During his University path in Cultural Anthropology, Gianmarco started a project about Intercultural Education to teach people how to develop an inclusive and empathetic thinking, in order to avoid any racist drifts. Today, after some years without his camera, he decided to bet on a new challenge: to mix his knowledge and skills in Anthropology, Education and Photography, in order to tell stories to defeat ethnocentric and racist thinking.
Words and images by Gianmarco Grugnetti
What was the adventure about?
As an anthropologist, I am always interested in everything concerning culture and cultural changes. I am deeply committed to the idea that we can learn from others. How they live, what they do, and what they think opens our minds to new ideas and teaches us to be more empathetic and inclusive.
During my last trip to China, I learned of cormorant fishermen and how their lives changed in recent years. They no longer support themselves according to their ancient tradition of using the cormorant for fishing. Today, tourism provides most of their income.
The cormorant fishermen fished for centuries, until socio-economic transformations, environmental degradation, and different cultural changes forced them to rethink their jobs. For example, due to new technologies, fishing with cormorants is not the best option. So, the fishermen adapted to a rise in tourism. The fishermen now show how cormorant fishing works, and they pose for tourist photos. .
Among the fishermen, I observed one man who specialized as a subject for professional photographers. Another man promotes himself as a professional model for photoshoots. All of the fishermen continue to wear traditional fishermen’s shoes and clothes. They come with their cormorants, and catch fish the traditional way.. However, they don’t sell their catch at market anymore. They know how to pose for photographs, and they have learned some English words to better satisfy the requests of interested tourists.
You may think we have lost a deep tradition and they are not real fishermen anymore. You could say that it is a just a tourist show and it is not authentic. But, according to the idea of non-static culture and identity, there’s no loss; there is a new and authentic cultural tradition driven by the world’s changes. These old men, once fishermen, have become today’s models and tourist educators. This is a new cultural tradition because all culture is connected in space and time. People adapt and change to the environment, thus culture changes.
Why was it important to you?
A very important goal that I always keep in mind during my work and my life is to teach people about the dynamic nature of cultures. Once we understand, we can develop a critical thinking approach that embraces cultural change. Once we understand the life changes of the cormorant fishermen, we can learn to tell their story,, and their amazing story gives us the opportunity to speak about these topics and promotes empathetic thinking.
This trip to China was very important to me. It was the first time to test my new gear directly in the field. I invested time, money and dreams to bring home memorable pictures of my new life based on what satisfies me: photography.
Who else joined you on your Adventure?
I travelled with my partner Giulia Cerri. She is an anthropologist, too. Since 2015, we have worked together in the field of anthropology and intercultural pedagogy. We are involved in social science research and do fieldwork with Italian schools from grade schools to Universities. We like to inspire critical and empathetic thinking in young students as a means to a better future.
Biggest Challenge you faced during the Adventure? How you overcome those challenges? What you learned from those challenges?
The biggest challenge of this Adventure was to prepare to walk long distances while carrying 12 kg on my back every day for long periods of time. I trained myself during the previous months to get used to carrying this weight without any problems. In the beginning, I was using a backpack not suited for trekking, and I had some pain and discomfort. Then I switched to the Tilopa backpack and everything went perfectly. When I use the Tilopa, I can walk and trek for long distances without even feeling the weight. For sure, if you really want to enjoy your adventure, you must be well equipped and well trained, both physically and mentally.
Best moment of the Adventure
Sometimes the best experiences are completely unexpected. We were in Fenghuang, an ancient city in the Hunan Province. The place was beautiful, but there was too much of a crowd that day. We decided to move away from the city center and started climbing a mountain path made of steps. After a long walk up the mountain, we reached a Buddhist Temple. We entered and sat down to rest. Inside there were five women and two monks. After a couple of minutes, one of the women came over to us and, speaking by gestures, asked us to join them for lunch. We were incredulous and amazed. “Of course,” we said. We began to help her in the kitchen. She was speaking Chinese and we were speaking English, but somehow, we understood each other. When the lunch was ready, the youngest monk rang the bell and we entered the dining room. After different rituals and different prayers, the women served the monks first and then the others. Finally, the women sat and joined us. We had the most delicious meal of the entire journey. We had handmade green noodles with vegetables, mixed sautéed vegetables (soya beans, eggplants and local white beans), a soup with a local herb, a dessert made of dried fruit and rice, and finally some fruit. Out of respect, we didn’t shoot any pictures or any video; we just enjoyed the moment. However, after the lunch, we asked everybody to take a picture all together, outside the Temple and they agreed. What a special and memorable day!
Most surprising moments of the adventure
We were hiking in Zhangjiajie National Forest on a sunny day, when suddenly the weather changed. In a couple of minutes, the sun disappeared and then came a real downpour. When you travel, the rain can be a pain in the neck, but if it happens when you are in Zhangjiajie National Forest, it will be an amazing experience. Why? Because after the rain, you can see the mountain peaks appear and disappear behind the clouds. When that happened everything stopped, even time. The scene looked like a fairytale. By the way, Zhangjiajie National Forest is the place that inspired James Cameron for his movie “Avatar”.
Best food on the adventure
(See “Best moment of the Adventure)
Trick & tips you suggest
Be ready to meet people with different behaviors (as in every Adventure).
Depending on your attitudes and culture, you will find things that you won’t catch at first sight. Be ready to take the opportunity to understand them before judging.
Most of the people we met didn’t speak English, especially in the countryside. You could communicate by gestures. But keep in mind, even gestures can have a cultural significance. For example: If you are hungry and you want to ask for food, you have to imitate the gesture of eating with chopsticks and not with a fork and knife.
Be ready for the long distances.
Distances in China are huge. If a place looks close on the map, it probably is not as close as you think. Be ready to walk or find another way to reach it. Consider your travel time, if you are in a hurry.
Be ready to wait in line.
The Chinese population is more than 1.3 billion. You will always wait in line. Especially when Chinese people are on holiday. . Consider adding extra time in your plan.
Be ready for the Chinese train stations.
They are big and crowded. You have to pass a security check and your luggage is scanned. Then you have to pass two ticket checks: one when you enter the station (before your luggage control) and one before you get on the train. You must be at the station at least one hour before departure. Check out my Instagram stories to learn how to read a Chinese train ticket.
Who are you as a Visual Storyteller?
I observe my surroundings with curiosity and an open mind
I don’t judge, but listen and learn
I am kind and grateful with someone that shares their story with me
I tell their story with respect
I remember there are many ways to communicate
I know pictures are bridges
I let different worlds talk together
That’s who I am as Visual Storyteller and, in general, life.
What do you usually shoot, and where?
After having tried to shoot everything, I have found what makes me crazy: landscape photography. I could spend hours reaching the place I want to shoot and stay hours trying to shoot the best pictures in that place. No matter the heat , no matter the cold, no matter anything else; when I get the flow, there is nothing that can distract me from the camera. When I discovered landscape photography, I began to feel free of myself, and now I can’t live without that sensation. I also love to shoot pictures that can inspire and educate people to the idea of equality among human beings. That’s why I am trying to mix my skills in anthropology, education and photography to reach this goal.
What’s next for you?
I am trying to start a project about teaching cultural diversity and empathetic thinking through photography. I am looking all over the world for stories that can tell how cultures are always changing and are not fixed and pure. That’s important to understand to avoid any ethnocentric and racist drifts. With these stories, I want to write a book about culture. There are books about this subject, but they just show the cultures without speaking about the dynamics involved. They are not written from an anthropological perspective. I am also working to set up photographic tours and workshops. Teaching, traveling and photography makes me feel alive. Finally, I am also very interested and fascinated about wildlife photography. I would like to try it. I would like to use wildlife photography to explore the dichotomy between nature and culture, to show that culture is present even in the animal kingdom.
Any other details about yourself?
Be creative, but rational.
Be planner, but wing it.
Be a perfectionist, without stalling.