Italian photographer Lorenzo Meloni was in his mid 20s, studying photography and still working full time in information security when he found himself photographing a 2010 protest in Yemen that was violently put down by government forces. That was to be the start of his professional photography career. Soon Meloni was photographing the aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall in Libya, covering the spiralling war in Syria, and documenting the Kurds’ struggles in Rojava.
These varied topics were united for Meloni by his interest in the post-colonial fallout from the Sykes-Picot agreement, in which France and Britain secretly carved up the vast territory of the Ottoman Empire between them, but it wasn’t until the Islamic State came into being that his disparate areas of work coalesced into the decade-long project that became his new book, We Don’t Say Goodbye. Here he discusses the role IS played in his work, obsessively collecting the artefacts of the Caliphate, and the idea of fragmentation in his work.
VICE: What sort of photos were you taking before the book project started?
Lorenzo Meloni: I already had a full time job, so the only time I had to shoot was my free time: I was mainly shooting my friends. We were doing rave parties and things like that.
How did you go from raves to conflict work?
I started to shoot stories in my holidays from work and studying, one of the first was in Yemen. I went there in 2010 with the idea of making a complex photojournalistic story about the water crisis. While I was there I had my first encounter, accidentally, with a conflict situation.
There was a big demonstration in Aden, and the army arrived and started shooting at people. I wasn’t able to take any decent pictures, and my flash going off nearly got me killed, people got super pissed off. I got very few pictures, but a lot of people were killed that night.
I was still in Yemen when I started to send the images to [to editors]. I got no answers, which I found incredible – to me it was a front-page story, but it didn’t get covered.
Then, in 2011, the Arab Spring started, at first in Egypt and Libya, but also in Yemen. There was no one photographing there. I was contacted by TIME, they wanted to publish the pictures from the earlier protest.
That Christmas I decided to take my “holiday” in Libya, where the war had just ended. I spent maybe more than a month there working. An Italian agency started to distribute my work and I thought, ‘OK, maybe I can actually be a photographer’. I moved to Lebanon to start photographing full time and never stopped.
How fast did an optimistic project on the post-Arab Spring era start to morph into something less hopeful?
I began to have doubts from the first day I arrived in Libya. I had been reading everything I could about the revolution – mostly in the European press – everyone was writing about the rebels in Libya: these young people fighting for freedom. It was all a bit idealised. Early on a guy told me, “Before, we were fighting Gaddafi. Now anyone with a gun is a Gaddafi – they have the right of life and death over you.”
There was a village called Tawergha close to Misrata, whose people had fought for Gaddafi. The people of Misrata - as revenge - stole everything from the village and burned the houses. For a month they kept going back to burn places that were already burned, so that people could see the smoke. These were the heroes, the freedom fighters. Seeing the circle of the conflict, the winners taking revenge on the losers, made me pessimistic quickly.
How did the project broaden over time?
In parallel to the work in Libya, I started photographing along the border between Lebanon and Syria. Then I went to Aleppo to cover the fighting there. I left Aleppo the day after I found myself taking a photo around a corner with another photographer’s camera lens flapping around my head. I decided to go and see what was going on with the Kurds, who had started to fight against a faction of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that was more extreme, and had links with Al-Qaeda.
The borders in that region have an interesting history, they are the result of a colonial agreement between the British and the French, the Sykes-Picot agreement, and have become points of encounter and clashes between religions and ethnicities. I was looking for a complex story that gave me freedom to take pictures that weren’t just of people firing Kalashnikovs…
I knew I wanted to do a story about these borders, post-colonialism and the aftermath of Sykes-Picot... but given the complexity of the subject and the difficulties in defining it visually, I didn't know exactly how to connect everything in one monolithic project.
In 2014, Baghdadi [i.e. IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi] announced the birth of the Islamic State. One of the very first things they did was a propaganda video where they drove over the border between Syria and Iraq, destroying the symbols of the border. They said the border didn’t exist, that it was just a consequence of colonialism, and thus proclaimed the caliphate.
I was looking for a common thread to my work, and then this arrived. From a selfish point of view, without knowing what was going to happen from there on, I was almost grateful for this proclamation.
The Islamic State somehow connected all the stories I was already working on.
The book includes photos of Islamic State pamphlets, paraphernalia… Why was it important for you to show these?
I would enter places where IS had been and whichever armed group I was with usually destroyed everything. For me, IS was an obsession of sorts, I wanted to know everything about these people – why they were doing what they were doing. I was searching for stuff… You had to be very careful as a lot of stuff was mined, but I started this collection. What was happening before my eyes was historic. It seemed a shame to burn all the proof of it.
In their distorted reality, IS were really working as a state, producing documentation for taxes, properties, minting money. It was really interesting to see this bureaucracy of war: I would have never expected for example that to commit a suicide attack you had to write a letter and get it formalised. At the end of the caliphate as a territory I made a big still life series of these objects. They create another layer of narrative, putting the viewer in direct contact with the Islamic State.
How did you approach presenting such a complex subject in a book?
I printed off a crazy amount of pictures, to the point where my flat looked like the house of a psychopath. I tried to find things that all these places had in common. That's when I came upon this idea of fragmentation.
I had been wounded by shrapnel fragments, and most of the people I saw wounded or killed were hit by very small fragments of shrapnel… I had done a big series of images of shrapnel and they gave me this idea of fragmentation. The source of the conflict was the division between these countries… Places fragmented, ethnically, religiously, the fragmentation of whole lands.
Fragmentation and repetition are elements that exist as a form of narration also used in literature– The Things They Carried is a famous example – this creating of a loop, every story restarting the same way and fragmenting. The timeline of the book goes from the announcement of the Islamic State to its end as a territorial entity, but obviously the reasons for the birth of the Islamic State are rooted well before its advent and the ideology continues to exist.
We Don’t Say Goodbye is available now, published by GOST.