo and video?
A. Esiebo: In photograph you think in frames, while in video you think along timeline. It was quite challenging at the beginning, but now I am used to think in the two ways at the same time simultaneously, thinking in frames and timeline. It has been great. I still see video as an extension of photography.
When I was looking at the photos online I noticed that there were two styles, there were the very climactic and dramatic and a few photos that are very empty, still. The two together are very different. Generally you take
A. Esiebo: very animated pictures!
Yes, so I was surprised to see that.
A. Esiebo: When I came here, we were visiting churches. What was striking was the design of the altar that I saw back home. I see this space as very disconnected from the reality in Italy. I thought of using the altar as a way of showing the identity of these people in Italy. I was very curious to see what inspired these people, who are very far from home, to have this type of design here in Italy?
A. Butticci: I think that what was very striking with the altar was their color. You have this exasperation of color and beauty and this is really shocking if you see where these churches are located. They are in the suburbs of the city, in industrial areas, very very poor, very ugly dead area of the city, where on Sundays you don’t find people going there. Then you find yourself opening this small door, and finding this explosion of color and beauty. As Andrew was saying, these spaces look like spaces of resistance.
Where did you go in Italy?
A. Butticci: In Italy we went to Padova, Verona, Vicenza, Brescia, Bologna, Rome, Florence, and little villages like Villa France and others near Vicenza and Rome.
And in Nigeria?
A. Butticci: We shot only in Lagos.
It would be nice to hear some episodes.
A. Esiebo: The MoF story! As I said, the first time we went to this African church
A. Butticci: The Mountain of Fire Miracle Ministry is one of the most popular deliverance churches in Nigeria. Their services are very charged with emotions: women get possessed by the power of the Spirit. The first time Andrew attended one of these events was in Italy, not even in Nigeria! Tell what happened
A. Esiebo: I am not used to these very charged moments: for me when you pray you just close your eyes and pray and I was surprised by seeing these heated people moving their bodies, and suddenly someone fell by my side. I was really scared.
How did people react to the camera, to the fact that you are in a religious space?
A. Esiebo: I don’t think that people cared. But in Lagos at the beginning I was very reluctant to shoot them because for you to fall, it means that you are weak, that you release yourself to the weakness. I was a bit reluctant to shoot that part. And then camera guy said: « Go and shoot that men on the floor! »
Who told you that?
A. Esiebo: They have a camera team in the church. They were always very insisting for me to go and shoot these kinds of things. For them it was important to show the manifestation of god through these people who were being delivered. The fact that they are on the floor is a way to show deliverance. For me as a person falling on the floor is not necessarily a proof of deliverance but it’s kind of a guarantee of deliverance for them.
A. Butticci: But at the beginning we had to negotiate in Nigeria and in Italy. We could not jump there. We had to introduce ourselves, talk to the whole community: we are doing this; thanks for letting us stay with you today; please don’t be shy with the camera. We really had to familiarize with the people first. It was a process of negotiation at the beginning.
The project focuses on Italy. The conference and the exhibition also took place in Italy. How was the project received?
A. Butticci: The reception from the international community, from scholars it was very enthusiastic. I got emails from colleagues from the US, Africa, Asia, all over Europe who were interested in the event because this is the first research on African Pentecostal in Italy. The exhibition was very well received by my colleagues; many of them asked about the picture. Some wanted to buy them. Some of them wanted to take the exhibition to other places. I don’t know about the city received the work. I have to say that the place where the exhibition was made is a very prestigious one It’s Padova’s city hall, so politically it was a very important achievement. It was important for an African photographer to be there. But I don’t know about the whole society and the art world, which I think are very conservative.
What will happen next? We have the video that will come out?
A. Butticci: The video will come out by the end of the year. I would love to screen the video in many places, not only in Italy, but also in Nigeria and Ghana. The exhibition too; it would be nice to tour the show as well as the catalogue.