hen Vincenzo Pietropaolo was a young immigrant boy in Toronto in the 1950s he would accompany his mother to Kensington Market. This was the downtown grocery-shopping destination for many Italian immigrants where you could get foods similar to those back home. A typical weekly purchase was a chicken. Not unusual – except that it was alive. Vincenzo’s mother would walk down the street carrying the chicken upside down by its feet, its wings flapping, destined for that night’s dinner. The boy would walk many steps behind, embarrassed by the demonstration of this clearly immigrant behaviour, foreign to Anglo-Canadians used to buying more static poultry.
Many years later this memory was evoked in Vince’s photograph of a woman plucking a chicken in Italy, recently killed by her own hand. It’s a striking example of his photographic journey, documenting working class immigrant life for close to five decades. He is an internationally acclaimed social documentary photographer who has travelled extensively but has always lived close to his Italian roots in his adopted city.
When I visited him recently in his comfortable west end Toronto home, we sat in his backyard – an oasis redolent of the Mediterranean. The vegetable garden was giving up its last tomatoes and peppers while the grapevine was criticized for not yielding any decent fruit this year. But what made it truly an Italian immigrant’s dream was the fig tree. Vince gave me the last fruit of the season – which I appreciated as only another immigrant from the same part world can. I thought of my father trying to nurture a fig tree in his kitchen during the Canadian winter and not having much luck. But Vince had learned from the best – his Italian cohorts. You can have a fig tree in your Toronto backyard but you must bury it during the winter. First you dig a long trench right next to the tree, big enough to fit the entire thing, lying down. Then you dig around the tree carefully and push it over so that it lies in the trench. Some of the roots will break but most will remain intact. Place the dug dirt over it. Leave in the ground all winter until spring. Then dig it out, pull it straight, re-add the dirt and wait for rain to wash it clean.
This maintenance of his connection to the immigrant experience – and particularly that of the Italian immigrant – has informed Vince’s work for many years. He began documenting the life of his Toronto community in the 1970s and, as he says in one of the numerous photography books he has published over the years:
“…photography [is] a…first language for me […] immigration is the social reality I have been rooted in, heart and soul. To be an immigrant is to have been born elsewhere; this is an inescapable fact that plays a fundamental and determining role in one’s life… It is through photography that I have been able to deal with the uprooting nature of the immigration process.” (from “Not Paved with Gold”, Between the Lines, Toronto, 2005)
During his acclaimed photography career, Vince has produced a phenomenal body of work documenting people, cultures and ways of life in different parts of the world. His photo essays include compelling images from New York City, the Caribbean, Mexico, Havana, a number of places in Italy, and of course Toronto. In addition to his extensive documentation of immigrant life, his passion for addressing social justice issues through his work is evident in his powerful images. Beginning with sober glimpses into the lives of workers in the Toronto area, Vince went on to document the experiences of migrant farm workers, refugees, people with disabilities, disadvantaged young people and those dealing with old age.
Although Vince’s photographs have been exhibited all over the world and published widely, his real love is for books of photography that include his astute observations and analyses of what he is documenting. He has published nine books of photographs accompanied by his and others’ essays. He says, “Books have a life of their own and can last forever.” For Vince, being able to look through a book at leisure and go back and forth between pages is a privilege often discounted by our digital world.
In the late 1990s he began visiting Cuba, attracted first by the historic visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998. In 2002 he published “Making Home in Havana”, with text by Cecelia Lawless, and featuring over 100 photographs that he took over a period of six years and nine visits to the city. The images explore the concept of home and place in a city that is devoid of resources yet no one is homeless. Recently, the work caught the eye of James Rottman, of James Rottman Fine Art, who invited Vince to hold a solo show at a downtown gallery in Toronto. The result was “Havana: City at a Crossroads” an exhibition that, as its catalogue says, “illuminates the texture of everyday life of the people of Havana; their spirit, as well as the beauty and decay of the city”. It is a timely show, especially with Cuba now on the cusp of major social and possibly political change.
Another labour of love that Vince has been working on since 1969 is his documentation of an annual event that takes place every Good Friday in Little Italy in Toronto. It’s the solemn procession, reenacted by Catholics, of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as part of Easter festivities. Vince has taken photos of the event and the participants every year – missing maybe one year, he says. Occasionally there are people in the photos, now adults, who were children in Vince’s earlier photographs. The thousands of photographs he has taken have culminated in his latest book, “Ritual” (to be published in November 2016 by Black Dog Publishing). For him, the procession has echoes of protests or marches for social justice that he has been part of many times. He says, “I see the Good Friday procession as a march of sorts – I think they’re marching for social justice in the next world.”
This recent book is a return to his original documentation of the immigrant world in his adopted city. Vince smiles, “Toronto is my beat.” And rightly so. He speculates that he probably should have started off as a photojournalist (he worked as a city planner for a number of years before turning to photography full time) but the work he has produced goes far beyond a photojournalist’s purview. His images are moving, startling and always engaging. At the heart of each, however, is the deep understanding of his subject whether it’s a person, a building or a tree.
He is now in the process of handing over his extensive archives to the University of Toronto – a massive trove of iconic photographs documenting the city’s transformation over the past four decades.
– Miria Ioannou
Photos by Vincenzo Pietropaolo
Feature photo of Vincenzo by Guiliana Colalillo
Vince’s work can be found at vincepietropaolo.com.
Opening in Toronto of Havana: City at a Crossroads
– Photos by Schuster Gindin
Read Vince’s Living Toronto article about Toronto here.
I just for a chance to read your article on Pietropaolo–wonderful.
I have never heard of the ‘fig tree burials’! I’ll ask around to see if my relatives know of this. Our garden’s magic was in the tree my father grafted, bearing three kinds of fruit.
You got me interested in this photographer’s body of work; the ritual of procession is one I remember as a child, when our church congregation (joined by others along the way) walked to a park with a huge statue of a saint in tow. What I really looked forward to was the subsequent party in the park–music, food and kids running wild!
Angela DiCintio, Oakville ON
My dad had a fig tree in Pittsburgh for years and he used to bury it each winter too. Makes me want to check out Vincenzo’s books. Nice job!
Pamela Bittner, Tacoma, Washington