Documentary photographer William Daniels took on an unusual project aimed at portraying the natural environment surrounding the brand, Ermenegildo Zegna, and maybe even capturing the very spirit of the Italian company. He took various excursions into the Oasi Zegna, a nature reserve in the Province of Biella, Piedmont. Following the establishment in Trivero in the thirties of the company bearing his name, Ermengildo Zegna, founder of the Zegna Group, created the oasis as a green monument.
William Daniels speaks about this unusual assignment and his thoughts about nature.
What does nature mean to you in general?
I don’t have any personal or philosophical definition of nature. It is a place where I like to be sometimes and feel the peace.
Being a documentary photographer, you cover a lot of humanitarian crises and social issues. There are a lot of landscapes and nature in your images. How do you perceive nature in the places where you take pictures?
I see them as peace-full breaks. If this can help, here is an English introduction to my last exhibition and book Wilting Point, which is a personal and intimate reflection on the fragile and ephemeral human condition. It combines images made in war zones (Middle East, Kashmir, Central African Republic, Central Asia, and on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border) with peaceful moments of natural splendour: “In botany, wilting point is the term used to describe the point beyond which the level of moisture in the soil is insufficient for the plant’s survival. The plant wilts, then dies if these hostile conditions endure. In our world, there are other breaking points, restless in-between places maintaining a tenuous link between life and death.
The reporter, because he shares his vision of a world in motion, pursues these precarious equilibriums. He immerses himself in the chaos and, capturing the clamour, attempts to comprehend it. Why do certain countries leave us with the feeling that they carry a heavy burden? Why do we leave them with the idea that the worm was already in the fruit, as though someone had fed it, fattening it up over the years? Now it’s here to stay. Kyrgyz revolutions, sectarian wars in the Central African Republic, the Rohingya exoduses, Kashmir, the former Soviet Union, and so on.”
In the case of the project shown here, was it the first time you focussed solely on nature?
Yes it was the first time as I am not nature photographer. It was great, refreshing. I feel like it was a balance to my usual projects on conflict zones.
What did you feel was special about Oasi Zegna? Please describe what it was that fascinated you in Trivero.
Oasi Zegna is undoubtedly a beautiful place. I was lucky to have some nice mist while I was climbing the mountain. I was indeed fascinated by the conifers forests, the morning mist, the view from the top of the mountain, the quietness.
What times of the day were you shooting at?
I worked in the late afternoon, as well as very early morning, to get the mist.
What did you have in mind when working with this label?
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Zegna before this assignment; and since its theme was “nature”, I thought I should just dive into the beautiful forests as soon as I arrived there, to enjoy the feeling of the nature. The following day, I climbed to the mountain top before sunrise, and then walked into the forest of conifers. The early sun rays enter the “straight lines” of the natural architecture in such a beautiful way; but it doesn’t last long, so I had to be quick to get nice shots!
Which Leica system did you work with on this series? What were your impressions of the camera?
I worked with the SL2; I really liked it and acquired one recently. I like the quality of the fixed SL lenses and the High Res sensor. I also really like the stabilizer, which I had never used in any camera before.
You seem to work mainly in colour. Why this preference? Have you ever tried black and white?
I loved black and white when I started taking photographs. At the time I was quite influenced by the black and white documentary work by the likes of Salgado or Koudelka. But I was struggling to earn a living, so I actually started working in colour as it was easier to get assignments; and I then discovered that I really liked colour. I realized It can be as strong as black and white photography, in terms of suggestiveness, poetry and lyricism.
Are there any new assignments or future projects you would like to talk about at this point?
Since 2018, I’ve been working on a worldwide project related to statelessness, supported by the National Geographic Society. The whole project is on hold right now, however, because of the Covid-19 pandemic. I really hope I can get back into the field next year.
Born in Normandy, France, in 1977, William Daniels has dedicated himself to documenting vulnerable communities and places plagued by chronic instability. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine and his work has won numerous recognitions, including two World Press Awards, the Visa d’Or Award, the Tim Hetherington Grant, and the Master Award at the Festival of Ethical Photography. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram.