Alfredo Bini: In search of a future

By Graham Reid

Transmigrations. Photo / Alfredo Bini
Transmigrations. Photo / Alfredo Bini

Graham Reid talks to a frontline photographer who captures laughter and tears.

As a career change, it couldn't have been more dramatic or life endangering. In a few fast years, Alfredo Bini went from being a factory manager in Italy to a freelance photojournalist being shot at by Gaddafi's troops in the Libyan uprising.

Bini was among the few journalists in Misratah and his photographs were the first the outside world would see of the nascent revolution which would eventually topple Gaddafi's regime. His award-winning images were the result of a journey made at his own expense, accompanying two journalist friends from Rome.

"We were a month in Benghazi then went to Misratah. There were no other journalists there other than someone from Al Jazeera," he says from his home in the Tuscan town of Pistola as he packs his bags again.

"We took a car to Cairo, a plane to Rome then went to Malta and got a fishing boat to Misratah. We stayed for 36 hours but it was very dangerous.

We were shot at two times, the last time a mortar from the Gaddafi forces hit close to us. If it had exploded I wouldn't be here to talk to you."

Bini is among the international guests at this weekend's multi-venue Auckland Festival of Photography, speaking in the Crossing Borders panel discussion this morning in the Aotea Centre's Goodman Fielder Room. He says that before he made the abrupt career change, his photography had been of the kind most of us take when we travel or, as he charmingly puts it, "when I move my body".

But almost a decade ago he began attending regular workshops held by National Geographic in Tuscany which brought in inspirational photographers like Bob Sacha and David Doubilet.

"I learned a lot in the workshops and every night we met with guys from other classes and spoke about reportage, glamour or fashion photography, or portrait work. So it was creative but also a learning thing for me.

"Before I had just done some tourism things, but this was like a call and I thought, 'This is my life and I want to try to be a professional at this'."

Other seminars in Perpignan convinced him he would "look for stories that must be shown to people, and that's why I shifted from personal or landscapes to more political things".

In 2006 he quit his managerial position and threw himself into the world of geopolitics, corporate greed and gunmen. His most recent work has been on agricultural land grabs in Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and now he is looking at covering mining land grabbing in South America.

In 2009 he embarked on an award-winning photographic exploration - which he is speaking on in Auckland - entitled Transmigrations which was published by the BBC, the New York Times, the Herald Tribune and in European newspapers and magazines. It broadly addresses the African diaspora and specifically follows migrants through the Tenere desert in Niger.

"It's a story of migrants coming from West Africa and trying to reach Libya. After a year or two, if they were lucky, they might be able to reach Europe. To do this they use four routes and one is across west Niger. They moved to Agadez [to the south of the Tenere] and there they stayed a month waiting for the convoy. Then they moved across the Tenere, which takes a week, and reach the Libyan border."

Bini spent three weeks on the road with the migrants but says it was "a pinball political situation" as the Tuareg people were in rebellion and "the president of Niger didn't want journalists around".

"The rebellion was linked to uranium mining and that was a big issue. So I spent about 20 days hoping to get permission to move with the migrants. I didn't care about the rebellion. I would love to have done something, but it was very difficult and that was another story."

He was arrested twice and told to erase the memory from his camera: "But I didn't," he laughs.

In many Transmigrations photos the people look surprisingly happy and full of hope, despite the arduous and hazardous journey

"Yes, because for them it is the chance of their life. They are happy when they travel, they don't care about the sun, the lack of water and bad food. They are just happy because they are changing their life."

Bini notes very few actually make it to Europe, most just want to reach Libya. At the time of his project there were 1.5 million African workers in the country.

"In West Africa they earn $30 to $35 dollars a month, but in Libya the salary is $300 to $400 a month. That is why during the Libyan uprising the migrants were on the side of Gaddafi, apart from the mercenaries.

"But in Benghazi or Misratah or wherever these people arrived, they were on Gaddafi's side because [Libya] was good for them ... Auckland Festival of PhotographyWho: Italian photojournalist Alfredo Bini

Where and when: Talking Culture Symposium, with Alfredo Bini, Nikki Denholm, Matt Daw, Bruce Connew, Goodman Fielder Room, Aotea Centre, today 10.30am-4pmAfrican refugees on the move, from Transmigrations by Italian photographer Alfredo Bini.

although there was corruption with the police and military, and some of them were incarcerated or put back to their country.

"But for the people themselves, the reasons [to move] are no different than in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Africa everybody moves everywhere to work, not just from Africa to Europe but from Burkina Faso they move to Ghana to work on plantations. In Ethiopia girls move to UAE to work as housekeepers, so for them it is normal. It is their daily life."

He laughs about how Europeans perceive these migrations when they see "like, 150 people on a truck".

"They don't do this because they are desperate, they move because it is normal. In Europe people see these pictures of guys on the truck and they say, 'Oh my God, it's bad'.

"But we had 13 people in one five-seater car, and on my trip back we were on a small lorry and there were 25 people. Just normal."

- NZ Herald

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