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Opening: Cloister, Badia Fiesolana, June 27th, 2016 at 5:00pm

Since 2012, Paola Leonardi has taken analogue photographs of people and places along the land borders of the European Union, narrating life at the edges of Europe. Her project juxtaposes the concepts of geographical and political Europe. The series focuses on the connection between people and territory, the significance of transnational and transcultural identities, and the relevance of European identity to concepts of home and belonging, memory and territory.

In the summer of 2003, I travelled by train between Slovenia and Italy. Coming into Italy, the train stopped for a passport check at an empty ground, 110 meters of bleak concrete paving – an empty space standing between the two countries and curiously seeming to belong to neither. When my turn came, the Italian guard joked, suspiciously, that I looked too fair for an Italian. But he’d let me in, he said, since Slovenia would join the EU the following year anyway.

He wasn’t too wrong; my grandmother had come “from the other side”: her family left their native Istria in WWI, and she was born a refugee in Switzerland before they settled in Italy. We called her “the Jugoslavian grandmother.” My family’s history filled my imagination with faraway lands and people. In 2011-2012, I started thinking of photographing along the borders of Europe, following the border lines on a map.

I mainly travel on foot, sometimes I use public transport, and I have also cycled and hitchhiked. Slow travel has allowed me to meet people, and get a better idea of places and lifestyles. The borders tend to be depopulated and not touristy, so people most often welcome me. On the other hand, I risked hypothermia along the Finland-Russian divide, and the Turkish soldiers in Cyprus were rather hostile!!

On the Serbia-Croatia border, the Croatian inhabitants showed me where they had hidden from invading Serbian soldiers in the mud of the Danube’s bank. A lady whispered to me, “I am a Serbian, but don’t tell anyone; they don’t like me here.” In Serbia, a Croatian family said they were hoping for both countries to be in the EU. In Cyprus, people cried at my photos taken in parts of the island their families had to leave after the 1974 invasion. On the buffer zone, people on both sides invited me to their homes, and spoke of how they wished for a country without divide. On the Romanian-Serbian border, I spent a day with a Hungarian shepherd, who had walked down from Hungary: he couldn’t to write, but was able to use Facebook. In Greece, some elders warned me against crossing on foot into Turkey; “it could be dangerous, they hate us.” Their Turkish counterparts said exactly the same! In Finland, I met a man who needed a visa to travel 25 kilometers into Russia to visit his cousins, and identified as both Russian and Finnish saying, “I don’t care what governments say, my family belongs to both places.” For the most part, people have responded well to my project. My feeling is that there is a common European identity, but also a strong identification with the other side of the border.

Map with all logos

Paola Leonardi (born Italy, 1980) is a London-based photographer and a lecturer in Photography at University Campus Suffolk and London Metropolitan University. Since completing the MA Image and Communication at Goldsmiths College in 2006, Paola has worked commercially as well as developed personal projects. Her work has been previously sponsored by the Arts Council England, and she has exhibited in the UK, Italy, Armenia, and the US.

Please visit: http://www.leonardiphoto.com