INDiplomacy interviewed Roberto Polillo, a great photographer born in Milan and always on a journey to discover the beauty of the world.

By Khalida El Khatir

Roberto Polillo started to cultivate his passion for photography from an early age, producing the first photo shots dedicated to the world of jazz music, which had great success in magazines and books dedicated to the musical genre. 

During the 70s, Polillo developed his career by initially becoming an entrepreneur in the world of computer science and then assuming the role of university professor in the field of software engineering.

Despite 41 years of teaching, his passion for photography has never faded.

Louis Armstrong, Juan-les-Pins, Francia, 1967. Photo by Roberto Polillo
Louis Armstrong, Juan-les-Pins, Francia, 1967. Photo by Roberto Polillo

Several projects have engaged Polillo in the artistic world of photography, starting from the most recent project dedicated to his travels in Morocco, a country to which the artist is very attached.

The photographs allow the observer to perceive the intense Moroccan atmosphere that Polillo tried to capture in his shots.

His artistic works have also been exhibited in several exhibitions and museums, such as the one created in collaboration with the Museum of Lugano, to which INDiplomacy has dedicated a detailed article.

Roberto Polillo, you have been cultivating your passion for photography for years. During the 60s you photographed many jazz concerts and you focused in particular on the portraits of the most famous musicians of the time.

Yes, I had a great opportunity in those years, because my father Arrigo Polillo was an important figure in the promotion of jazz music in Italy.

He used to organize concerts, write, and conduct “Jazz Music”, a specialized magazine that still exists.

When I was only 16, because of my passion for photography, my father asked me to photograph concerts for his magazine.

And so, starting from 1962, for a dozen years I photographed more than a hundred concerts in Italy, France and Switzerland.

I had the great opportunity to photograph all the main musicians of the time, from the exponents of “classical” jazz (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, …) to those of Free Jazz, which was born in those years: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and many others.

This experience was very important for my career: hundreds of black and white photos, mostly portraits, which I have shown in numerous solo exhibitions since then, including a permanent exhibition at the Accademia del Jazz (Jazz Academy) in Siena, and several books.

Since the mid-1970s I have worked in the field of computer science, as an entrepreneur and university professor, so I stopped doing photography for almost 30 years.

What led you to the passion for photography of the places where you travelled? In particular, why did you choose Morocco as the main object of your works?

In the 2000s, when I started to have more free time from work, I resumed the passion of photography. I have always been a passionate traveller, especially in tropical countries: India, Southeast Asia, Central America, North Africa. For this reason, travel photography has become, in a completely spontaneous way, the core of my works.

Marrakech, Morocco. Photo by Roberto Polillo.
Marrakech, Morocco. Photo by Roberto Polillo.

The first country I started from was Morocco, which I visited as a tourist in 1983 and which has always fascinated me a lot.

Between 2005 and 2018, I returned to Morocco seven times, with the sole purpose of photographing it.

In the eighties, I started to get passionate about the works of Orientalist painting of the nineteenth century, beginning to draw inspiration from these works in my photographs.

Your photographs dedicated to Morocco are enclosed in a very beautiful book that represents different types of places and people in movement. What is the message you want to convey through this exaltation of colors?

I’ve never been interested in reportage photography, or the kind of photographs we see in travel magazines. In my photographic projects I try to represent the “atmospheres” of the places that fascinate me, and in which I feel at home. In a certain sense, I seek the soul of the places, their magic. Morocco is perhaps the country in the world that has most transmitted these feelings to me.

And it was in Morocco, during my first photographic journey in 2005-2006, that I discovered the photographic language that I have always used in my travel photographs since then.

In Essaouira, because of an error I made in setting my first digital camera. It was a woman with a child, giving her back to me, in a small alley of the medina. I saw the image in the viewer of the camera and it immediately fascinated me: it looked like a watercolor painting.

Since then, I’ve always taken pictures with that technique. I later discovered that it is called ICM, Intentional Camera Movement.

The creative effect is achieved by slowly moving the camera during the shot, thus obtaining a moving image, with the details of the scene disappearing.

With this technique the artist manages very well to convey the atmosphere of the place. It’s like remembering a place after a long time before: you don’t remember the details, just the general impression.

Essaouira, Morocco. Photo by Roberto Polillo.
Essaouira, Morocco. Photo by Roberto Polillo.

My book on Morocco (Marocco. Roberto Polillo. Fotografie 2005-2018. Silvana editor) contains a hundred images, a selection of which were presented in a major exhibition at the Museo delle Culture in Lugano, in 2020. I used exclusively the technique of the ICM, also trying, in recent trips, to detach the approach from the traditional “Orientalist” iconography to represent the different souls of this beautiful country.

An artistic journey started with great ambitions and completed with as many satisfactions. And that is certainly not yet over: every time I return to Morocco I discover new images.

Among your recent projects there is a collection of foulards created with the fashion brand Erla. What brought you to collaborate with Erla for the realization of “Morocco Foulard Collection”?

Erla Gazine is a friend and a designer from Mozambique who works in Italy and who has known and appreciated my photographs for a long time. Erla, like all African women, loves colorful dresses and bright colors, and was fascinated by the colors of my images.

For this reason, she proposed to me to collaborate with her to create a series of silk foulards.

We chose six images (Rabat, Marrakech, Fes, Essaouira, Chechchauen, Tetuan), which were printed on silk by a workshop in Marche –  a region in central Italy – that makes these prints for other important brands. We were thrilled by the result: silk enlivens and embellishes the colors of Morocco in a way that I never expected. As a photographer, I’m very happy: it’s a way to make my images live not only on the walls of a museum or an apartment but also on the head and neck of elegant women. A very successful experiment, which will continue with other products.