Pietro Pasolini: The Dialectics of Micro and Macro

Photo by Pietro Pasolini

Humanity has for eons pondered dual infinities — the infinitely big and the infinitely small. From the philosophers and mathematicians of ancient Greece and India to the ongoing pursuit of a theory that unifies the bigness of relativity with the smallness of quantum mechanics, explorations into the nature of existence continually and historically intertwine both infinities. Photographer Pietro Pasolini has an innate sense of proportion; an intuitive feel for the balance between micro and macro. He has spent much time pondering both infinities.

We are seated at a small table in a gallery in the East Village. His latest work is on display, lining the walls around us. It is a collection of translucent photographs framed in light boxes; each is a swirling, marbled array of colors and textures composed such that my eye refuses to focus on any one point but must absorb in a comprehensive, overall way. I don’t know what I’m looking at. I only know that I like it.

“I’m not really sure that you can create something that doesn’t exist; create something completely new,” Pasolini pauses before continuing. “Like in physics, they say the universe is a closed system in which energy can neither be destroyed nor created, but only reshaped. And I find that to be very true. As an artist your role is to reshape what already exists, and show it to somebody else under a different form. For example, this work here is shifting your perspective of something that already exists. But you’re seeing it in a different form, so to you it looks different.”

We have been in the room for over an hour, discussing his life and how he came to be a photographer with a solo exhibition in New York, before our conversation turns to the beautiful images surrounding us. For this collection he created a special lens, essentially hacking a number of macro lenses and creating a super-macro lens that is able to photograph what the naked eye is unable to see. It is a tool for making precision, fixed-focus microphotographs, and he used it to capture images of microorganisms growing on the humid glass of tropical greenhouses. That’s what I’m seeing on the gallery walls. Pasolini explains his process: “I would navigate with my lens through the plane, looking at this ever-changing painting until I found exactly what I was looking for, which is this balance between forms and colors. It was really a search. I would spend hours just slooowly moving through the frame. You’ve got to think that this image, in reality, is actually only one-eighth of an inch. And it changes. From the left to the right there is something slightly different. It was a meditative practice throughout. From looking at what I’m doing, to actually doing it, building the lens… It was slowing down everything. I was working at a micro level but not only physically, also spiritually and mentally. Doing everything very, very slowly.”

One may ask: What do microphotographs of microorganisms in tropical greenhouses have to do with greater humanity and the nature of existence? How does this collection unite the large and small in a socially meaningful way? “The idea is that while looking at it, you wouldn’t want to juxtapose one part of the image against the other. It would all have to combine and work together as one element. Even if they are completely different from one another. To gather one place into a frame, [the colors and the forms] would have to combine and perfectly work together.”

So the viewer is not drawn to one corner or one spot? But it reads as—

“As a whole. As the universe is, as I think everything should be. If we understand that we’re all part of something bigger and we’re all part of something smaller at the same time — we’re all interconnected and part of a chain — then we might think and act differently. If we understand that everything we do actually affects somebody else… I feel like the world in general must be changed, and can only be changed, at a very small micro-level. Locally — local communities, in a family, in a classroom… There are a lot of very very small changes, very very subtle things that we can change, but if we all do it as a community it would have a big impact.”

That’s also what I’m seeing on the gallery walls. I’m seeing microphotographs of microorganisms and I’m seeing Pasolini’s vision for massive social change enacted daily, at the micro-level.

Pasolini’s mother died when he was sixteen. His voice softens when he speaks of being in Wales at the time, where he attended the United World College of the Atlantic, a boarding school whose mission is to promote global peace and cooperation. Being away when his mother died is Pasolini’s biggest regret. “We make plans for the future — most people sacrifice the present for a better future. They go to an amazing university and study twenty hours a day because they hope to get a great job, work a lot, and then when they are thirty retire, and they live happily. But we never take into consideration in this whole planning that we don’t really have total control over our life. Sometimes you don’t get to see the next day. [That’s] the most important thing I’ve ever learned, and I learned it the harsh way because that’s one of the only ways you actually learn — experiencing life. I’m a person who thinks you’ve got to experience stuff to actually learn it. It made me understand the importance of not wasting time and doing always exactly what you want and what you feel is right. That was the most precious lesson my mom left me with.”

How did you come to grips with it?

“It was more important to take care of my younger brother than [to] think about what already happened. When it happens it’s already too late to act upon it anyway. So I dedicated most of my energies to helping my family stick together. It brought us so much closer, you know. When something tragic happens people tend to get closer. I’m really thankful for that. There’s nobody I’d rather talk with or spend a day with than my brothers.”

Pasolini completed his final year of boarding school shortly after his mother’s death. He later attended King’s College London, studying politics and international relations. From a young age he was interested in ways to effect positive change — how to most effectively leave a positive imprint on the world — and initially thought politics was the best outlet. He imagined working for the UN, the IMF, an NGO or some other internationally relevant acronym. But on the heels of his first year in university he and a few friends took part in the Mongol Rally — driving a cheap car from London to Ulan Batar, Mongolia during their summer break. “We were nineteen and it was just an adventure to carry on. It would have been the big journey of our life that we would remember forever.” But during this two and a half month, 16,000 kilometer journey — crossing multiple mountain ranges, deserts, and sixteen countries in Eurasia — Pasolini found that he was much more interested in the people he encountered than in the policies of their governments. “It just amazed me at how attached [the] communities were in places where a capitalist economy hadn’t arrived yet. Everybody in the small villages or city would leave the door open, because they knew nobody would steal. They knew everybody and there wasn’t an excess of wealth in one single home, so there was also not much to steal. But community-wise that really interested me. When you’re here in New York you go out, and to a certain extent you think this is how the world is now, everywhere. But really there is a separate universe on this planet. I discovered that I was much better at talking with people and trying to get their story out. I was always just better at the down-to-earth level. That’s what a photo-documentarist does. He spends time with people and tries to understand them and tries to portray them in as much of an honest way as he can. I think we ought to do what we are really good at, and what we love, because that’s the only way we are going to be successful and impactful.”

So it was more of a realization about who you are as a person? It wasn’t that you were frustrated with politics?

“No, no, no. I probably would be [frustrated] by now if I was working in policy. But I wasn’t at the time. I just had a realization that photography and video photography was for me and I was for it.”

After concluding the Mongol Rally Pasolini returned to university knowing that he would never be satisfied with a mundane nine-to-five existence. He didn’t want to promote global sameness. He wanted to protect traditional communities around the world — not simply the people of these communities but our multitudinous human heritage. He was not going to be a politician. He was going to be a photographer. “I came to understand that a photograph, and video information in general, can mobilize people much more than policy could. For example, Sebastião Salgado — one of the most important and renowned documentary photographers in the world — he used to work for the World Bank. He came to the recognition that a photograph is really impactful. Some photographs change the world. They bring in millions of dollars of donations towards a certain cause or a certain problem. So I acknowledged to myself that I would have a better impact towards other people, towards improving social and economic conditions in developing countries, [by] going into documentary photography instead of politics.”

From Kings College London he went to Hong Kong University to study documentary film. Then he left, hopping over to mainland China. In Guangzhou he bought a brand-spanking new Honya motorbike. (Almost a Honda, but not really.) For $300 it came with a 125cc engine and the requisite illegal license and paperwork. With few plans beyond his intention to photographically document traditional societies, Pasolini drove west, crossing a broad chunk of China and climbing the Himalayas into eastern Tibet. As the drive advanced beyond the industrialized regions on the eastern coast, breaking into sparsely populated, largely agricultural interior lands, the spiritual nature of Pasolini’s journey intensified. In Tibet he spent multiple weeks in a Buddhist monastery, living the monastic life. “I wasn’t thinking [only] about the documentary work. And I was always into the spirituality the Buddhists put forward.” One of Pasolini’s appreciations for traditional societies is their tendency to be more spiritually focused. “When money becomes such an essential part of your everyday life then you lose a lot of the spiritual values that still exist so strongly in India, in Burma, in Tibet; in so many of these communities who haven’t been affected by money.” While it’s hard to make the case that traditional societies are beyond the realm of commodified forms of money, or capitalist exchange in general — think opium harvests, clear-cut forestry, or weapons for tribal militias — I recognize his point: societies governed by the profit motive place little value in matters of the spirit.

“It’s an imposition to say that this is how you should dress, this is what you should buy, and this is the way you should live. Also, I feel that our way is not the right way. It promotes self isolation, because you are always competing against one another. So the other is not viewed as another human being anymore; as part of yourself. Just a competitor against which you have to win, or somebody you have to fool into buying your product. I’m not even sure it’s the right system to export. If there ever is going to be one right way of living, before making it global we should decide which one it is.” He reads my skepticism about accomplishing such a feat, and says, “I know it’s impossible. So that’s why I believe every group of people, every community, every individual should be left to decide how he wants to live, without imposition from the outside. We’re obviously changing the societal structure if [we] impose free market economy in a country that never had it.” A National Geographic Study found that one language dies every two weeks, projecting that nearly half of the 7,000 languages currently in existence will be dead by the next century.

Pasolini’s voyage continued into Mongolia from Tibet, covering a vast amount of China before selling the motorbike and crossing into Myanmar, where he also photographed ethnic communities that are on the verge of extinction. Laos, Thailand, Indonesia… He returned to Rome after a year in Asia and immediately secured a gallery show, allowing him to present his photography and its message about the importance of protecting tribal societies and our greater human heritage.

In Rome, aside from planning and executing his exhibit, he spent much time with other artists — discussing art and learning from people who worked in other media as well. During this brief stay in his home country Pasolini’s photography began to shift away from the purely documentary, veering increasingly toward the conceptual, fine art realm.

“Following that I went to Patagonia, which was a place I always dreamt of going. I walked through the Andes for five or six days, just by myself, crossing from Argentina to Chile. [In Patagonia] I walked on this one straight road for a few days — for two or three days nobody would pick me up. There are very few cars passing by.” Pasolini enjoyed being alone in such a vast space with little human infrastructure. “Solitude is essential to understanding what we’re doing here; what’s our aim in life. You’ve got to stop, sit down, stay somewhere where you are alone — because I think you are truly yourself when you are alone — and think. And that’s something we do too little of these days. People are not capable of being alone anymore. [Patagonia] gave me a chance to really think about what I want to do with my life. Because it was at a point at which I kind of understood that photography was what I wanted to do for life, but I wasn’t sure if it was fine art photography or documentary photography. There I understood that I shouldn’t draw a line anywhere. Just keep following what you want to do — what you feel like doing in that exact moment. It was a wonderful journey.”

Pasolini made his way south to Ushuaia, the last strip of land before the Antarctic. He arrived not long before winter. “There was this really strange melancholic sense, because, when the winter comes everything dies in a way. They are so far away from everything else and winter just makes it impossible for you to move down there. It was very interesting to find a location where people would accept that part of nature, and just stayed there for four or five, six months until the snow melted away and they could move around again. Accepting the rhythm of nature is something we’re not used to anymore. Before it was like this, you know. Nobody would come and clean your street if it snowed. You’d be stuck in your house until the snow melted or you decided to venture outside. Unfortunately I didn’t get to stay there for the winter. I didn’t have the time. One part of me didn’t want to also. So I ventured all the way back up. That was an interesting experience, just following exactly the same road, but, strangely enough, everything looked different. It changes depending on the mood you’re in, depending on your capability of appreciating what surrounds you. I feel most people here bolt around so hectically — practically running in New York when they’re walking. I doubt you can appreciate anything.”

I mention that Deviation distinguishes abstract time from real time. Abstract time being the measured time of the clock — a time that is devoid of quality but exists only as a quantity. “We’re just running around all day and not getting much out of it,” I add.

“That’s a good metaphor for the world these days. It looks like were going 130 kilometers per hour on the highway but really we’re looking in the rearview mirror. We’re going forward but we’re not actually going forward. We’re just going backwards. We think we’re going forward because we’re progressing — there’s more stuff. The phones get better and slimmer and faster or whatever, but I feel like we’ve left behind all of the important stuff. Thinking about who you are, the spirituality… The time to take time,” he concludes with emphasis.

Photo by Pietro Pasolini

I haven’t heard this phrase in over a decade, when a mentor spoke to me of the importance of “having the time, to take the time, to take the time.” For him it was critical to include a second iteration of “take the time.” Pasolini continues his thought. “I feel we have a very wrong perspective about the importance of time, in two different ways. First of all, time is really the only finite good that exists. Money? It’s full of money everywhere. You can make a lot of money if you’re really good at it. But the only thing you’re wasting while doing that is time. Time is the only thing you cannot really buy. And we are so inclined to waste it. If there is one thing you should be stingy or cautious about, it’s time. Because it’s the one thing that’s truly valuable. Here you’re working fourteen, fifteen, sixteen hours a day to make a lot of money, but really you’re losing time, which should be the only important currency in your life. Because that’s what you’re giving. When you’re giving work you’re paying with time. Time is your greatest good and unfortunately you only realize that when you’re about to run out of it.”

How old are you? I ask, a little surprised by the depth of his wisdom in contrast to his unwrinkled skin.

“Twenty-four.”

Fuck, man. You’ve done a lot.

“Well, time… It’s subjective, you know. It’s all about experience. I think people grow according to experience, not time.” He is speaking of abstract time, of course. Real time is the time of quality, creation, and experience — an immeasurable link between the dual infinities. His words can be rephrased: “People grow according to real time, not abstract time.” Pasolini has lived a very real life so far.

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