Last month I started a new series of blog posts, focusing on the lives of some Italians that are really worth knowing.
As I stated in the first post of the series, which was about Libereso Guglielmi, the gardener of Italo Calvino, the purpose of the series is to tell you about Italians that deserve to be known outside of Italy and to write about Italian culture from a different perspective.
When I wrote about Libereso Guglielmi, I said that if you mention his name to Italians, very few of them will know it. Well, this can be said for Lisetta Carmi too, unfortunately. That’s a real pity, though, because she has been one of the most talented Italian photographers of the last century.
Lisetta Carmi was born in Genoa in 1924 and is still alive. She is 95 years old and is living in Apulia, where she decided to retire after a life lived all around the world, exploring its most remote lands and its diversity – and documenting it with incredible pictures.
As I said, she is from Genoa and was born into a wealthy Jewish family. She was young at the time of fascism and the racial laws forced her to leave school – and she never went back, studying on her own for the rest of her life. Her brothers were sent to study in Switzerland but she remained at home in Genoa with only one companion: a piano.
Lisetta studied hard and became a pianist but then something happened to change her life: one day, in 1960, she listened to a political speech by Giorgio Almirante, a very strong right-wing politician, and was so shocked that she thought she needed to do something to fight against social injustice. So she decided to support the dockworkers in their protests but her piano teacher told her not to do so to protect her precious hands.
Such a remark was really striking for her: she thought that if her hands were more important than the lives of other people, she should stop playing the piano. And that’s what she did! Thanks to a friend, she discovered a passion for photography and decided to focus on that because she “wanted to understand”, as she is used to saying.
Her career as a photographer began at the Teatro Duse in Genoa, where she worked for three years, and went on until 1984. During all those years, she traveled the whole world, in order to document life in remote and poor areas – she has always liked the poor people more than the rich ones, she said in an interview.
Lisetta has photographed some very faraway places but the work that has made her famous was set a few steps from her own house, in Genoa. It was a shocking work for the puritan Italy of the time because it was focused on the life of trans people, who lived in the alleys of the historical center. It was the first time someone put a light on those people, who were some sort of ghosts that nobody wanted to see.
Those photos tell the story of a different Genoa, the one sung by Fabrizio De Andrè in songs like Via del Campo, a city that everybody knew existed but that very few people really wanted to see. Lisetta’s photos are very explicit but incredibly poetic, raw, and sincere. It is the work of someone who wants to understand and not to judge and I will always admire her for the bravery of such work.
Even if her work was strongly criticized, she didn’t care and kept on taking photos. She had the amazing opportunity of photographing Ezra Pound, who had a house in Rapallo at the time. Her shots of the poet are some of the best photographs in her career and won her the prestigious Niépce Prize for Italy. She photographed many other important figures of her time and also did reportages all over the world.
During one of those trips, something else happened to change her life all over again. While in India, Lisetta met Babaji, an Indian guru who inspired her to begin to meditate and eventually to establish an ashram back in Italy. In 1979, in a remote location in Apulia, she established the ashram Bhole Baba, the first Indian ashram in Italy and the first meditation center in Europe, and devoted her life to spreading Babaji’s words and teachings.
Later in life, when she felt she was done with her work with the ashram, she left it, quit photography, and started studying other topics like Chinese art and language. Now she is living in Apulia enjoying emptiness and silence, as she declared in a recent interview. After all, she has never done anything in her life for money or business but only to understand life and I am sure this is what she will keep on doing until her death.
Additional resources (in Italian)
- Lisetta Carmi, I travestiti, Roma, Essedi Editrice, 1972
- Lisetta Carmi e Leonardo Sciascia, Acque di Sicilia, Bergamo, Dialmine, 1977
- Lisetta Carmi, L’ombra di un poeta. Incontro con Ezra Pound, Milano, ObarraO Edizioni, 2005
- Lisetta Carmi, Lisetta Carmi, ho fotografato per capire, Roma, Peliti Associati, 2014
- Lisetta Carmi, La bellezza della verità, a cura di G.B. Martini, Roma, Postcart, 2018, ISBN 978-88-98391-84-4.
- Lisetta Carmi, Shri Babaji Mahavatar dell’Himalaya, Roma, Postcart, 2019, ISBN 978-88-98391-91-2.
- Lisetta Carmi, Una vita alla ricerca della verità. L’esperienza fotografica in Lisetta Carmi. Tesi di Laurea di Patrizia Pentassuglia, Bologna 1993
- Giovanna Calvenzi, Le cinque vite di Lisetta Carmi, Bruno Mondadori, 2013
- Lisetta Carmi, un’anima in cammino directed by Daniele Segre, 2010
- Lisetta Carmi briefly talking about her career two years ago
- a portrait of Lisetta Carmi by the Museo delle Culture in Milan
- her Ho fotografato per capire book launch in Milan
- An article about her exhibition in Sardinia, 2014
- A very detailed piece about Lisetta Carmi’s life and career
I hope you’ll like this incredible woman and her work!
If you are looking for interesting ways to practice your Italian daily, I’d suggest you check my brand-new program called Giorno dopo giorno, a daily Italian practice.
If you sign up to Giorno dopo giorno, you will receive an email every other day for 365 days. Each email will contain a prompt, a little exercise, something to watch, read, listen to, or something that will gently force you to practice your Italian every day, making it part of your daily routine.