Sometimes I cannot smile: Piergiorgio Casotti’s Greenland

change the language from drop menu

65°37′N 37°38′W

The first thing I did, when I decided to take this painful journey, was to open Google Maps and write Greenland. Time to redirect me and I fell into the snow. The capital is Nuuk, the emblem is a gigantic polar bear, clearly white, on a blue background, depicted in profile as a Roman emperor but not a bust: it is a full figure standing with the front paws raised in a savage attack and the tongue it looks like the reverberation of a flame. In Greenland, without too much beating about the bush, a lot of people die. And they do not die for an adverse nature that crushes them and subdues them, or at least, not directly. They die more than anything else by choice, they die by their will. Not much is talked about, but people continue to die, many are guys. The annual average suicide rate in Greenland between 2013 and 2017 was 75.1 for 100,000 inhabitants. Half of those who commit suicide are between 10 and 30 years old. Piergiorgio Casotti, a photographer from Reggio Emilia, told a video and photo documentary about the lives of people who today may no longer be there. He recounted their fears, their anxieties, their unfulfilled dreams, the strength to seek a change that they do not see coming, sadness, consternation.

By chance and fortunately

It’s a warm June afternoon, with Piergiorgio Casotti on the phone, his voice comes as far away as if he were in the middle of snowy snow and instead he’s in Reggio Emilia. He has just returned from the States where he was for the presentation of his latest project INDEX G – which by the way won the Bastianelli 2019 award – created together with Emanuele Brutti. Let’s talk about the past, from Greenland, with the heat that makes, we talk about life and death.

He tells me that his project was born more or less, as often happens, by chance. It started with a wedding, developed with a party, went through cold, despair, apathy, and merged into a short film, a photographic project and a documentary, respectively: Arctic Spleen short (2011), Sometimes I cannot smile (2013), Arctic Spleen (2014). But it is not concluded, its effects are still perceived today with a photographic course that takes in those far and cold places (despite everything), where even the ice inexorably let themselves go, like people. Casotti says that a couple of his friends had gone on a honeymoon in Iceland and from there he had visited Greenland for a few days. He tells me that when they told him about it, came back to him a report he heard on TV so long ago, about the people who voluntarily die on that giant island. «It intrigued me, I did research on it, I read a couple of articles that talked about this very high rate of youth suicides and I left at the end of January. By chance, after a week, I met a Danish man, who arrived in Greenland a month before me, who was, and still is the manager of Greenland housing in the East; I explained my project to him and he decided to host me at his house, since he lived alone.

Piergiorgio Casotti Piergiorgio Casotti

The very first trip, the one of orientation, I made it with a friend of mine who is a videographer, I had no precise contacts, nor did I have clear ideas, I wanted to understand if there was the possibility of a story. I was in East Greenland, an area as large as more or less half of Europe with about 3000 inhabitants, the main city is Tasiilaq and around it there are 5 very small villages, a couple not even reaching 100 inhabitants. I was in Greenland four years in a row, on average twice a year for a month, a month and a half each time. I went with the idea of ​​taking photographs and experimenting with the video part for the first time. At the beginning I stayed in the house for two weeks, both because it is difficult to meet people, especially in such a context, and because there were -20/-25°C. Then by chance on a Friday, which was payday, I went out and outside the supermarket I met a group of guys with beer crates, they saw me, they spoke a little English, and they invited me to their party. We stayed in touch and so the following year we resented and returned to Greenland for the second time. Since the second year I have therefore had a chance to integrate myself much more into the place, thinking that some of those guys, from the third trip onwards, have hosted me in their homes and have totally included me in their families. It’s not a small thing. From that moment all the inhabitants of Tasiilaq knew that I was part of those families, they knew what I was doing and they trusted me. They still welcome me as a part of them.

Tasiilaq, 2009.
Life for many of east greenland’s youth is a mix of boredom, violence, divided families and a troubled quest for an identity that balances the old, hunting lifestyle values of their grandparents, and the new unknown western culture.

About the problem of suicide: the guys talk about it quite openly, even if you don’t ask them, more or less everyone has had suicidal experiences in the family. For them there is an idea of ​​an extended family, among other things, more than the nuclear family, a family clan. I interviewed them, asked if they had tried, many told me yes. Some of those interviewed today committed suicide, one was killed, they have shot two years ago.

My approach was not that of the photographer, I lived there, that was my life, the camera I had with me in my pocket, but it was not the priority. I was part of their community, I felt like them, the only difference is that I had a camera, but I didn’t go looking for situations, I simply lived them as I live them here in Italy. When I was in a situation that I thought was interesting, I turned the camera around and took pictures or filmed. He wasn’t the photographer he was looking for, he was a simple person who lived there who was lucky enough to have a camera that recorded those moments, moments of my life too. Everything I photographed is also related to me, I was there, with all my being, I was not a stranger. I experienced many situations in the first person, even the strongest moments.

What brought me to Greenland was my fear of death. My father had died and I was scared, I was afraid of dying and I was attracted to this concept of death, not so much because I wanted to commit suicide, I wanted rather confront myself with this theme. It was the approach to death that interested me in an extreme, bleak, borderline environment. I like deserts, cold or warm, loneliness. Greenland attracted me for its high suicide rate, for the percentages that are totally absurd even compared to Japan and Lithuania. In Greenland, 25% of boys try to commit suicide each year. It’s a huge and growing problem.

Orphanes playing at sunset at minus 15. No certified pshycologists in town, just the public social services are supporting them, many times finding them foster families willing to keep them.

The Greenlanders are a nomadic people who underwent major changes in the 1950s, above all due to Denmark’s modernization process in the country. They have gone from living like nomads, to being moved to wooden houses or concrete buildings. Before they lived in fifteen, twenty people in survival contexts, there wasn’t much space for communication, they didn’t even know what communication was, they had to fish, hunt, keep warm, live. There was no room to be very romantic.
If you went fishing or hunting, if you broke the ice and fell into the water, if you broke a leg and died of cold it was normal. Life was everywhere, but death too, these two components were part of everyday life. Death was not perceived as a dramatic or unusual event, it was a daily occurrence. Suicide was also a social problem-solving practice, a practice that was carried on until the 1950s, which was passed down. In the situation where 15/20 people lived together, if there was an elderly or infirm who was a burden on society or family, these people went away to die in the ice. Once it was the old people who committed suicide, since the 1950s they are young people, today without history or with the possibility of large exit routes, in a situation of very high family disintegration, alcoholism (often on Friday morning at 9 am there are already people drunk lying on the street), physical and psychological abuse. Young people who don’t speak because for a Greenlander to talk about their problems means to be seen as weak. They keep everything inside and eventually explode. There is a resignation, even if they always commit suicide when they are drunk. It is as if they had a double life, normally during the week they are happy, cheerful, as soon as they get drunk all despair comes out».

All images © Piergiorgio Casotti / Instagram: @piercasotti
Written by Iole Cianciosi

Thanks to Piergiorgio Casotti