Tomeu Coll considers that Sardinia has many faces. It is an oasis in the middle of the Mediterranean, a place of appealing natural presence and, above all, a region with a strong community that maintains centuries-old traditions. The Mallorcan photographer was given the opportunity to put a Leica Q3 through its paces, exploring the island’s heartland, and capturing the daily lives of the people living there. He spoke with us about what brought him to Italy’s second largest island, and the role that curiosity and empathy play in his photographic work.

After your Badlands project set in Mallorca, you’ve ended up in Sardinia. How long were you there and what did you want to explore for your Shardana project?
Islands, or rather the causes and consequences of having been born on an island, have always represented a recurring theme in my life – with all its pros and cons. I’ve been to Sardinia four times this year alone, and I was specially interested in exploring the roots that have defined the Sardinian people throughout history, whether it’s the respect and preservation of their traditions, their indigenous sense, or, in particular, their resistance when the island was faced with invasions and conquests. One of the most enigmatic particularities is their respect for nature; to such a degree that a large part of the island has remained intact and wild; herds of grazing animals are an endlessly recurring sight, and that – speaking of islands and especially my native Mallorca – was one of the factors that caught my attention. I also wanted to better understand how Sardinian spirituality is reflected in everyday life.

Where did the idea to deal so intensely with this island, of all places, come from? What is unique about Sardinia, and especially Barbagia?
The main idea was to get to know first hand the characteristic features that led to the preservation of identity. Considering the current issues facing islands – massive tourism and climate change –, I wanted to understand how these neighbours have managed to survive the ups and downs of history, and have continued to preserve many pagan traditions. Sardinia is an oasis in the middle of the Mediterranean; an oasis because it continues to be a wild place. Even though it’s true that there are parts of the island that have been very exploited and are built up, it’s also true that – particularly in the region of Barbagia – there are curiosities in community life that are rarely found elsewhere. At times it feels as if time has stood still, yet, at the same time, you have the feeling that the hills have eyes.

You highlight a microcosm of ancient traditions. Was it difficult to track down these scenarios? What was your photographic approach in general?
As a general rule, my photographic perspective is characterised by taking pictures from within, participating in situations, because curiosity is what attracts me most to the unknown; above all for the opportunity of an exchange, often only visual, but intense. Once you show an interest in the beliefs or traditions of a people, it’s normally easy to get access to those scenarios. It might be worth mentioning that at times insufficient importance is given to getting to know the people you want to photograph. I like to think that empathy begins with the desire that gives you the impulse to approach the protagonists in the photographs, who are precisely the ones who are telling us the story of humanity.

You were on the road with the Q3. What was it like working with the camera?
It’s a very comfortable camera, in which I knew I could place my trust from the moment I saw the results. Apart from the impressive quality of the sensor, the thing that impressed me most was the autofocus. I usually prefer a manual focus, but having the option of autofocus on a Leica was something I couldn’t ignore; because knowing that I had it on the Q3, and knowing at the same time that I could trust blindly the quality I’d get, meant that I could be relaxed and concentrate on the protagonists in the pictures. What’s more, because it has a body which is very similar to the M system, I was already used to it; so adapting was relatively easy.

Who are the protagonists you photographed? How did they react when you pulled out your camera?
Shepherds, livestock farmers, singers, cooks, witches, authors… I was lucky enough to have access to a very concrete community of people who feel a very close connection to their island, their land and their traditions. Many of them are also fighting for the recognition of their own language and identity. In general, everyone on the island is very hospitable, and I could also feel that respect when I started preparing the camera.

Following your time in Sardinia, what fascinated you most about the island and its people, from a photographic perspective?
The relationship that exist all over Sardinia with regard to human beings and nature, and how this is revealed in different manners, whether through the interchange of roles between people and animals, the representation of their old deities, or the pagan rituals, of which little is known regarding their exact provenance. These ancestral beliefs are presented in daily activities, and that creates the feeling of belonging to a community with an identity written in stone. Without a doubt, the agro-pastoral culture is one of the most interesting pillars of the history of this Mediterranean people.

Were you able to learn anything for yourself personally from the project?
I’ve somehow always looked to learn – not only with photography, but also thanks to photography. I suppose that is one of its special abilities.
Of course, one of the things I was especially fascinated by on this island, was the respect for the surroundings and the protection of the forests and seas. Also the way the inhabitants of the different villages relate to each other – there are over 300 spread around the island, and each one of them has its own way of seeing its surroundings. I was also able to learn about many legends on which the beliefs of the Sardinian people are, partially, based. Maybe they are true, maybe they aren’t, but they range from the well-known Acabbadora, a feminine figure who represented a companion for important moments in life, helping in birthing but also dying, to the pagan tradition where the more elderly, once they had turned 70, were thrown from the top of a rock. True or not, the legends and Sardinian history are among the most fascinating ones I know. What’s more, this all happens on an island, giving it a more mysterious and inspiring feel.

Will you return to take more photos or do you already have other projects lined up?
Of course. There’s still so much I haven’t got to know, and which I believe is necessary to be able to draw more deeper and intense reflections about the future that lies ahead; after all, islands are indicators of the changes on the planet.
At the same time, I also have other projects happening. Some I’ve been working on for years, but, as with pretty much everything I do, they are long term, and at times I need time to edit them correctly. Be that as it may, they all follow their own rhythm; and the most important thing is to never stop photographing our world – even if it’s just to try and may sense of it all.

Born on Mallorca in 1981, Tomeu Coll became involved in photography at age 17. He received a Master’s in Photojournalism from the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona in 2005. The recipient of several photography awards, his works have been published in magazines worldwide. The Smithsonian magazine (USA) featured him as an Emerging Photographer with his Badlands project, which became a book in 2020. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram page.

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