After an initial experience photographing and filming a local community of tuna fishermen in Sicily, we realised how little we know about the stories behind our staple foods, and how interconnected they are with their geographical locations and the people who inhabit them. Back then, it was a tiny island off the coast of western Sicily, but this time, we wanted to explore rivers. The longest river in Italy is the river Po’ — a shallow, slow river that flows from the Alps to the Adriatic sea. In ancient times, it was a mythological god-like being that destroyed villages and created new fertile land. This is where risotto rice comes from, and where 50% of all rice sold in Europe is grown. Rice also happens to be one of the most water-intensive crops and is particularly susceptible to droughts, disease and extreme weather.

Determined to tell this story, we picked up a reliable camera system that would be able to handle the humid, muddy rice fields, and after months of research we finally headed to the Po’ valley.  On our first night, we were welcomed by a large storm, ominously roaring in our rear-view mirror as we drove our camper-van to the Lomellina —the heart of Italy’s risotto country. After a morning spent taking portraits of the locals in Casale Monferrato with the APO-Summicron-SL 75, and a restful lunch in Morano sul Po’, we finally visited our first lead. It’s always difficult to gain trust when you present yourself as photographers, so we put our Leica SL2 in our camera bags, and decided to just have a chat. Eventually, our lead put us in touch with a rice farmer in Pobietto, a historical town fully enclosed in a rice farm, or “grangia” as the locals call it. This is were we met Massimo; he descends from a long lineage of rice farmers and he is very proud of their traditions, believing that despite all the challenges, the future of Italian rice is still bright. However, he wanted to show us how the 2022 drought affected his farm.

“After last year’s drought, we’ve had to repurpose almost 20% of our land to soya bean crops. They can endure this type of weather and we have it as a backup to rotate our crop when the rice yields less produce.”

Marco says, “The APO-Summircon-SL 35 is the most colour-accurate and sharpest Leica lens, and certainly the best lens I have ever used. It was crucial in nailing the colour in this portrait of Massimo, despite the very harsh sunlight. His skin tones are well preserved even in the highlights, and thanks to its sharpness, you can really see how dry the soil was.”

After gauging the first farmer’s point of view, we headed to the National Rice Institute to meet Filip Haxhari, who is leading the research in new drought-resistant rice varieties using traditional genetic improvement methods. As he inserts coins in an old vending machine to get us espressos, he shares how excited he is to have us document their research.

Holding three withered rice plants upside down in front of his desk, he explains how they are selectively breeding rice for roots that develop vertically rather than horizontally.

“In a future with more droughts, vertical roots will allow the plants to draw water stored deeper in the soil.”

Developing new rice with conventional methods is an endeavour that spans decades and requires tedious, time-consuming work. The 1700 varieties in the germplasm bank, some 200 years old, are routinely analysed for specific traits, planted, and manually cross-pollinated. In 2020, the research centre revisited an older variety developed in the 80’s, Prometeo (Prometheus) – a descendent of Carnaroli, among others. Its strong, vertical root system was of little use at a time when droughts were rarer and less extreme. Line 81 from the Prometeo crop, officially named PRM81, was hailed as a promising candidate for a drought-resistant rice. Dr Haxhari nicknamed it the “Rice of the Future”.

An irregular and untameable river like the Po required the construction of a network of canals, the most important of which is the Cavour Canal, built between 1863 and 1866 under the patronage of Count Camillo Benso di Cavour – one of the forefathers of the modern Italian nation. This is were we were headed to next.

Situated just before the canal splits the river in two, Chivasso is home to Giovanni and Giuseppe Pochettino’s rice farm. Proudly boasting what he claims is one of the purest forms of Carnaroli rice grain (several other similar varieties can be sold under the name Carnaroli), Giuseppe prepares a nutrient and phytopharmaceuticals cocktail that will be sprayed on the cultivation. “Carnaroli is very delicate”, he says, “so I have to dose it meticulously.” He is concerned about man-made climate change and explains how he had to resort to ‘dry preparation’, whereby rice is cultivated in its initial stages with drier conditions.

Haakon says, “The Leica SL2 paired with the Vario-Elmarit-SL 24-70 is so simple and straight-forward to use. No over-complicated controls, and a fast f/2.8 lens across the focal range so I can get the composition I want without worrying about variable aperture. Framing Giovanni’s portrait in a split second was only possible thanks to the intuitive controls.”

The river Po gives the locals front-row seats to the effects of climate change. For centuries the river bed moved, submerging some villages and leaving others without water, ascending its features to a mythological figure, not unlike the sun and the moon. Civilization after civilization fought here to tame the river, only to see it slowly losing to a greater force. Agriculture is essential to the economy of this region, and it transpires whenever you speak to any local. Southern Italians moved here en masse to work the fields well before international migration took over, and they built a family sustained by their farm labour. The rich agricultural history allowed the region to develop early and to pivot into other sectors, whereas the rest of Italy lagged behind.

Giovanni introduced us to a local worker, Antonio, who like many, moved here decades ago from southern Italy. He was referred to as the “Acquaiolo” (water man) — a specialised labourer who controls the flow of water in the paddy fields. This requires years of experience, and Giovanni rewards him with a flexible schedule that allows Antonio to have a long lunch at home (on farm land) with his wife.

Our last stretch of the journey takes us upstream to the Aosta Valley’s snowy peaks, where around 20% of the Po’ water comes from. Here we meet Marta Galvagno, biometeorologist at ARPA (Aosta Valley Environmental Protection Agency). She collects data from larch forests – one of nature’s health indicators. To do this, she must climb a meteorological tower built at an altitude of 2200m, overlooking the Italian side of the Matterhorn. The tower is packed with the most sophisticated instrumentation currently available, used to collect data on the larch canopy and assess its role in climate change mitigation. Courageously, Haakon jumps on the opportunity to climb the tower alongside Marta, with with his Leica SL2 and zoom lens in a camera bag. I, Marco, follow up after him, with my legs shaking. Despite my fear of heights, the excitement of being there to capture this scene makes me swap my 35mm and 75mm lenses one-handed like I had never done before. Granted, the well designed ergonomics of the camera help a great deal.

Galvagno climbs this tower every month, year-round, to download the data from its sensors. They make use of an atmospheric measurement method called eddy covariance, which looks at the exchange between ecosystem and atmosphere in terms of gas, energy, and momentum. Over recent years, with the unceasing progress made in computer acquisition, data processing capacity, and sensors, eddy covariance is gaining popularity. This system enables ARPA to measure the impact of climate change on forests, as well as their efficacy as a climate change mitigation tool.

Marta later introduces us to Francesco Avanzi, snow hydrologist at CIMA (International Centre for Environmental Monitoring). He researches the water cycle and develops mathematical models for climate forecasting, but also participates in awareness campaigns on the importance of managing water resources.

“Europe used to be rich in water. We were used to thinking that water will always be there, but this is not going to be the case in the future, especially in areas like the Alps, where glaciers are an important component in the summer. By conserving water up here, you are saving my mom’s risotto down there!”

This concludes our trip. Taking the SL-System on this special journey ensured that we could capture every moment in the best possible quality, and we would not settle for anything less!

The project has since been published by The Guardian and Internazionale.

If you would like to see more of Marco and Haakon’s work, head to their websites: Marco Massa / Haakon Sand or follow them on Instagram @massa.marco / @_haakonsand