• Photography  Luca Grottoli
  • Words  Anna Sanders

Hooded and cloaked against cold grey skies, the shepherds of Lesotho stand for portraits on their solitary commute, their likobo (traditional, hand-woven Basotho blankets) the only indication of shared experience, of a community that lies quiet and hidden within the mountains.

Lesotho, a sovereign enclave nation, is the only country 1,400 metres above sea level, earning it its appellation – ‘Sky Kingdom’. Its landscape is a harsh, unforgiving terrain: over-grazing and primitive farming have eroded the soil, and temperatures drop below freezing in the winter months; yet this land of snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, and undulated earth is a beautiful, remote Arcady. And it is the stark disparity to the surrounding cities, the urban sprawl of Durban, the metropolis of Johannesburg, that makes Lesotho feel entirely separate. The Mountain Kingdom speaks as much of those things that are lost to us in the modernising of our world and in our consumerist pursuits, as it does of isolation and of inescapable poverty. A strange and benighted place, migration and the promise of work in South African mines has left an economic gap: shepherding roles, once the duty of men, are often filled by young boys, their educational years lost to work as they spend solitary months in the preternatural beauty of the landscape.

In his series, Grottoli confronts this remoteness along a stretch of road, photographing the emptyy steel frames of man-made structures and the shepherds he meets along the way: chance encounters under bruised skies, mountain ranges hidden beneath rolling mist, faces concealed under wool masks. Punctuating the unspoken narrative of ancient traditions in rural lands, are unplaced, poetic words. In one image, the whimsically titled ‘An Obama In My Kitchen’, a local newspaper story recounts how, on a visit to South Africa, White House representatives mistakenly booked a local restaurant in Lesotho instead of a similarly named, more expensive venue outside its borders. On arrival, and realising the mistake, Michelle Obama insisted they stay. It was, Grottoli remarks, a moment of pride for the vegetarian, female-run cafe – and, he assures, “the food is delicious”.

For the first of his series in Southern Africa, we spoke with Grottoli about his time in Lesotho’s altitudinous plains, racial tensions in a fractured land, and his relationship with photography, for both commercial and exploratory means.

Could you tell us more about where your series was shot, and how long you were shooting for?
I have friends who live in Cape Town, and I decided to go and visit them. I took a flight to Johannesburg, and from there I drove through South Africa to Cape Town, visiting Lesotho (situated in the middle of the country) on my way. The trip took a month in total.

Did you set out with a defined project in mind, or are these shots candid glimpses into your travels?
I usually shoot fashion photography, and after a long period undertaking commercial editorials, I felt it was time to go back to my creative origins. When you shoot fashion, most of the time you have to follow and respect so many rules: I needed to feel free to go and shoot only the things I wanted to shoot.
South Africa and Lesotho are very different countries compared with those of Europe, and I felt they were the right environment to shoot in an setting that’s entirely new to me.

Do you often travel, for both work and pleasure, and photograph the places you visit? How does this change your perception and experience of a place?
When I was younger I used to travel a lot – South America, Europe, North Africa, USA – I wanted to see as much as I could. For the last two years I’ve been living between Australia and Southeast Asia, an experience that I feel has changed me as a person and as a photographer. You need to live before you can tell someone else’s story within a frame.
Every place or person I see is a possible shot – if I like it, I shoot it. I’m not really sure if it’s a luck or not, but it’s what I do best.

What have been some memorable places you’ve photographed, or people you have met?
I remember, with a certain melancholy, a trip I took to the South of France with a person I love. It was a weird moment in my life, and going there with her in that moment was intense.

What has been your experience of the areas you visited in the series: the culture, the first impressions?
South Africa is a very interesting country in a socio-political way; Johannesburg is a big city but I got the feeling that it had stopped growing some years ago. I found a city with a lot of racial and economic issues. To me the most interesting part of the country is the middle where it felt rural and more genuine. I had the chance to see how people used to – and still – live, I felt the real Africa there with a lot of black people and only few Afrikaans (white people born there post-colonialism). The coast is a completely different environment, it reminds me of California: beautiful vineyards, villas on the sea, all in a very rich area dominated by white people.
Cape Town is very modern, it’s like being in another country, expensive feeling, but with the huge issue of the townships hidden in the city centre. As a white man I was told I wouldn’t be able to get in, my friends told me it was dangerous, and that people there live with nothing in houses made with pieces of metal found in the street, very poor and very angry.
I personally got the feeling that the divide between rich people from the city and the poor from the townships, who outnumber them, is getting wider and creating social tension.

See more at lucagrottoli.com