Alba Zari's nomadic childhood cultivated her introspective sensibility for photography. She was born in Thailand, and then moved to Italy, where she graduated with a degree in film. She went on to study documentary photography at the International Center of Photography in New York, and then continued in photography and visual design in Milan. Her experience as a traveler influences and is reflected in her photography practice. With her intent to explore social themes, she engages in visual studies for inter-disciplinary fields, like her work with public health centres and other organizations, press and media, and cultural institutions. With 'The Y', Alba channels her inter-disciplinary strengths, embodying the role of not only a visual artist and photographer, but also an investigative actor, taking on a scientific, meticulous approach to an otherwise very visceral, emotional question.
We spoke to Alba to get to know more about her multimedia photography project 'The Y', an investigative work that stitches Alba's missing pieces of family history and origins, uncovers monumental personal discoveries, and allows her to 'realize' the father she never knew.
Could you tell us about 'The Y' project's beginnings and how it was developed?
"At the age of 25 I found out that I had different biological father to my Thai brother. Once the truth was revealed I began a journey in exploring my own identity with the sole purpose of finding my father. It all started with a DNA paternity test which proved that Weerachart, the man who had lived with us in Thailand until I was 4 years old, was not my biological father, in fact, he was the biological father of my younger brother, Agostino. The only thing I know about the identity of my father is that his name is Massad, and that was probably working for the Emirates Airlines - he could be from Iraq, Iran or Kuwait. From that day I felt the urgency to find out where I came from and where I belong. Every single piece of material present in the project was a tool to support my research, every image was useful in finding the truth and trying to reveal the identity of my missing father. With photography I questioned my memories and the history of my family, therefore encouraging me to look at my family pictures from a different perspective. The man with me was no longer my family and since I no longer had a blood connection with him I painted over photographs of him to create a silhouette in a bid to demonstrate a new interpretation of my memory.
My photographic quest has grown from the gaps of information. I examined my features and I compared them to my mother and grandmother using a physiognomic analysis. Using a process of elimination I noticed that my eyes, mouth, nose and skin tone could only belong to a man that I had never had the chance to meet; this helped me start to imagine what he might look like. I needed to know the truth to accept the absence, so I did a DNA test to find out the ancestral origins of my biological father, from here came the title of the project. The Y. Women inherit two XX and in my DNA I am missing the Y chromosome, the element needed to find his ethnic origins. I had to work with the information I had that existed within my family. I collected documents and evidence relating to who could be my father, and I took portraits of Weerachart, my putative father, of Agostino my brother, and of Gary Labus - a man I had never heard about before, but nevertheless was the person that signed the paternity on my birth certificate. I travelled to Santa Barbara to take a portrait of him. All the portraits are silhouetted against a light blue setting, a popular backdrop for IDs in the 1980s in Italy. I needed to look at them from every angle to gather an organic perception of who he was and to explore his features further. Like a forensic investigator I methodically started to look for traces of Massad, my father, and so I travelled back to Bangkok. During the process I discovered that what I really wanted was to have an image of my father, thus I worked with the information I had, and with the results of the physiognomic analysis I created a 3D avatar with the program 'Make a Human.' I used a scientific approach to get the closest I could to the truth. A consequence of this method was that I formed an emotional distance, allowing me to organise my feelings. The project ends with a self-portrait in Bangkok with my eyes closed against a red background, portraying reference to blood and to an indissoluble bond in the face of my father’s physical absence."
These discoveries, as incremental as they might seem, must have been deeply transformative for you. Could you elaborate on the impact of the project on your daily life?
"First and foremost, my identity changed. I found it out when I was 25 years old, so I was already formed as a person. I had already accepted a series of things, such as my dad’s missing presence – which is something I already elaborated on. The thing that stuck with me and the one I started working on is my identity. This changed because I thought I was born and bred in Thailand with a father, still absent, but who was still Thai and was still my brother’s father. I then found out I had this hole, this missing information which is half of who I am as a person. I had the necessity to find out who I actually was. This search for the truth, proof – the project is entirely based on facts because documents were the only thing that was going to tell me the truth. So, I structured it this way for a personal need to discover the truth."
Can you pinpoint where this regimented approach to your own work comes from? Photography can ellicit all kinds of 'truth', and we think about its historical use as tool for adjudicating or supporting evidence. But many of those truths are also rooted in feeling, and often photography works beyond the need to see fact. How does that approach affect your readings of images and image-making in general, as a photographer?
"I couldn’t seem to establish a bond with the memories of my childhood and with the pictures in my family album anymore. The images that I repeatedly looked at were no longer telling me the truth, the person next to me at my birthday party was not my biological father - I no longer knew how to feel. From the start of the project I couldn’t help but feel that photographs were pieces of material that hold so many variations of what is perceived to be the truth. When I created the Avatar of Massad, I finally had an image of my father. In the last part of the project I realised that I had effectively created my own memory of him, but it was still only an interpretation of reality. I used the medium of photography in a way that allowed me to treat the research of my father without rhetorical feelings. I needed to collect evidence, facts and scientific reports. I needed to organise and keep the right emotional distance in order to deal with the pain of not knowing who my father was. I thought of using the scientific approach adopted by Lombroso while I was studying the features of my maternal line, allowing me to potentially create part of the answer by giving me a visual representation of what he might look like. What I wanted more than anything was to have a photograph of my biological father, I was not able to find his identity so I recreated his image with the Avatar to have my own peace of mind. The Avatar is an imaginary image, and that is the closest I get to reality. During my research I did think a lot about the role photography played in manipulating reality to tell a story."
Since you've published your book, have you felt that this project is truly finished? Or is there perhaps an ongoing emotional process for you that still feeds into the project and its ultimate meanings for you?
"The project isn’t over, I did everything I could to find him, so it’s a bit like I am at peace with it. But it’s still an ongoing project because, maybe, it can’t be over until I find my father. It’s something I will always carry with me. Life is strange – I often ask myself if I will ever meet him, if he’ll ever get in touch, because it’s someone that exists. It’s life, right? So, I don’t think I will ever be able to finish the project until I get an answer in my personal life."
Alba's recent works include 'Places' (2015), a book and a photographic project witch analyses the visual communication of ISIS propaganda; 'Radici' (2013), a documentary project on the vegetation of the Mesr desert in Iran; and 'The Y- Research of Biological Father' (2016-). With 'The Y', Alba became a member of Foam Talents 2020 and the project has been exhibited in internationals festivals and museums such as MAXXI, Rome; London Art Fair, Circulation Paris and Athens Photo Festival. Alba is now working on a visual study of the propaganda of the cult 'Children of God.' She produced the short documentary 'FreiKörperKultur' and she is working on her first documentary feature film, 'White Lies'.
Interview and words by Rama Ghanem.