Theo Cottle captures the “solemn but special” mood during a brief period of freedom in Catania
Theo shot the series in August as travel restrictions eased across Europe in a trip which reminded him why he loves photography.
- Ruby Boddington
- 20 November 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
The work of photographer Theo Cottle won us over a long time ago, with its documentarian roots, subtle colours and propensity for drawing out the personality of his subjects. As someone who has always travelled with his camera, whether within the UK or abroad, this year has presented some challenges for the London-based creative. However, when the travel restrictions across Europe eased and an opportunity to take a flat in Catania, Sicily for a month popped up, Theo seized the opportunity. The result is a series titled Catanian Man, which feels like it was taken in another lifetime.
Theo had visited the city as a tourist years ago and the historical and architectural beauty of its port and food has always remained with him. “This time around, I spent a lot of time on my own exploring the city and port on a moped, it was peaceful and cathartic,” he tells It’s Nice That. “It reminded me of what I love about photography.” Despite having a good start to the year with a trip to Bulgaria (the results of which are being published in a book in December), like many in the creative industry, Theo’s work all but dried up. “I built a darkroom in my flat in south London which really helped me get through the past few months,” he explains. “It’s been a strange year (without stating the obvious), and I’m sure like lots of people, my outlook on photography and my personal work shifted.”
It was with this new frame of mind that he visited Catania, taking a different approach to photographing. “I am always very comfortable approaching people, speaking to them, and even spending time with them before I ask permission to take their photograph,” Theo says. “That dialogue wasn’t possible this time, but I am surprised and happy about how I still managed to make personal connections, just in a different way.” Instead, he explored the city by foot and on a moped, documenting his responses to the “current social and cultural status of the city.” At the time, back in August, its inhabitants were enjoying their newfound freedom, granted by the government and so the series documents a “very unique moment in time.”
In turn, the images in Catanian Man are imbued a certain frivolity – a bubbling sense of excitement and optimism. With the return of lockdowns around the world and the continuation of the pandemic, they are images which feel like they were taken years ago rather months ago, meaning there’s a nostalgic tone to the images too. Through muted and sunny tones, they make us long for brighter evenings, shorter sleeves and the company of others.
On what he set out to capture, Theo tells us he was mindful to keep an open mind as everything was still so unpredictable. “Gyms and boxing rings began to reopen, I visited the ones that I could, but the project went in its own direction quite quickly and so did my visual expectations,” he says. Many people were still out of work (and still are) but they were open to cooperating and talking with Theo, “so the atmosphere was solemn but special,” he continues.
One image, pictured above, which surmises Theo’s time in Catania shows a young man sat on a small cart, drawn by a horse, looking over his shoulder at Theo as the sun sets in the background. Theo tells us about it: “I began to notice these local kids riding around the city on horse and carts, quickly passing through narrow streets. Ahead of them, people rode mopeds to check if the roads were clear and what looked like just tagging along and supervising. When I asked around I was told that years ago one of them caused a bad crash and now the authorities try to stop this activity. I was quite drawn to these kids and it was challenging to shoot them. I would ask for a photo and they would stop for no more than 30 seconds, we’d swap Instagrams and they’d be gone. I used the lights on my moped to shoot this image and had to hold up traffic to get it.”
Reflecting on the work, Theo hopes it captures the city’s beautiful surroundings and the relaxed approach to life of those who live there. “[It’s] not something you find in many places, being in Sicily felt a bit like stepping back in time,” he remarks. “It seems to be deep-rooted in religious values and maybe some outdated traditions. There is a strong family vibe with the Sicilian culture that I can see may be hard for people to breakthrough.” Despite the language barrier, Theo learned a lot and was taken by the individuals he encountered and while he’s unsure if any of that rings true in the imagery, “I hope viewers interpret it in their own way,” Theo concludes.
GalleryTheo Cottle: Catanian Man (Copyright © Theo Cottle, 2020)
Theo Cottle: Catanian Man (Copyright © Theo Cottle, 2020)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.