Photographer travels the world collecting people's inner thoughts

Photographer Mario Cacciottolo is travelling the world, documenting people's personal experiences, writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 February, 2014, 11:16am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 February, 2014, 11:18am

The black-and-white images are not what you'd call artistic, but they remind photographer Mario Cacciottolo of the people he has met, and the tales they have told him about their lives.

The 41-year-old half-British, half-Maltese journalist is travelling the world documenting people and their words of wisdom for his project, Someone Once Told Me. He was recently in Hong Kong taking portraits of residents around the city. The project was inspired by Cacciottolo's combined love of storytelling, photography and travel. "I loved hearing people tell stories and I loved it when things happened to me. I would immediately think of who I would tell the story to," he explains.

People will tell me some private things or the most hurtful things 
Mario Cacciottolo

He says the travel bug is the result of his eclectic upbringing: he was born in Southampton in southern England, grew up in Malta, then returned to England to work at the BBC in 2006, when he also took up photography.

"One day, someone paid me a compliment, and I thought to myself that I should remember that. I would remember the compliment whenever I was feeling down, to keep my spirits up," he says. "Then I thought, I'm not the only one who does this. I realised that there are things inside us that are tied to experiences, things that I can represent photographically."

For the project, Cacciottolo asks his subjects to write down something someone has told them on a large piece of paper.

He then takes their photograph with it, and records them explaining what it means. The results are uploaded onto his website, where a new portrait goes online each day.

Cacciottolo started the project in September 2007, and last May he took a year-long break from the BBC to embark on a Someone Once Told Me world tour.

He and his American fiancée, travel blogger Kate McCulley - also known as "Adventurous Kate" - visited countries including Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, South Africa, Japan, Dubai, Istanbul, Cambodia, and Brunei before they reached Hong Kong.

Cacciottolo has been bowled over by the people he has met, some of whom he interacts with for just 10 minutes. Others have invited the couple to stay at their homes. One of his most memorable trips was to South Africa, where a woman he had previously met invited him to photograph athletes and students in Port Elizabeth.

"But then she also took me to Missionvale township, on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, where the people are very poor, unemployed and many have HIV/Aids. I met the charity workers who are carrying on the work started by Sister Ethel Normoyle of Ireland.

"She started the Missionvale Care Centre 26 years ago under a tree, offering food and clothing donations to the poor," he says.

"And now, 26 years later, there is a new complex for medicine, eye care, as well as food and clothing. They collect clothes, wash them and then give them to whoever needs them. When you see how people live there, it's heart-wrenching. The kindness and generosity makes me feel humble. The care centre makes lives better. It's the best of humanity and makes me feel better about being human."

One of the stories was told by a black woman in her 50s who works at the charity. She held up the large sketchbook, which read: "Aeroplane are [sic] going to bring us a baby."

"She explained that when she was young, her mother was pregnant. When she was about to give birth, her mother told her and her siblings to go outside and look out for the plane because it was going to bring the baby.

"They went out, saw an airplane, and when they came back inside her mother had just given birth to twins. So for a long time, she thought that babies came from airplanes," Cacciottolo says, smiling.

"Moments like that are unforgettable. When you meet people face to face and you get them to give you their experience of their life, it's humbling. The world is so massive and yet in some ways so small. People have vastly different lives and you really get to feel it when you meet these people," he says.

An important part of the project was to meet people from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. "I could easily meet middle-class people in a shopping mall, which is great, but I want to meet other people, too," Cacciottolo says. In Manila, for instance, he met homeless families who live in the large tombs of wealthy families in a cemetery.

Many of his subjects remember words of wisdom given by parents or grandparents. "I photographed some South Korean schoolgirls, and one had a proverb: 'After a typhoon, there are pears to gather up.' I took that to mean that after you go through a difficult period, or you work very hard, you will reap the rewards. That is a nice thing to remember."

Many participants say the revelations were the first time they had told anyone "It's a kind of confessional. They tell me a personal experience that has moved them, or resonated with them."

In Hong Kong, he visited a comedy club to see a jovial American named Peter, who teaches English and performs comedy in his spare time. After the show, Cacciottolo asked him to participate in his project. Peter agreed, saying he first needed time to think about it. The comedian later wrote down: "You need to get home ... mum's not doing well."

"I took his photo outside the bar, and he explained the story behind the phrase, which I captured on my phone as usual. He said those were words he never wanted to hear, especially from his sister, 'when you're half a world away'.

"He carried on, his voice breaking, and then I saw tears run down his face, catching on his nose. He just about managed to finish talking, and wiped them away. I ended the recording and then gave a hug to this huge bear of a man who I didn't know, and who only a short time before, had been making me and a room full of people laugh. I hugged him as he wept for his dead mother."

It was one of the most unbelievable experiences he's ever had, Cacciottolo says, and his most powerful Someone Once Told Me moment.

"I consider myself to be a curator of people's secrets," he says. "I'm hugely moved by the fact that people will tell me - a stranger - some of the most private things or the most hurtful things."

One thing that he's learned from Someone Once Told Me is that - as the saying goes - no man is an island. "We really need each other. We talk to each other and what we say to someone sticks. Much of what people have told me is advice, a phrase to help and alleviate pain, words to give strength. We all need that," Cacciottolo says. "And also other people's experiences help us, so we learn from each other."

A year is not a long time to travel around the world, he says, and his experiences have included sleeping on lumpy beds, having cockroaches as bedmates, exhausting bus and plane rides, as well as home-cooked meals and time for relaxation.

His main obsession on the road is finding decent Wi-fi to upload his high-resolution images, so Cacciottol is thrilled with how well Hong Kong is wired.

"New York used to be my favourite place in the world. But now it's Hong Kong, as it has a mix of the old and the new. It's a photographer's dream."

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