marco improta – nordeste [EPF Finalist]

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Marco Improta


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Emerging Photographer Fund – FINALIST (number nine of eleven)

This essay portrays one of the families living in “Sertão do Ceará”, an arid region in the Nordeste of Brasil.

Like many small farmers of the area, they practice subsistence agriculture on a parcel of land they do not own. As compensation, a portion of their harvest is given to the landlord each year.

With little ability to save and no title to the land they work, these farmers are locked into a vicious circle of poverty. The Brazilian government estimates that as many as 20 million people of the Nordeste live under these conditions.

Since 2003, the national program “Fome Zero” (Zero Hunger) officially guarantees everyone the right of access to basic food. The program, with a goal to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty in Brazil, was created by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva whose family left the Nordeste backlands to escape poverty when he was an infant. Although criticized for its paternalistic approach on income distribution, Fome Zero has improved living conditions for many of the indigent by stimulating consumption through direct financial aid. However, limited access to water resources still makes the Nordeste vulnerable to droughts and famines.

“Nordeste, a family portrait” was begun in 2009. This is the first chapter in an ongoing project to document the intimate lives of several rural families who struggle against socio-economic uncertainties in a hostile climate. I intend to regularly return to the Nordeste and, by combining the real and the poetic, produce a body of work that celebrates the grace of ordinary people by going beyond reality into an aesthetical representation of life.



Born in Italy in 1974, Marco Improta was raised in several different countries. Fluent in five languages, he holds a BA in Political Science and a MSc in Development Economics. Passionate about photography since an early age, he has attended several workshops with the award-winning photographer Ernesto Bazan.

Marco Improta currently lives and works in Paris.

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Marco Improta


Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

40 Responses to “marco improta – nordeste [EPF Finalist]”

  • A bit of a clichè, but really nice work. Some pictures a really really beautiful.
    Bravo Marco!

  • Would be interesting to see more chapters of this!

  • weird and wonderful, with both good and poor use of repetition.

    Seems like a great imagination was used to collect a set of images that looks suspiciously like they were all collected on the same day. I really did feel like you introduced me to someone and something and for that thank you!

    I wish the introduction to this family was more than what it was, i would really like to get to know them better, such a great device photography is to suggest an introduction and then further some degree of intimacy.

    It’s possible that these subjects were a success waiting to happing visually with the rich sense of time etched everywhere, but i’m not so naive to believe that. Your rendering of the subject made something possibly moody into something that certainly is moody to experience.

    Bravo! Now off to your site in hopes there’s more!

  • After first reading the project summary and then looking at the pictures I was disappointed at how the photographer approached this topic from a visual point of view. It seemed like there were too many detailed shots of feet, for example, and not enough ‘reportage’ shots where the viewer really feels the hard lives of these farmers. I feel like the rodeo pictures in “thirst for grit” are much more successful in this respect.

    I just have a difficult time with essays that are meant to really show the way of life of a people and then somehow get diluted by a photographer’s own vision. Hmmmm…This seemed the case in the last piece as well “american dreams” which really only included a few pictures that gave the viewer clear information.

    If the purpose is to tell a story, then tell it in a clear way that all people can understand…more or less. If the purpose is to make “art” than just show single images.

    In my opinion…only about 3 of these epf finalists thus far tell a story.

  • What a mess. Excessively contrasty, fuzzy, disconnected group of photos pretending to be an essay. The photographer succeeded at neither gritty documentary nor art, while seemingly trying to commit both. The photos don’t seem to me to illustrate the situation described in the artists statement. I can’t understand why this essay was selected as a finalist. It’s not even good photography.

  • I agree it’s hard to see a story here, but there are a number of powerful images. At times it reminds me of Koudelka’s work in that it outside of time. Great photography doesn’t have to tell a story, but then the introduction should convey that. I like the gritty look, although it’s hard to say for sure without seeing what the actual prints look like.

  • I have nothing to add that Jim Powers and David Bacher didn’t already say. My sentiments exactly.

  • marcin luczkowski

    Great essay! Very strong visual and very sensitive. Little like Sobol but anyway… excellent pictures!
    The winner.

  • Drop 3, 12, 13, 14, 19 and I think there is a start to a good story here. There is too much repetition.

    I agree with David Bacher that there is “not enough ‘reportage’ shots where the viewer really feels the hard lives of these farmers”

    I completely disagree with Jim when he says “It’s not even good photography.” I think the style works well here. The story of this family is a bit disjointed because I do not feel it is complete. But it is a good start and with this and other stories of more families and general life in these communities, I think it has the makings for a great essay.

  • Well, this is an interesting essay; and one that shows great promise. It was started in 2009, and it’s only June now, so this very new work: unlike many of the essays that we have seen already. Andy says that it reminds him of Koudelka and I agree with him. Outside of time, Andy, I like that.

    As Pete says, the essay needs an edit, but this will probably occur naturally as the essay progresses. All in all, a good start. I love number 7!

    Congratulations Marco,


  • Beautifull essay with strong pictures. I love the 8 and the 9.

    I found the other chapters on your website, you travelled all over the world and done a massive work.

    Well done Marco!

  • Marco

    Congratulations on being a finalists.

    You are clearly commited to your work and to to making photographs.

    I have to agree with some of the criticisms. My biggest concern is the excessive contrast in your images. I checked out your website and there are some very fine images. You have obviously claimed this very contrasty fuzzy look as your style. Perhaps that is a good choice for you, and perhaps they look wonderful as prints. But as they are coming accross here, I’m afraid the contrast and lack of sharpness overall (not just in the deliberatly blurred stuff) leaves me frustrated and with eye strain.

    In my opinion, you are being distracted by trying too hard to give your images a “look” rather than putting your energy into telling the story. When viewing many of the images I couldn’t help thinking how much better the image could have been had it been photographed in a straightforward way. The weathered hands and feet photos fore example would have been so much more effective in brilliant sharp detail. I suggest you put aside the Holga or whatever you were using, put aside the contrasty style and try to concentrate on telling the story.

    On your website there were several images which stopped me in my tracks with their beautiful composition. You clearly have talent and sensitivity. Good luck to you and keep photographing.

    Gordon L.

  • First of all, congratulations Marco. Well done mate and it’s lovely to see your work here.

    As another mentioned, the first thing that game to mind was Jacob’s story on the Indigenous family in Guatemala, for which I think he won a World Press Award. Even the photograph themselves are near replicas’s of Jacob’s story: the hands holding eggs, the shot of feet, the boy and girl holding one another. It’s either uncanny or pretty precise allusions. Does this detract for me from Marco’s work, not exactly. I have another friend who has nearly mimic’d most of the work of Michael Ackerman into his own work (although his act quite upsets me), so it isnt uncommon. Photographers commune and talk to each other (as well as to their readership) though themes and styles and even iconography that connects their work to the work of the past or to other current work. There is nothing wrong with this, it’s part of the artform, as it is true with literature and fine arts and music and dance and so on. Moreover, the iconography of this work seems to be tied to the issues that often come upon with stories of this nature: the land, the hardship, the hands and feet, the difficulty of maintaining sustenance. Though i felt i ‘saw’ this specific story and style many times before (beginning with Jacob and including Carlos and antoine), I am still a sucker for the emotional expression of a moment. for me, the story is indeed much more about Marco’s reaction to the life and place and people than to the versimilitude of their lives. In a way, it’s part and parcel of most work done with ‘indigenous’, we receive their lives as brave and hard-won and mystical. Much of that perception and mentality i totally do not buy (the western anthropological cliche), but i also feel Marco’s sensitivity to the envirnoment of this region and that is an important part of this essay and the people’s lives.

    It’s always difficult to talk of style and ‘documentary’ work, particularly work that wishes to tell the story of a particular people or place in the guise of ‘reportage’. As a stylist, I tend to see style as a language and born of the exacting needs of the story or the heart of the story. Ironically, because the story is so stylized and so emotional, i actually wanted part of Marco in this story. the distance of say Jacob’s style, which is just as emotional, allows for us to connect more richly. It’s the tough call: when you put yourself in the story and when to remove yourself, since ultimately all photography is one’s own story about another. Here, that ‘other’ seems to be Marco, when I wanted it to be the people. However, it’s clear that the story is invested with heart-felt emotion and an hope that the photos will offer a way for the audience to feel, viscerally, the earth and labors of these people. In this sense, the story worked for me.

    all the best

  • that number 10 photo………
    i dont know whats that think with the Italian Spirit…:)
    Pretty much every Italian photog ive been introduced lately…
    Im always in awe!!!!!
    But this essay…??
    Its Amazing!!!:))
    cutting edge…
    very poetic…
    very classy…
    does this artistic Italian “vein”…is endless..?
    That different Italian “eye”…
    let me make a joke here…
    “the German brain make the best cameras so the Italian heart can use it”…
    Im the happy audience…
    Anyway…im deeply in love with this essay…
    ciao from LA…
    ( sometimes i dream that i moved to Italy… all of a sudden i wake up and i remember that i need to move my car from the parking meter… and thats soooo LA…:)

  • is there any chance the EPF won’t be awarded in case the juries consider none of the photogs is deserving it?
    I’m personally disappointed with what I’ve seen so far, cant believe this is the best among 1200 entries….

  • The first stupid thought that came to my head was Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies:
    It needs an edit, and it needs to be shot on more than one day, as Joe pointed out, but it has promise, if the photographer wishes to really spend some serious time living there, not just touristing in for a day visit.

  • I think it´s a very shallow essay, it explorers esthetics as just that and leaves content aside. There´s nothing else than a series of images made in one day , a little bit of Rio Branco and if we can talk about esthetic, a liitle bit of Koudelka. But it does not show anything original, an edition that leaves lots to think about.
    From my point of view, we can take as a starting point: #1, #7 and #8. But i don´t see it as part of the process, nor as a job of a finalist for the EPF.

  • Marco, Bravo sir.

    This essay has gotten me excited. Love it. Art can be wonderful and this is it big time. The grit, the non conformity, the high contrast, the stunning black and white, the non aesthetic compositions. Rock and roll – live the dream. Don’t be afraid to let it ride. Feel it and run with it.

    The product of your images feels processed to the edge of acceptability, some go over that edge. This too is great. The essay is very intense which I think is why some just don’t get it. It does take time to understand but can be difficult when assaulted with the sequence. This shouldn’t put you off. More, more, more of this style and genre we need in photography today. I hope you can make it pay.

    Far too much photography is about having everything absolutely technically squeaky clean. We seem to forget that life is not a technical perfection. While truth is in the captured frame of a single moment in time we must also appreciate that sometime that view is imperfect – not enough visual data to be assimilated. Your essay to me brings an angle on truth that needs to be seen. Simple and ordinary subjects.

    The downside is that it isn’t overly original. I reviewed your essay a number of times during this day before composing this note and whilst I greatly enjoyed it and was engaged by its intensity I was left wondering what was unique about it. Yes its been there before. You emulate it well and have obviously journeyed a long distance. Photographers of such a genre would be well advised to learn from your work. Where becomes your point of distinction – your differentiator – your unique proposition to the beholder? Where, where, where….

    Nothing wrong with an essay which focusses on a burst of activity over a short period of time.

    love it, love it, absolutely love it. Good luck in the EPF.


  • Congratulations Marco – Mr 9-of-11 !

    Without offense – this is not, in my honest opinion, is a finalist essay. It’s not. Sorry.
    I could not be more straightforward. It does not have a storyline even with reading the commentary. I feel that it is just another “poor folks in black and white” photos. Tough life? Where is it? In the lack of beauty salons for manicure and pedicure in the area?

    However, I do accept that if this wasn’t a finalist essay, I do see a wonderful project in its beginning.

    Marco and all – no offense at all – just an opinion.

  • I see some nice images here, but the extreme contrast is so distracting. In fact, I find it almost nauseating. I wish I could see these images minus the contrast/grain boost because there are a few that would be really strong without it.

    Congratulations on being a finalist and good luck! (don’t take any criticisms to heart)

  • Beautiful work marco,

    I think your work has a beautiful quality and is a great start to a sensitive and poetic project. I dont agree with everything having to be crisp and sharp or that you need to abandon your style and put down your holga ( if that is what you are using. I love holga by the way, but then again I used holga for my EPF project and so I am not sure what DAH thought of that ) I do agree that I would like to see more images of farmers actually working and what their life or struggle is about, I am thinking Salgado. You should edit down just a few where there are duplicates like two feet and two of the elderly woman, but I love 1, 2, 4, 5, 6(love), 8. Love 10 and 11, 12, 17 and 19.

    Good luck, Valery

  • It was good to see some photos of people smiling and being happy in there, the dejected poor is such a one-dimensional cliche. It breathed some life into the project. The photo with the eggs was especially striking.

  • The best part of commenting after Jim is that he clears the way for us all to make our observations without sounding too harsh.

    Marco, some of these images are pretty interesting. This story about Fome Zero is so much like many about the under represented. Stories like these are unfortunately all too available around the world, but they will be told when folks like Marco get the passion. Every one of the projects up for the EPF are incomplete works. I want to see the final outcome of every one of the 11. Marco is just as worthy as the others.

    Using gritty high contrast is a good tool for what I think you illustrated. I counted six images that were flat, or at least not rendered like the others and this took something away from the piece. The blurry stuff should be reassessed. They just have that “I need to put these in there” look and really don’t expand on the subject.

    It’s time for all of us to accept the fact that every one of these folks has presented projects that are just beginning. This is just oh so cool.

  • Well, I probably syand right netween Jim and Panos, a pretty cozy place actually! :-))))

    Actually, Paul, I think even unfinished, every essay is already telling us much about the photographers and how they shoot, their style too. It is not at all Marco’s fault, but I think now these kind of subjects really need a multi-media approach, video that is.

    Not to belittle anyone’s talent, but it seems to me that it would take a genius of a photographer to bring this kind of docu photography beyond a reduced audience, nowadays, on the strentgh of photos alone. And keep it there (available to the public’s eye), therefater (Salgado’s work has achieved that, I think).

    And even….

    Yes, it would be nice to know, grant wise, if marco is a concerned tourist, or an emerging photographer “up and ready to go”, David’s sentence as he launched the EPF last year, I think. Still, I really have a weakness for the finalists who have zero pedigree within the profession, but also (I will be branded forever for saying that, but hell, I can’t resist) those who don’t drink Champagne out of 3 or 400 euros a bottle in jolly Monaco.


  • Herve, you’re right! I know I broke the one comment rule. See you in the buzz.

  • kathleen fonseca

    Love this essay! There is an ease and pleasure in the shooting experience that is palpable in the photos here. I felt a sense of joy on my first run-through and this feeling returned many hours later on my second and third passes through this essay. The joy comes from feeling that i am in the presence of a natural talent, a gifted eye, a photographer that has an easy confidence in his medium, his message, his communication with his subjects. Not one struggling to make the parts come together, huffing and puffing as he strives to patch up the many holes in his story. I could do without the feet and hands photos because they are so predictable and with this photographer´s talent, there is no need for cliche. He should just trust himself to fill an essay with gorgeous original vision, shot after lovingly, creatively composed shot. I will say that his use of high contrast is excessive, unfortunate and unnecessary. Maybe he just doesn´t know how good he is and feels the need to gild the lily. A shame, imo. All in all though, i look forward to seeing more on this story!


  • First, congratulations to Marco for being a finalist, and best of luck as you pursue this story.

    Second, what ever happened to the idea of just taking a good photograph, and letting that stand on it’s own merits? I know it’s still around. Lance did it. Jenn Ackerman did it. Unlike SP, the first though that came to my mind was the Danish photographer, Klavs Bo Christensen.

    Kathleen, “I will say that his use of high contrast is excessive, unfortunate and unnecessary. Maybe he just doesn´t know how good he is and feels the need to gild the lily. A shame, imo.” – Spot on comment.

  • Image #11 is great. I would have liked to have made it myself. #16 reminds of Mary Ellen Mark’s shot of a girl in Turkey in 1965 and #4 reminds of a Jacob Aue Sobol shot. The whole series reminds me of the work of Ernesto Bazan because of the style + the dark, contrasty, grainy blurred black and white and the subject matter as well. A nice work in progress which could have benefited in my view from a tighter edit here (there are two shots of feet among other repetitions). I do like photographers who mix up formats in one essay. Teru Kuwayama uses the Holga along with a Leica (widelux too) as does Sylvia Plachy.

  • This kind of photography should be more than traveling the world and capturing the perfect state of abandonment and helplesness to fix our need to comfort ourselves in false realities and our fixation about the beauty of suffering that our vacant cultures support. What you are doing is trying to make beautifull pictures from the suffering of others. At its worst this type of work verges on pornographic. And I believe that its a truly disgusting part of our culture that needs to be challenged and shown for the ugliness it really harbours. I am sorry for this harsh criticism and it is not personal but more about how our society uses photography to create a hypocitical myth that alows us to justify our ways and habits without questioning them. I am not criticising your character but that to be showcased in a contest that is positioning itself a the forefront of contemporary photography one should be challenging that nature of this “bad” tradition of photography. The task is nothing short of relolutionary and this type of photography is preserving an outdated and failed model, in a world where the notion of the photograph is being radically altered. I would hope that this forum would bring forth more discussions on the social and philosophical aspects of the form, but instead the debates are evolving around aesthetics and style limitations.
    The selection of photographers that have made it to the final 11 sadly have not indicated a new approach or direction in which photography is heading, and i’m sure its there.
    Brian – “what ever happened to the idea of just taking a good photograph?” – Don’t know where to begin, ivy league Phd’s have been funded on less worthy propositions. (short of a Phd it would be a good discussion thread though)

  • I like this one, but the statement indicates that there really is a “story” and mostly I fail to see it pictures. Without the statement this would be better. The statement is too…”normal”, leaving the viewer to see the things that was mentioned, but the actual pictures are…maybe too “artistic”. I would leave the viewer just a small hint what is the story about – to minimize the info in statement.

    I like most of the pictures a lot. Excellent moods. Yeah, maybe not so original choice this super high contrast B&W, but who cares. I prefer this more than modern digital look.

    Best of luck!

  • simply dissapointing. Not only this series.

  • The first essay that say someting else that what images show to us…also one of the only finalist that should have real problem to be published in National Geographic or GEO mag… so I would help him more than the others…

    On that point, wich is in case of a grant (and not a photocontest) the most interessant and risked winner!! Also happy to see something else that a maronier like “boxing, rodeo or mexican border…

    Mix of format is the good way and I would like to see more landscape and sometime less close images (too much details of foots, hands etc….wich is here quiet enough…and super schoolar. Anyway don’t give a shit with references because when I read some comments, some very full of bitterness and some full of references posts…wich show probably that too much people are prisonners fo their own history…too much missed tube babies here….

    Be free man and follow the non story, non event, non spectacular….etc that ‘s the way for doing something else…

  • family..
    I liked individual images,
    on their own..
    want to see more
    inside the family…
    I was recently in touch with Ernesto, LOVE his book and am so saddened at what happened to him and Cuba:(

  • Congratulations Marco ! It’s good to see your work here. I personally like your rude style pictures, but I think you need to edit hard this essay. It’s repetitive.

    Unfortunately, as a family portrait, it doesn’t tell me the story you pretend to tell. Looks like a glimpse to their life not a relationship, Nothing about the “farmers”… well in fact they are slaves, opposite to farmers in this case… you simply omitted the real farmer from the story, adjusting them to the Lord of the lands title, nothing about Fome Zero, a social program that officially yes guarantee access for food, but it’s being criticized over the years exactly by not be able to attempt remote areas like this… nothing about Lula… You don’t even mentioned the MST (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais em Terra), and this is something really important in the national history treating this point. At least, as an essay about this family and the lack of water at this part of the country in particular, you must say that today, a great amount of Ceará state is under the water because of the global warming… ok, maybe not accurately this area, but… that’s the news, what made your essay very incomplete to me.

    This situation is being developed over the past 500 years, and it’s really difficult even to native to figure out what really happens… I am afraid you will need more than a few days in Brazil to understand it and really capture this as a solid outsider photo story. Yes this grant can help you on, but this work is actually very non realistic and seems to be based at raw information titles. It’s a long hard work to make right the target. good luck, contact if you need, i hope to see your development.

  • best essay so far

    thanks marco

  • Marco, congrats on getting selected

    There are some great stand alone images in there. Your project is obviously in its infancy, but I think it has good potential. Keep at it.


  • Some of these images work for me in a graphic, aesthetic sense (though I could live without such heavy vignetting) but I don’t feel able to follow the narrative. These pictures hold the subjects away from me; I want to be let in, offered insight and understanding – without that they become snapshots.

    There is much that could be developed here but I’m not sure that this is at the same level of maturity as other essays.

  • Marco — first, congrats on making it into the finalists. I’m afraid that I — amongst others — found the processing intrusive. To my eye the desire for a strong aesthetic ‘look’ seemed to overpower the subjects in many of the pictures. I also found the ‘smudge’ and motion blur somewhat in thrall to Pellegrin and Majoli – it’s a look I love, but nontheless I looked at this and found myself thinking of other work it looks like rather than focusing clearly and intently on the pictures themselves.

  • There is a need for some soft images to temper the high contrast images. No matter how harsh a situation is there is always room for some quiet in the soul.

  • Marco, there is much passion in these photos, just as you exude passion in your very being (I know from our meals together in C’ville). I only wish all the images had the grit & high contrast that I see in so many of them. Whenever a photo came up looking “straight,” it broke the mood for me. I’d also go easy on the vignetting–you don’t need it.

    This is an essay that left me feeling hungry for more. I sincerely hope you will return to the Nordeste of Brasil and specifically to this family. You have just touched the surface; there is so much more of the story to learn and to tell.

    Marco, you are a truly gifted photographer. You have a fine eye and the soul of an artist. In my opinion this essay is a beautiful blend of documentary and fine art. Follow your own path, my friend, and let the opinions of others–myself included–wash off your back. It sounds like you have already chosen a worthy mentor in Ernesto Bazan. Listen closely to him and maybe to a few chosen others, but do not let too many voices confuse your vision and deter you from the direction you are already taking. From the wonderful hours spent in your and Nathalie’s company I know you have a strong sense of yourself as photographer and as person. Trust that about all else.

    Hope we meet again.


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