Arts, Lifestyle, Men's Fashion

An interview with international photographer Francesco Sapienza | Jamie Tuohy

International photographer Francesco Sapienza

When the immensely talented Maria Martinez, of Robert Chambers on Grafton Street, Dublin and asked me if I’d be interested in engaging in some follicular exploits in the form of the innovative psychobilly haircut, I instantly jumped at the opportunity. Likewise, when she asked me if I’d consider having my picture taken with the new style, by international photographer Francesco Sapienza, my answer was an expeditious YES!

Francesco Sapienza is a multi-faceted and exceptionally talented photographer, who was born in Rome and educated at the University of Rome, La Sapienza, and as well at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. After branching out from his initial profession as an engineer, Sapienza soon found himself published in prestigious publications such as The New York Times and has gone on to photograph everyone from musicians to Oscar winners.

Francesco is in Dublin for the opening of his bother Alex’s photography studio (where I met him) in South William St. and he kindly gave this interview: be warned, his words WILL inspire you to get up, realise your ambition and ACHIEVE IT.

Yours truly, shot by Francesco Sapienza

Francesco, how did you first become involved with the art of photography?

It all started some 20 years ago when I got a camera from my father and I shot a few rolls. While shooting was fun, I found the entire process rather slow and time consuming – from actually taking the picture to eventually seeing the finished product. I was restless and I quit. But then in 2004, I ended up going into a photo store for no apparent reason and ended up buying a digital SLR. It reignited my initial passion for the craft and this is when I really started taking pictures. Then in 2005, I realised that I had a long harboured dream to become a professional photographer.

You were working as a successful engineer before you became a photographer, is that right?

Yes! From a very young age, I was always fascinated with disassembly. If something could be taken apart and reconstructed or reworked in some way, I relished it. So I went to university to study electrical engineering and I obtained my Masters from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, although I studied for the first three years at the University of Rome, La Sapienza. My major was Radio Communications and during my 10-year career I became one of the major experts in the world in mobile communication systems, in particular 3G and 4G. When I rekindled my interest in photography, I started taking on assignments, but most of them would need to be completed during business hours, so I would take vacation from work to carry out my photography assignments. It sounds crazy, but before I knew it, my photography career took off and I was able to leave my old job and become a professional photographer. It was a dream come true.

There must have been tough times as you were making the transition and establishing yourself as a photographer? What kept you going?

There were, but knowing that we only get one life and we should try and do what we love is the number one motivational argument. You know, very often we chase the wrong things in life, and things pass us by. Having dreams is so important and when those dreams are recognised and pursed, it makes the world a greater place.

Does your background as an engineer help you as a photographer?

Oh immensely. You know, my first career was great. I got to travel around the globe and train thousands of people on how to build their mobile networks. However, it was always ‘just a job.’ In saying that, it allowed me to develop so many transferrable skills that I can call on as a photographer. It gave me a lot in terms of business experience and I learned invaluable presentation skills. As a photographer, you are running your own business and at the end of the day, it has to be profitable. Otherwise it doesn’t work. It’s the same with technology. Any technology that aspires to become popular needs to have a strong business case behind it. If it doesn’t, it’s irrelevant. This is especially true for photographers who want to make a living out of their art.

So, as a photographer, you have to be able to do more than just ‘take a good picture’?

Absolutely! Being a photographer is not only about being very good at taking pictures. Taking pictures is a small part of the entire profession. As a photographer, you have to be a 360˚ professional. You need to be good with people, numbers, marketing, sales, networking and so forth. It’s a multi-disciplinary career.

You are here in Dublin for the opening of your Brother Alex’s new photography studio. What do you think of his idea?

Alex is an amazing cameraman and photographer and he is very passionate about the history of photography and its origins some 200 years ago. One of the techniques he’s going to offer his clients goes back to the middle of the 19th century and is called tintype photography. The medium he uses for capturing the image is a glass or metal plate that is dipped into a photosensitive solution of chemicals and then put in the camera for taking the picture. The development takes only few minutes and the plate is ready with the image on top. One of the beautiful aspects of the entire idea is that the plate is the real picture that the client brings home and it is totally unique.

You’re based in New York now, what is it about New York that you love?

New York is incomparable. Every day, you are constantly exposed to such a large variety of people, cultures, languages, styles, etc. It is also very challenging, but I believe the moment our mind stops being challenged we are in trouble. The moment we don’t feel the need to be stimulated and put to the test, we stop living. I love this quote from Pema Chödrön: “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” Also, in New York nobody cares about what you look like – it’s totally accepting and completely refreshing.

It’s a city that offers culture in abundance. It must be a fantastic mood board for a photographer?

It really is. One thing I absolutely adore about New York is how, in late afternoon, the sunlight illuminates the city from the West side. There’s usually a thin layer of clouds that makes that light unbelievably warm. It creates a glow around anything that is exposed to it. It’s like a fairy-tale.

What do you like most about your job? 

Always being in close interaction with a lot of different people and constantly being exposed to a lot of creativity, which in turn boosts my own creativity. I love the communication that takes place between the photographer and the subject and how that is reflected in an image. I love the sensation that I get when I suddenly visualize an image in my mind and the great excitement of trying to re-create that image through a photograph. The most amazing thing about taking pictures is that my focus is incredibly steady and my restless mind never wanders. It’s an incredible feeling that I can only compare to practicing meditation, which I regularly do.
Also, I’m a pretty shy person (although most people don’t perceive me that way) and staying behind the camera allows me to stay hidden and protected, but if you look closer, you see my soul in each picture, one way or another. I agree with what Oscar Wilde said: “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.”

Finally what advice would you give to people who are chasing their dream? Not just photographers – but anyone who is working towards something they love?

Find what you love for real, what you are passionate about and pursue it wholeheartedly. I believe the obstacles you encounter along the way are like checkpoints. They are there to show you how much you really care about what you are doing. Sometimes, you need to be tested to prove this. Also, don’t be afraid to change your mind. There’s nothing wrong with that.


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