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A Tribute to our Vanishing World Through the Eyes of this Italian Photographic Artist

October, 2020
Pride and rock, Serengeti NP 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series

Currently based out of his father’s hometown of the Apennine mountains, Italian photographic artist Federico Pestilli has been on the move for a large majority of the last decade. From Paris and London to the most beautiful locations in Africa, the 35-year-old photographer’s studies and life’s work have taken him to both densely-populated cities and the remotest of locations.

With his work ranging in subject matter, Pestilli’s documentary-style photography points a direct lens on the world around us.

Born and raised in Rome, Pestilli moved to Paris in 2004 to study at the Sorbonne, where he completed a Master’s in Arts History. His desire to learn then seduced him to New York where he went on to work in creative agencies and renowned stylists, later moving to London and assisting renowned photographer David Sims. From this gathered experience, Pestilli continued to develop his work through creating visual content for commercial and non-commercial projects. In 2013 however, he changed course and went on to volunteer in a scientific research facility in the Brazilian Atlantic forest. Straight-forward about his interest to abandon the fashion industry and pursue an honest direction guided by his artistic expression, he has been travelling ever since.

“When I was younger I had a passion for wildlife and wanted to work for National Geographic, travel the world and spend time besides other living beings. I always hoped to do something to protect the natural world I loved so much” Pestilli explains. Certainly following this ambition, Pestilli’s work has led him to every part of the globe. From documenting scenes and moments all over the world – from Mongolia to Equador and sub-saharan Africa, Pestilli has a particular soft spot for the African continent. “I love its climate, wildlife and natural landscapes.  The people in the most remote places belong to cultures which have remained mostly unchanged for thousands of years.  To visit them means to time travel, to get to know confront yourself with ancient, medieval, and modern times. It’s all there”. With a visually subtle yet powerful individuality that exists in Pestilli’s photographs one constant remains: his desire to justly and accurately portray the character of his chosen subjects.

In his Extinct series, Pestilli showcases our planet’s beauty and strength but at the same time its ever-growing vulnerability. “Just as photographs can fade over time, so many species on our planet are permanently fading from view”. The images in this series are dream-like, highlighting the uncontrollable beauty of the photographic art form when explored with the right tools. In Extinct, Pestilli would wait out hours in the wilderness to capture the right moment in herd migration or a reclusive’s animal’s daily movement.  Further exploring different mediums, camera traps were used in not only in this series (to capture black rhino gathering at a watering hole) but also in his upcoming Heritage body of work (to document packs of wolves in the mountains of Abruzzo). Using film photography for this series, the medium highlights the urgency to protect our surrounding environment, reminding us to take action for all that we have to lose.

We spoke to Pestilli during the lockdown in Italy to find out more about his life’s journey, current motivations and what may lie ahead for him and his work in a post-pandemic world.

Coke's Hartebeest portrait, Serengeti NP 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "Coke’s Hartebeest subspecies is currently listed as of least concern of extinction. It numbers around 42,000 in the wild and is found mainly in Tanzania and Kenya in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. This individual was alone and appeared to be blind in one eye, probably due to age. This is probably what allowed me to get a close-up portrait."

Was there a significant turning point for you and your photography work?

There were and will be many significant moments in the process of self-realisation and self-awareness, however if I were to pick a specific turning point, it would be when I decided to leave London and abandon the idea of a career in the fashion industry.  I realised that my freedom of expression was not being recognised within the industry, that behind the constant talk about creative freedom and artistic expression were really a strict series of parameters which either included or excluded you from what is considered “good”, “cool”, or “beyond”.  To do fashion essentially means to sell a consumable good.  If you’re not selling, it’s not good.  This also applies to a natural portrait, where you sell a standard of beauty, hair style, skin texture… it has to fit within the industry or speak about it.

I left London in 2016 and went to do volunteer work in a scientific research facility in the Brazilian Atlantic forest.  I have been travelling ever since, taking images which aim to only sell thin air: my thoughts.

Alert mother, Serengeti NP 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series
Alert mother, Serengeti NP 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series

What are some of the challenges you face in your work?

I would hope that my challenges are the same as anyone’s who is keen on producing something of true artistic value to society. By “value” I exclude monetary value. I think you can be lucky to make money with art in your career, but really profitable artwork usually excludes the artistic process.  For me value is based on emotion and virtue: what is your message and how compelling is it?  

Personally I have completely separated the process of making a living and photographing.  Both are necessary but by separating the two I have definitely given my creative work wings.

Guineafowl on stump, Serengeti NP 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series

Where are you right now, and what does a typical day look like for you?

I am spending the Summer in the Apennine mountains, in a town where my father’s family is originally from.  A typical day here involves early morning hikes up in the mountains to check on wildlife camera traps, then I spend the rest of the day looking for interesting subjects to photograph.  I am trying to portray the land in it’s most intimate aspects, from still-life images of waterfalls and canyons to portraits of shepherds out at pasture.

What tools do you use every day?

My eyes! I have never been a decent musician, my sense of timing is poor.  Instead I have always relied heavily on my sight for everything.  Visual memory. If you tell me a phone number by voice I’ll never remember it, show me on paper and I will. It’s always been this way for me.

I am not tied down to specific tools. I think the tools are part of the message and depending on that I’ll adapt the tools. An image shot on analogue film has a completely different message from an image shot on a cell phone. The value of either depends on the message. I definitely use my phone as a daily recording tool. I think the images I take daily with it will reveal their inherent value in time, I am still feeling out my reactions to these images. For example they are incredibly effective for Instagram stories, they bring a sense of realism and spontaneity which an image from a professional camera would exclude at the get go.

Skin detail | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "A census in 1979 placed the African Elephant population to around 1.3 million, ten years later that estimate was 600,000. Today, only 30 years later, that figure has dropped to 350,000. If illegal poaching is not put to an end and habitats are not protected it won’t be long until wild elephant populations are extinct."
Elephant bull, Tarangire NP 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series

Can you tell us more about your Extinct series? 

The Extinct series is full of personal meanings for me. When I was younger I had a passion for wildlife and wanted to work for National Geographic, travel the world and spend time besides other living beings. I always hoped to do something to protect the natural world I loved so much. The title ‘Extinct’ is meant to make us cringe at the idea that the animals portrayed may be already extinct. Of course this is not yet a reality but may soon be one with the accelerating climate crises.

I am shooting this body of work using black and white film in an effort to make the photographs look like the images we have of creatures which are already extinct, such as the Tasmanian tiger. In this way the images aim to be a testament to posterity of the beauty which roams our planet today. The greater part of the series is shot in East Africa (Tanzania and Kenya). The creatures and landscapes in this part of the globe have always fascinated me. The idea of losing iconic species such as the lion, elephant, or rhino is just heartbreaking. By securing landscapes for these larger animals the future of other species, small and large, will also be protected.

Brothers” Serengeti NP 2019 | Photography Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "Male lions are banished from their prides when they reach maturity. They must leave the dominant male’s territory and build their own prides. At this crucial point their bonds cemented as youngsters dictate their alliances. These brothers will most likely spend their entire lives together in a coalition, making their chances of survival higher and ensuring a more stable realm"

In the Extinct series, what are some of your favourite images and can you tell us about any of them in particular/which have a special story?

Many images from the series are charged with meaning for me. I often had to wait many hours besides the animals, return over multiple days to the sites where they roamed, and get to know their landscapes. So every image has a story behind it where the essence of the animal portrayed really became part of me, for example in the case of the image of lions under a boulder in the Serengeti. Early one morning I went to this particular kopje to photograph the boulders. As I was about to jump out of my vehicle I realised a pride of five lionesses were sleeping in the shade of a massive stone. I consequently spent the entire day next to them, having lunch and sleeping in my land cruiser, waiting for the lioness to become active. By evening they started to awake, stretching and looking about, getting ready for the night hunt. It was a magical day spent besides the lions.

Another image which comes to mind is of the zebra migration. Thousands of zebra formed a queue which moved out into the landscape and this was a difficult image to render without taking it from the sky. Their gradual congregating under a large dead tree gave me the opportunity to show the scale of their number and their size.  

I also think of an image I took with a camera trap of black rhino coming to a watering hole for a drink at night. In this case I was fortunate to photograph two rhino together, and a turtle also popped into frame to participate in this unusual insight into nocturnal life. The thrill of camera traps is that there is a great percentage of randomness is how the animals will enter the frame, thus making the images more exciting.

Zebra migration | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "The aspect of wildlife we will be losing sooner than later are surely the numbers and abundance of animals in existence. We have only to see Peter Beard’s images of elephant herds from the mid 70s to see what we have already lost (see stories). It used to be possible to find herds of elephant 700 strong, nowadays it is a lot to see a herd of 30. These zebra were migrating north, and their numbers were certainly in the hundreds if not thousands. They stretched left of this image all the way to the horizon in a long column, and they were stopping just below this image for a sip of water from a river. The scene was magnificent. I was not very well positioned to express its grandeur, I wish I had been in the tree to capture the scene from above and get the whole migration column in foreshortening. One must keep to the dirt roads in national parks, unlike game parks, and this ensures more respect for the animals and environment."
Plains zebra resting, Serengeti NP 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "No matter how many zebra you find, when they rest they always pair up, facing opposite ways and keeping a lookout on each other’s blind spot."

What are you working on currently / upcoming projects?

As time goes on I continue working on all the projects I have worked on previously. All projects seem to feed the ones to come. I am currently working on a project called Heritage, focusing on the roots of my family’s past in the Italian region of Abruzzo. This body of work is still taking shape, however I would like it to feel like a mosaic of imagery expressing the richness of the land my family is originally from in an intimate way.

While working on this project I keep working on the Travel imagery, on the cell phone diaries, and when I’m back home on more abstract fine-art work which includes painting on photographic prints.

Given the COVID-19 lockdown I’m not sure how soon I will be able to travel far from home. I will most likely continue working on Heritage, camera trapping wolves in the Apennine mountains and taking portraits of people still employed in trades of the past. 

Sleeping leopard, Tanzania 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series
Oxpeckers on buffalo, Serengeti NP, 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "African oxpeckers remove parasites from large mammals in a symbiotic relationship"
Electric tree, Serengeti NP, 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series
Reticulated giraffe and zebra, Kenya 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "The astounding evolution of the giraffe’s neck can be understood when feeding on the highest branches of acacia trees. Its neck has 7 vertebrae as ours does, but theirs have stretched. Form follows function"
Giraffe and boulder, Serengeti 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series
Hyena fading, Serengeti NP, 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "Half way through my safari the analogue camera jammed. I had 8 days left to work, which I had already payed for. I had lots of equipment to carry to Africa and took a chance with a single camera body. I payed the price for my gamble and gained something deeper in the process. I tried to un-jam the film advance forcing it into place; it seemed to start working again but I did hear a tearing sound in the process. For the next 8 days I kept shooting, not knowing if the images were coming out. They did, although they presented two white lines on either side of the frame from that point on. Shooting in analogue has restored my appreciation for the photographic process, which takes a back seat to the actual experience. Regardless of the images coming out or not I lived with lions and hyenas, following them by day, listening to them by night. I didn’t have to stare at a screen to ponder about the captured image. As the analogue process gives way to modern digital images, so the natural environment gives way to a strange modern world."
Mountain tree with bird, Ngorongoro 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "I’m often surprised how quickly climate and biodiversity change at different altitudes. Riding up the Ngorongoro crater slope one is bewildered by trees that don’t resemble anything you see on the savanna plateaus. They are twisted, with net like shapes made to capture moisture from the clouds shrouding the mountain. Large mosses sway from their branches like spooky halloween costumes."
Mother of five, Serengeti NP, 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "Five days I returned for her. Each day a new scene in a new place. The tension and drama in the life of a mother with a large litter is palpable. Constantly on the lookout for prey and menace, the task of rearing a family was written in her spots. She slept with her neck propped up. Eyes closed. Ears moving, visualising sound. With silence they stayed. A chirp, they moved. Nothing of their wellbeing was left to chance. Unspoken discipline, silent unity, a twitch of a tail, head high, ears forward, quietly I understood. No words."
Portrait of Najin, Kenya 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series - "This is the face of extinction. 30 year old Najin and her daughter, Fatu, represent the last of their species. With the death in 2018 of the last male, Sudan, they will no longer be able to reproduce. There is hope however, as scientists fight to catch this genome from the brink of extinction. Italian scientist Cesare Galli from Avantea, known as the first to accomplish equine cloning, is on a mission to artificially recreate Northern white rhinos. By extracing eggs from the living females and by using frozen sperm from deceased males he has successfully created viable embryos this year. Once stable in their growth, the embryos will be planted in the womb of a Southern white rhino which will serve as surrogate mother. Science has met fiction."
Portrait of Fatu, Kenya 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series
Pride at noon, Serengeti NP 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series | "I arrived at this particular “kopje” - the characteristic boulders which break the savanna’s landscape - late one morning. It looked empty and bare, and I was hoping to get some images of the boulders. To my surprise I discovered a pride of five female lions lying along the stone’s shadow. Lions spend around 18 hours per day sleeping so I decided to wait (and sleep) beside them. Only around 6pm did they wake to scan the horizon for prey, moving off and leaving the primordial stone behind. An estimated 20,000 lions live on the African continent today, down from 200,000 only a century ago."
Lesser flamingos on lake, Serengeti NP 2019 | Photographed by artist Federico Pestilli © EXTINCT series \ "Flamingos feed primarily on the algae found in highly alkaline lakes which are unsuitable for agricultural irrigation. The photosynthetic pigments in the algae give the birds their notorious pink colour. The lesser flamingo is still wide ranging across Africa and Asia however it is listed as near endangered by CITES mainly due to habitat encroachment and destruction."

Photography: Federico Pestilli
Introduction: Monique Kawecki 


Discover the artist’s latest projects here

October, 2020