Mattia Zoppellaro is an Italian photographer who divided his time between Milan and London. Throughout his career he has shot notable many artists and people from Lou Reed to Patti Smith, but for this year’s Taylor Wessing Prize exhibition he has chosen to exhibit a portrait of a far less famous person. The picture on display at the National Portrait Gallery in London shows the young Stephen Lee playing hide and seek with his friends at the Appleby Horse Fair in Westmoreland, an annual gathering for the Irish traveller community.
How did you decide to take part in this competition?
It is one of the competitions I respect the most and I have always thought it is one of the finest internationally. I also love portrait photography, and there is no better place than the National Portrait Gallery to show a portrait.
And how did you choose such a very British subject for the portrait instead of an Italian one?
I have been working at the Irish travellers at Appleby project for quite a few years now, and it was just one of my favourite shots. Actually, I thought that the photo wouldn’t find its place in the exhibition because it was too British. This subject is common in UK so it is not exotic at all, but it could be newer in Italy. That’s why I was surprised when they selected it.
Why did you move to London?
It has been a very casual thing. I originally studied Photography at the Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) in Milan and then went on to work at Fabrica, Benetton’s Research Center. I moved to London to develop a project for a travel magazine and while I was here I started showing my book around and got some really positive feedback. In the end, although I was meant to stay for just two weeks, I moved here, and I started working for music magazines and taking portraits on the side. London has long fascinated me thanks to its relationship with photography and music, which are my two biggest passions.
And why the focus on portraits?
There is no a specific reason. Human beings fascinate me. I don’t care about their religion or race, whether they are ugly, tall or short. What I like the most is when people show their personalities. I love the human element in anything I see, and taking portraits just gets me excited.
Do you feel like it’s important to understand the person behind the lens when you see a photo?
I think that the photo you take doesn’t show the person who has been photographed or the photographer. It shows the outcome, the result, of a meeting between the two. Therefore, the most important thing is to develop a relationship during the photo-shooting which can either last hours or just a couple of minutes.
The person who is going to be photographed is aware of that and this is a good definition of portrait. The stronger the relationship, the more interesting the photo.
Who would like to photograph?
At the moment I would really like to take pictures of Diego Maradona. He is the only ‘global’ person in the world. He is extremely recognizable and it would be great to work with such a widely known character. He is an icon and people worship him. There’s even a pseudo-religious relationship between him and his fans.
Which of your photos has touched you the most?
The Irish travellers project, Appleby, is the one I am working at now and I am really into it. To that end, I usually grow fondest of my recent works. I spent a lot of time working at that project and I love the final result. It has a quieter style compared to my past projects.
What do you love and hate about London?
I really like its multi-ethnicity and the fact that you are in a kind of microcosm. This allows you to experience a huge variety of exhibitions, performances and concerts. You can find its multi-ethnicity in the music scene as well. But on the other hand, London is quite a discreet city. It is the least Mediterranean place I have ever been to. Sometimes I feel more at home in US as far as the way of living concerns. I really miss the Latin soul you can find in Paris, Barcelona and Rome. This also means having a certain light, a certain relationship with people and less formalism. According to my experience, the more you go north in the UK, the more you find human warmth.
What does Italy mean for you?
It is a kind of quirky and spoiled girl I am in love with. I really love Italy, but it has an attitude that sometimes drives me mad. I like going back to this quirky girl but then this relationship with her pushes me away again.