If you believe photos have a special power — the power to change the way the world sees — then you Alessia Glaviano is right there with you. Her enduring dedication to the social function of photography and her discerning eye for excellence in image-making has seen her become a driving force behind major shifts in the gaze in the fashion industry and beyond. For almost two decades, she has been the Visual Director at Vogue Italia and its publications, the founder of VoguePhoto and its annual festival (held in Milan every November for the last three years). A huge influence in the field, she is respected by the art world as much as the fashion crowd and has helped mark Vogue Italia out as at the cutting edge of visual culture; but her real audience, as she explains here, are the people photography has previously forgotten.
You’ve done some incredible work, but what you have done at Vogue Italia, in particular, has been groundbreaking. How did you get into the visual arts and fashion world?
Well, it’s a long story, because I am a little bit old now! I grew up in a family of artists, so I was lucky to be exposed to the arts from a very young age. My dad lived in New York, so I also used to travel a lot. You don’t even realise when you’re growing up, but those experiences shape you. Fashion was my home — my Dad was a photographer, and I grew up on set; I knew a lot of people from the business. But I was always interested in social causes, and in doing something for those less fortunate than I was. I initially went to university to study economics and mathematics; I thought I would go to work for the United Nations. Then I realised then that kind of career was in fact very political, and you needed a “political” sponsor, something I didn’t have access to.
At the beginning of the ‘90s I decided to go and live in New York: I got a job in the equipment room at Pier59 studios, and there I met all the best fashion photographers; I assisted most of them.
It was there that I also became friends with the agency, Art + Commerce.
In 2000, I turned 30, and at that point, I thought I should go back to Europe. Through Art + Commerce, I got the opportunity to do an interview with [the late] Franca Sozzani, who was the editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia. We clicked immediately. That was some twenty years ago! We started working together, but of course, things changed because of how rapidly the publishing industry has been evolving.
What was it like when you started out at Vogue Italia and how did you carve your path there?
It was never boring because there was always something completely new on the table: we started the website, we launched PhotoVogue, started to do events, festivals, exhibitions… I was able to tailor my profession around things I really liked, and to create a role for myself, according to the things I was interested in, and to bring certain issues into the fashion world that maybe weren’t so present before.
You’re very invested in photography in particular, and photography as a platform to talk about socio-political issues. Where does fashion come into it?
Fashion for me isn’t superficial, and I really believe that – I’m not at all into the madness of having to buy lots of things. I’m against the idea that fashion is about consuming. Clothes are a way to speak about ourselves: when you see for instance the women’s movements, the clothes are part of it. What I wanted to do from the beginning was to speak about fashion in a more serious, in a deeper way; to be able through fashion to give a voice to issues that weren’t featured in fashion editorials. With fashion you’re able to reach a much larger audience, so you can really make a change. This is what I’m trying to do.
I really care a lot, and it makes me very happy to see things are starting to change and that I’ve been, in some way, a part of it.
I always go to PhotoVogue and to your Instagram to discover new photographers, and you’re always one step ahead. How do you do that?
You know, when you’re so deeply into something, you live and breathe it; you are able to feel the future somehow. I look at everything: exhibitions, Instagram, the news, photographers, festivals, the community around me. I feel that it’s a lot about vision and intuition – but the intuition that comes from having studied a lot. I feel you really have to work hard in life. So when I talk about having intuition, I’m saying those intuitions don’t come out of nothing.
You’ve been involved in pushing so many conversations to the fore both in fashion and in photography. What work are you proud of lately?
I’m really happy about the representation of people with disabilities, something I started to highlight and talk about a few years ago. I see things now are really starting to change, and it’s maybe the last very tough barrier that has to go down in terms of inclusivity, and the fact its fashion that does that makes it stronger.
It’s not about telling stories in a heroic or pitiable manner, no, no basta! We need to see people with disabilities being represented without cliques, in cinema, fashion as well as in all aspects of high and popular culture. They are people like me and you, with the same needs. We should give them the fair representation that they deserve.
It makes sense that somewhere like Vogue Italia should indeed be having those discussions about the implications of images and photography and their impact, as they are so influential and the fashion world, especially magazines, have been part of the problem.
I’m absolutely aware that Vogue Italia is a big part of what I have achieved; you can have all the best ideas in the world but of course, the brand is the brand, and it’s very important.
The PhotoVogue festival was your initiative, and this November will be the fourth edition. The themes have been really great, from the female gaze in the first year, to politics and fashion and then focusing on diversity last year. How did the festival come about?
I was always travelling and going to other festivals, and I really enjoyed them as a great opportunity for people with the same passion to get together and have discussions; usually in photography genres are labelled and kept apart and I feel when you have these different languages talking to each other, it can be enriching for everyone. I wanted to do a fashion photography festival but not only about fashion photography; exhibitions tackling social issues and how different kinds of photography deal with them. At the time Franca backed me up and said, of course, let’s do it. It’s going very well, in terms of how it’s been perceived, so I’m really happy. I can’t tell you the theme for this year yet as it’s not finalised, but I can promise you it will be political!
I know that insisting on this kind of issues from within the industry isn’t always easy, but you have been a trailblazer in that sense.
The important thing is to make people feel better about themselves; people who haven’t been represented how they should have been. You see brands now doing a lot of things that are about inclusivity and diversity. I do think it’s a golden moment for these topics in the fashion industry.
I often face the question of the commercialisation of political movements, like feminism, and whether that’s a bad thing.
Everything, even, let’s face it, is part of capitalism. Everything is commercial! It’s within this system. You know what, I think capitalism is wrong. But do we have another system at the moment? No. We all have to move within it because unfortunately, that is what rules the world. What I feel is important is the end result: it’s how the individuals and the community feel.
In the end, if feminism is in the mainstream now, that at least means a whole generation of girls are going to grow up with it as the norm…
Exactly! Brava. You have to be credible. Even brands have to have it a bit in their DNA; otherwise, people don’t believe in it. There has to be some kind of history. If I didn’t have the background I do, when I started to talk about issues around inclusivity and diversity, people would have been angry about it, but it’s something I am genuinely invested in. There is still so much to do, on so many levels. I change my mind on certain things lately, but maybe we’ll save that for another talk! There’s a lot of hypocrisy.
If a white photographer comes to me to show me their work and they’ve gone to Africa and taken pictures of bare-chested beautiful black men on the beach I say no, stop doing this! I don’t think that is necessarily done malevolently, but it is important to realise why you can’t do that anymore.
I think you’re one of the few people who are really asking those questions, in public, opening it up for critical discussion.
It’s time to talk about this. It’s time to think about it and understand it, and it’s about time to do something else; we’ve been colonising the gaze for too long.
What drives you?
I have two very strong things in me: a genuine interest in others and a strong sense of aesthetics. For me, the two co-exist. Ethics and aesthetics should come together: it’s not one or the other.
If I can help to make a change, that’s all I want to do. My drive in the end is to do things that are meaningful for someone else.