Desparately seeking Sam

from “Carnal Remains – Photos & poems by Sam Scott Schiavo”
Interview by Alexandra Uedl | Photo by Helmut Karl Lackner


Is photography a dialogue?

“It is a dialogue with myself. I always carry scenes in my head – although I am as much at home in the field of color photography – those are often in black and white – that is very personal for me. At the same time, I don’t have a set idea of what the pictures have to look like. I am mostly inspired by the current atmosphere, my current mood, maybe a film I saw, a song in my head or something I saw on the news. I react flexibly to light and weather and above all, to the subject’s particular vibe.”

You only take photos of men – are they more interesting, beautiful than women?

“No, no, not true, I also photograph women but much less female models. There are various reasons for it – to shoot with female models you need an entire team of stylists: make-up, hair, clothing... becomes a production. Having all these people on set changes the atmosphere – there is automatically more posing, equally you lose intimacy and naturalness. Male models need less styling and it is less stress. As a photographer I like being alone on set so that trust and the kind of purity I seek in photography can emerge.”

What is beauty for you?

“Intelligence…, being capable of saying something with your eyes, honesty in front of the camera, self-confidence and security. And then, the obvious: good skin, beautiful eyes... Also in regard to beauty, I prefer not working with young female models – they are too perfect or want to seem to be in photos and they lack life experiences. Also I adore photographing an older model, whose life is shown on their face and hands. Perfect beauty doesn’t excite me. I recently took a photo of a woman my age, who is beautiful the way she is. The most interesting point and most difficult task was to make her feel confident in front of the camera and be herself. I started out with analogue photography and perhaps my point of view is also somewhat analogue. I have only worked digitally since 2007 and it took years to be able to transfer the same quality and effects into digital. I would still like to keep everything the way it is, and I almost have a guilty conscience when I discover two little wrinkles and retouch them. When I compose a photo I do my utmost to shoot it already as perfect as I want it, not to need to correct it with post-production gimmicks! I am interested in the genuine – in unpretentious personalities and their special features. Nobody is perfect and there is a special beauty in imperfection.”

What is it that you seek with your camera?

“I am interested in the simple, the basic and that is probably also the most difficult because there is nothing to hide. I almost exclusively work with natural light and I usually get the photo I want in the first few clicks. A foundation of trust is necessary for that and you build it through mutual respect. You have to create a connection and understand what the other needs if you want the people who you photograph to offer their souls to you. You must listen besides looking! More than anything else, I seek emotions with my pictures – I want the viewer to feel the emotion.”

You work with models of different ages. Some of them you discovered as a booker, many have accompanied you for years, became friends. Often you photograph absolute beginners – boys who have no experience. How do you have to treat them?

“They need help to let go – maybe it is beneficial that I worked as a model myself. I show them which direction I want to take. It is not about them giving to my camera what they have seen in a magazine or doing what all the others are doing, but about them discovering who they are during the process, being fearless in front of the camera lens... just being themselves. I do not know always the image that I want in advance, but I know the mood I want to get. So I go with the flow. For me as the photographer, I am the director in a situation. It is most important to remain calm, to see how things develop and to make sure the person opposite me feels comfortable in the situation.”

Who are your idols?

“The movies – film noir, the neo-realists Rossellini, Visconti… but also Pasolini, Godard and Warhol. From Visconti’s work I learned that every detail is important. ‘Breathless’ by Godard – the styling of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo, the handheld lights and tight sets. Regarding photographers, I am certainly influenced by August Sander, Herbert List, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin, but also by ‘trash directors’ such as Russ Meyer.”

Your works in this book are structured into 13 chapters and each of them starts with a poem by you. Isn’t both poetry – the images as much as the words, simply made visible by different means?

“Yes, maybe the photos are visual poetry. To write and create with words is spiritual for me, like some form of therapy. It is the withdrawal into quietness and thinking about impressions and people. Aside from poems, I also write lyrics, which happened by chance. At some point I met a friend… his girlfriend at the time wanted to be a singer and was not satisfied with the song her writer sent her. It was a lovely evening, we cooked and ate and I wrote the lyrics in between. Without thinking too much, I wrote my first lyrics – she was happy and used it. Over time, I wrote seven songs for her, and it was seven years ago through a series of events in her life (that) they are finally recorded on a CD now. I am happy about this opportunity to express this other side of myself. It is a kind of broadening of my horizon, a new outlet which morphed into writing poems to be included in this book. I also have been experimenting with short films for some time now – yet again a new medium and a very personal point of view because I write the script, direct and operate the camera myself. I like to work in different disciplines and formats – to explore my style with various tools and to create on different levels.”

In the book there is a lot of naked skin. Is nakedness a special quality when it comes to photography, aside from it being beautiful to look at?

“Often models approach me wanting to be photographed nude… I sometimes ask if I am inspired creatively. Presumably it has to do with that trust and respect on my set. When you are nude, there is no cover, there are no pockets you can hide your hands in. Nakedness throws us back to what we really are – very personal and brutally honest. It’s all about you and nothing else.”

In art history, the self-portrait is an important image subject. Does Sam Scott Schiavo photograph himself every now and then?

“Yes, but not too often, the occasional selfie for Instagram. I may do it analogue with real film and a self-timer one day. Now, working as an actor and ‘senior’ model I am often needed to send selfies for casting. I am also comfortable in front of the lens of another photographer, and I can keep my mouth beautifully shut, not giving advice or instructions to the photographer. Also on my ‘bucket list’, I would like to be photographed nude in black and white. That image doesn’t exist yet, but hopefully (will) soon, as I am already of grandfather age and do not want to wait until great-grandfather age. Nowadays I like both – to take pictures and to have my picture taken. Evidently, I needed a 25-year break from modeling before I was ready to do it again.”

What did you not like about modelling and what can you enjoy about it now, 25 years later?

“The need to be perfect, to impress the client. When I was a young model it seemed my life always depended on it. Now I really don’t give a fuck! I’m no longer intimidated, I’m much more secure in myself and I can choose if something is right for me. I enjoy myself, I live every day as it comes and since I have many things going on, I do not feel it’s the end of the world if an option is cancelled.”

You are currently often in Budapest. What do you find there?

“Budapest is rich in history and full of contrasts: post-communism, it’s Bohemian and yet modern, it is for me the new Berlin. You can see the suffering of the homeless alongside the hipsters and tourists, buildings, which are way past their prime, flakey paint and dark corners that I find beautiful, great cafes, wonderful creative artists and attractive people. Those are the impressions that shape me. I think that places, landscapes and diverse mentalities influence my work. It is a special energy that inspires me in Budapest. I still live in Italy, but I am often in Budapest, as well as Vienna and Porto. All cities that I love!
At some point it will drive me back permanently to Italy, into the Mezzogiorno, the area where my family had immigrated from, the rough shoulder of that beloved country, but I have no plans soon on putting down my camera. As I mentioned in the beginning: for me, it’s all about seeking ...

Peter Schmid