Charlie Kwai documents at a slower pace in his new photobook series, Magnetite
From its book cover to its thoughtful approach, the London-based photographer’s new book is a little piece of an Italian town and its people.
- Yaya Azariah Clarke
- 26 October 2023
Why long to be a fly on the wall when we have Charlie Kwai? Over the years, the photographer has captivated us with naturalistic portraits of communities far and wide, with his idiosyncratic approach to documentation. In 2017, he exposed the despair among some of London’s most square characters – white men in law and finance – with City Boys; in late 2018, he took his camera to London’s Chinatown offering varying representations of those that are often reduced to service people; and early the next year he produced a whole series on Ghanaian adults and children with their bodies buried in the sand.
Like many photographers, Charlie grew up with an inquisitive flair and desire to learn from and engage with unfamiliar beliefs, traditions and cultures. “I owe that to how I was brought up and who I grew up with,” he tells us. His journey to documenting particular cultures has often come about through a seemingly disparate but proximal connection – in the past he told us that he unexpectedly shared “the same sense of humour” with the Ghanaian community he documented, and that growing up on the other side of London’s financial district in Bethnal Green gave him a snapshot view into the success and power among suits.
About six years ago, Charlie met Italian creative director Marco Minzoni who proposed that he lend his watchful eye to his community in Lido Estensi. “Marco spent much of his childhood summers at his family home by the sea, but in his adult years has grown somewhat detached from its people and customs, having lived away for so long,” he tells us. Throughout Magnetite, it feels as though Charlie visually traces the return of Marco to his hometown, while also capturing a community preserving its slower-paced way of life and values, often horizontal on resort sunbeds. The process involved walking around the town for hours, from morning to night, in search of people and moments. “Our first trip was exploratory, we walked and walked and photographed anything of interest, trying to discover a common thread and meaning.”
After their first trip, Charlie and Marco spent the better part of a year absorbing the photographs, picking apart the themes, and deciding which people and places they were going to return to in order to fill in the gaps. Creating a kickstarter campaign (that closes this coming Sunday) to facilitate the printing of Magnetite, they started to construct a distinct focus that would influence their approach going forward. “People started to recognise us, and by the end we were on a first-name basis with half of the people on the beach, and the bar and restaurant visitors too,” he shares. “We were met with support and celebration of the project. They generally saw it as fun and were more than happy to be photographed.”
One of the biggest questions we have when looking at a travel series is how the photographer adapts to the new environment, and how (or if) the photographer communicates their concepts. Throughout Magnetite, we are constantly enticed by Charlie’s talent for preserving the subjects’ way of life – there is no posing or pretending. Initially finding the slow pace and language barrier challenging, the project is perhaps a lesson in how letting go of complete control can make for a more earnest result. “Lido Estensi pushed me to approach people and scenes differently,” he tells us. “I speak little to no Italian, so Marco was my translator. Every situation, every photograph, every inquisitive passer-by, he was left to explain. And, it can be harder to explain than to take the actual photograph, so he did a great job,” he adds.
Charlie’s approach to documenting a lesser known pocket of a lesser known province in Italy, is imbued in the balance of familiarity versus unfamiliarity, and craft versus relationship building. And, his year spent carefully considering the representations of the people seems to have benefited the project tenfold. After each season, the sunbeds from the beach and resort are sent back to the manufacturer for disposal. Currently in the process of printing 150 books, Charlie saw the opportunity to use some of the salvaged material to create its covers, making each copy of Magnetite a bespoke piece of Lido Estensi and its people.
GalleryCharlie Kwai: Magnetite (Copyright © Charlie Kwai, 2023)
Charlie Kwai: Magnetite (Copyright © Charlie Kwai, 2023)
About the Author
Yaya (they/them) is a staff writer at It's Nice That, with a particular interest in Black visual culture. They have previously written for publications such as WePresent, and worked as researcher and facilitator for Barbican and Dulwich Picture Gallery.