The children’s faces are rubbed with paint; they are transformed into warriors. It is nighttime, but, unlike in fairy tales, the darkness is not sinister but comforting. The children, looking like characters from Carnival, are protected by night, camouflaged by leaves of deep, phthalocyanine green. “We started to elaborate on the weirdness of the situation,” the photographer Elisabetta Zavoli, who took these haunting photographs in her garden with her young sons, while the family was under quarantine in their home in the Italian countryside, told me. After taking the photographs, she collaborated with the filmmaker Kristina Budelis, who lives in Los Angeles, to create “Finding Colors in Darkness,” the short documentary above.
Zavoli began this project as a salve for her mental health. Like many, Zavoli was terrified during the first few days of lockdown in Italy. Her sons, who are eight and eleven, found the process of setting up scenes therapeutic. The stories that came out of the their imaginations were of monsters killing people, and Zavoli knew that the boys needed a way to express these feelings. With a new abundance of “free” time, the boys started asking her questions about her work, and soon she was setting them loose in the garden with her equipment (and supervision). As a professional photographer, Zavoli told me that her creative projects help her “not to fall into despair.” The kind of serious play she and her sons shared helped process complicated emotions, for which it is often hard to find language. “If you are able to feel these emotions by playing them, this helps you recognize them in real life and cope with them,” she said. We all know childhood can be terrifying; the stories of the Brothers Grimm mean so much to children because they allow them to see their fears acknowledged. But it is one thing to argue for the value of fear, and another thing entirely to encourage children to turn and face the monster that’s chasing them. There’s always a chance, after all, that the monster will turn out to be real. Zavoli’s family photo shoots—in which her children got to play at being the monsters that hide in the night—were a way of turning childhood fears upside down.
The photo shoots were also a way for Zavoli to share her creative life with her children. Her older son is entering adolescence, and Zavoli appreciated the chance to play with him during these last months of his childhood. Interacting with them as both an artist and a parent gave her a chance to, as she said, “be fully myself together with them.”
“For me, it works like this” she explained in an e-mail. “I try to reconnect with my wilderness and to that state of grace that children have and maybe adults have forgotten. Be full of amazement, do things (sometimes) that overcome the rules or the boundaries just because you are passionate about, train yourself in seeing things from another perspective (from above, from bottom, from inside, from outside . . .), reconnect with all your 5 senses (if you have the 6th one, use it as well!), pay attention to small/tiny/almost invisible things around you.” These practices don’t erase the differences between parent and child, she said, but help create a shared “garden” that they could each enjoy. Such a connection is especially important when families in isolation may be dealing with unusual stress and anxiety.
In the dark, the children wear masks that make them look like animal gods. The costumes seem to give them the courage to be seen while keeping their true faces hidden. This transformation is natural to Zavoli, a part of life in their rural surroundings. “Animals live with us” she said. “They are part of our daily life, to the point that we see us all inside the same big picture. So playing the fox or the caterpillar, or taking pictures of our blue-gray rooster, it is like playing the part of one of the subjects in the stories that commonly happen in our daily life.” In March, as daily death tolls from COVID-19 climbed toward their peak in Italy, Zavoli’s sons watched the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies. They wondered, Zavoli told me, if a caterpillar “feels strange when it realizes something is changing inside itself but doesn’t know what this will mean.”
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