Francesco Bellina is an artist and photojournalist based in Palermo, Sicily. His work focuses primarily on contemporary socio-political issues, with a particular emphasis on the topic of migration. He attended the Faculty of Law in Palermo while simultaneously dedicating himself to photography. His work has been published in The Financial Times, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, Paris Match, Le Monde, Internazionale, L’Espresso, The Washington Post, among others. He often collaborates with NGOs and is a contributor to UNHCR, WHO, and other institutions. He is also the Head of Communication and External Relations for the Consulate of Ghana in Sicily.
Your work captures the struggles and customs of people in their communities and homes – what drives you and your work?
“The strength of our hunger” was a line of poorly written graffiti in front of my old house in a working-class neighborhood of Trapani, where I lived with my mother. I have never betrayed that hunger and I have always remembered it as a mantra: that is my energy – the energy of a conquered and forgotten Sicilian city. The energy of those who live in a working-class neighborhood and have to challenge the world every day. When that voice becomes the voice of others as well, a collective voice, the voice of the weakest, then you understand that your work is also useful to the community.
Your latest exhibition is called Pray for Seamen. What is it about?
It is a body of work which stems from a personal story involving part of my paternal family. They were small-scale fishermen, and it is a profession that is increasingly disappearing for various reasons.
The once thriving ports for artisanal fishing are now crushed by globalization, exploitation, and the growing influence of global warming. Extractive, industrial fishing practices have depleted this already delicate ecosystem, impoverishing both the fishermen and the environment – and with it, the erasure of a culture that connected communities to the sea, to Nature. In this, the economy of some parts of the global south, based solely on the expectation of tourism, even changes dietary habits and food offerings in once maritime cities, enacting a subtle form of global violence. The work explores the difficulties faced by these fishermen in Trapani, Tunisia, and Accra.
These communities are at the end of the line, with no prospects for regeneration. The book – with the same name – was created in collaboration with Stefano Liberti, a journalist who deals with migration, land grabbing, worker exploitation, and climate change in Italy.
What does this mean for the oceans across the planet and the communities which depend on the sea?
What is happening in the Mediterranean is also happening in the rest of the world’s seas – from the Java Sea to the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic, and the Pacific. Wherever you look, industrial fishing is depleting natural resources and displacing artisanal fishing communities. New commercial activities such as tourism often lack community involvement.
Listen, more than three billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. And artisanal fishing provides employment for half a billion people in small-scale fisheries, representing 90% of employment in the fishing sector worldwide. These are the facts. But the story of suffering goes beyond mere paper facts.
In addition to overfishing, global warming is inevitable – fish are literally dying from heat and lack of oxygen. We are in the midst of an extinction event.
In a way, my work is a series of testimonials to the human spirit.
It’s as if I am a witness to the collapse.
How does your previous work say about this? Is this something new – being a “witness to collapse”?
This idea of being a witness to the collapse is relatively new – perhaps another way to view my work. Much of my work in the past has dealt with the plight of migrants – exploitation, danger, slavery – and death by human or natural causes.
What about Oriri? What was that project about?
From 2016 to 2020, I spent time in Western Africa documenting the suffering and enslavement of women, their journey to freedom, and the failures of our society to create a culture of justice. I was interested in highlighting the use of voodoo as a means of ritual brainwashing, employed by unethical shamans to “convert” women into a life of prostitution.
I wanted to investigate the origins and use of true voodoo, as practiced since the first African slaves were deported by Europeans to become slaves.
Slavery continues today, and European states disguise themselves as clients of these girls while simultaneously plundering Africa’s natural resources, as they have always done. The project thus addresses the phenomenon of sex trafficking, but with an ethically respectful approach towards women and all the subjects portrayed.
What are you working on next?
I am working on several ideas, including the concept of cultural endings and beginnings. For example, I would like to find funding to carry out a sort of phase two of Oriri, investigating the Afrogenesis of South American populations through community cults.
Furthermore, I would like to further investigate how the climate crisis is already impacting Africa in unprecedented ways. The potential influx of refugees will create a crisis in Europe, and it has already begun.
I believe that what happens in Sicily will decide the fate of Europe. Either we will find a humanitarian way to cope with this situation, or we will lose our souls.
Thanks so much.
ALL PHOTOS © Francesco Bellina. Used with permission.
INTERVIEW by Christian Sarkar