“Becoming Simone” is the story of a man who lived in a woman’s body until the age of 51. Why did you decide to tell this story?
It is the story that came to me around 2009.
I met Simone when he was Angelina, he was a neighbour of mine. We used to live in the same building and we used to have simple chats on the stairs.
One day, Simone approached my then boyfriend, thinking he was a journalist and wishing to share with him his story. When my boyfriend came home, he shared with me what Simone had told him – that he was about to begin the sex-reassignment process.
I immediately went to Simone saying I was interested in his story and that I would be interested to work on a project about his experience and his life.
As a photographer, I am fascinated by stories that involve psychological and philosophical searching – to me this story was one of them. Simone’s is not just a story related to sexual transition is the quest that as human beings we must somehow accomplish: getting closer to the vision of what we want to be in life. Simone’s journey is a particularly challenging one.
I think that the courage to tell this story was fuelled by my curiosity. I was inspired by the possibility of asking questions that I never before had the chance to ask. This is the reason why the work with Simone started with audio interviews.
Simone had a deep desire to share his experience with the world. My courage, compared to his, is actually not that great. In fact Simone taught me a lot about courage.
You shared a video of the first dummy you made, and then another of the book when it was done. It’s interesting to see how your vision evolved. What was the process like in making the book?
In the beginning stages of this project what I had in mind was a multimedia work – something that combined audio and photos. However, this would have been too complicated.
This was around 2009-2010. I was just getting into bookmaking. I did not know that this was going to become true love. During the same period, Simone started his surgeries and I did not really know how to go ahead with the work, I was a bit lost.
In 2013 I was getting more and more involved with book making. I then was selected to take part in a workshop at ISSP summer school, which was led by the graphic designer Teun van der Hidjen. I decided to take my Becoming Simone project there. Before leaving for ISSP, I did my first dummy on a square black notebook. Past and present got mixed up; I had already transcribed the interviews and chosen the sentences.
I printed words and photos, I cut them and glued them on the notebook to figure out how they could combine. I started to like the shape the project was taking, yet the normal way of going through the pages did not give me the feeling I was looking for: everything was too static. As Simone says: – Everything moves. And I was after something more fluid too.
At the WS everybody in the class had to present individually their work in the main while the others were exhort to give suggest/thought/feeling about it.
Finally it was my turn to present my work and we discuss my doubts too. After a while we came up with the idea of two books overlapping one another. So the initial idea for the layout is the outcome of a collective effort, the video you mentioned is the dummy that I created in those days.
I returned from Latvia and that was the starting point – a really good starting point. After that, I worked over 5 months to get the final layout. The whole process took a lot of experimenting: I don’t know how many Becoming Simone dummies I have in my house – with black or cream or blue cover; with hand binding, singer binding or metallic stitch.
The last version – the one now published – was completed only two days before the deadline of the Self publishing Riga and Kassel Dummy Awards. I was really afraid I could not make it in time, but finally, thanks to Fontegrafica (the printer), we got there.
The idea of time is profound in the book: the clock, the photos (not in chronological order), moving forward in time and then traveling back.
This story is about a soul that travels through time and shapes. I watched Angela disappear day by day, as Simone was emerging.
Simone finally achieved something he wanted since he was a young girl. You can feel that this expectation has its roots in a distant past. He lived 51 years with this vision of himself that has been push through time. So yes, Time probably it is one of the main characters of this book.
One of the first times I walked into Angela’s house there was this pink wall with a clock and butterflies stickers on it. I came back in Simone’s house after the first surgery and the stickers were gone, no more butterflies.
In Becoming Simone we go back and forward through the traces left by Angela – the family photos, the flower bathrobe that she left in the toilet.
Now Simone is racing against time. He is old, almost 60, and has not finished the surgeries…so, again, there is a big emphasis on time, timing, regret (past) and expectations (future).
What do you hope to achieve with the photobook?
In this particular historical moment, when gender issues are prominent and controversial, I hope this book may be a vehicle that can speak to a variety of people. The images and words are meant to convey an intensely human experience. While the story may present confronting issues for certain individuals, the way it is told is simple and honest – one can easily relate to Simone’s experience.
I feel passionate about art being a tool for fostering social change and enhancing communication across social and cultural divides.
At a personal level, this project provided an opportunity for me to feel confident enough to continue working and experiment along the same lines. And it is what I am doing now.
You founded a collective in 2008 called Tutamondo. Tell us about it.
Tutamondo was founded in 2008 in collaboration with Francesca Marconi.
Our goal is to realize projects that create an interface between art and the social realm, which can improve the quality of people’s lives and enrich the relationship with public spaces.
Tutamondo’s projects are carried out with citizens through the language of contemporary art. Art is used as the main evocative tool, able to speak across borders, backgrounds and languages, and able to explore new mechanisms in social action.
The method that we use is through community workshop: a space of ideas and projects open to artists, children, adolescents, people with special needs or skills, different cultures and vulnerable categories..
We have been working with over 3,000 people in the suburbs of Milan between 2008 and 2013. Check out this link to see some of our main projects.
In the last year we have been working more individually, but we are looking forward to our next project together. We will let you know.
Alessia Bernardini is an Italian photographer based in Milan.