Francesca Cao: Photojournalist – interview by


Francesca Cao, photojournalist.

A friendly and lovely interview with an Italian photojournalist, who lives between Milan and NYC. Born in Norwich, UK, in 1981, she was raised up in Milan, Italy, where she completed her studies in Philosophy, with a final dissertation on Susan Sontag.

She moved, in 2006, to NYC where she completed the well known photojournalism course at the International Centre of Photography. Now she is working as freelance with her stories to tell, as she loves saying. Among her most important clients: the New York Times, The Guardian, the Guardian Weekend Magazine, D Donna, Il Corriere della Sera. Her exhibitions were in NYC, Madrid, Valencia and Milan.

How long have you been student of photography and since when have you been photojournalist?

Well, I became passionate about photography at the age of 21, while I was studying philosophy; that’s when I begun working for the photoreporter Mauro Galligani (Epoca, Panorama, Contrasto Photo Agency), with whom I worked for two years.

After I got my degree with a final dissertation about Susan Sontag, in 2006, I left Milano, headed to the International Center of Photography, ICP, in New York, for two years.

So you have studied and lived in NYC for two years. Now,  you keep going back and forth for your job, how is living there as student before and now as a photojournalist?

Well, New York is a unique city in the world. It’s extremely stimulating, busy, fascinating, crazy, romantic…and I could write tons of other adjectives. It’s the city where your dreams can become true, where if you really go for it you can realize magnificent things.

Has New York ever bitten you, like a bad dog?

Well, it’s probably obvious that it is the most exciting city but at the same time the best aspect of New York can be the worst, as well. That happens when you don’t get what you want, when everything, you dreamt falls apart. In those cases you can be really miserable and The City has no mercy. It bites you! There, everyone lives for success and sometimes you miss the real meaning of things, becoming stressed, tired, sad and angry. New York is for sure a very intense city and you have to be tough to face it, otherwise you are just another looser that dreams with open eyes!

As far as you are concerned, photojournalism, your specialism, is an area of photography more oriented to what?

Well, I would try to define it starting from what it is for me. I consider myself a documentary photographer because I like telling people’s stories, working on it for a while, in order to build up a deeper and meaningful project. My goal is to keep telling the stories of those who are suffering from injustice or who are living in difficult life conditions. Maybe one day I’ll be able to change someone’s life, that is the best thing I can think about.

In July, 2008, one of your first important client was the NY Times, how did it happen and which was the project you proposed ?

Well, I begun working on the “11 dollars” story, the project which was published by the NY Times, when I was at school for an assignment. However, I met Wayne, the protagonist of my story, after the end of it. The title of my project has a meaningful origin. In New York State, a person with AIDS is eligible to receive food stamps and housing assistance, along with a small daily stipend. Eleven dollars is what Wayne Starks, who, at the time of my project was 52 years old, receives every day to improve the quality of his life. Monthly the total amount is around 350 dollars.
I decided to follow him, for about six months, every day in every circumstances of his life. It was not easy but very challenging.

About the NY Times, basically, I had the contact of a photo editor in The City section of The New York Times, through my school ICP. I contacted her and when I met her she fell in love with my story. She was so impressed that she wanted to publish it. And it worked! As my story 11 dollars was published, Wayne called me crying: one of the most intense emotions I ever had!

How is important to develop “human” relations with your profiles?

Sure, it’s very important, I would say fundamental! I strongly believe that in order to tell someone’s story, in the best way, it’s necessary to build up a relationship with the character. Dealing with photography, it is not just about holding the camera but also how much the subject wants to give of himself/herself to the lens. That is beyond any doubt, the most crucial and challenging aspect!

Your last and your coming up project?

The last project I did is called “The Lion of Central Asia” and it’s about the Oil business in Kazakhstan and how the biggest oil discovery of the past 30 years affected this country. The new project, I’m working on, is about “Internal and Environmentally Displaced People”, who have been living for longtime in temporary housing units.

Your best and your worse camera and why?

Well, It’s difficult to say, ’cause I fell in love with many cameras in the past few years. I would say that my favourite at the moment is the old Hasselblad 500c/m but previously I loved the Mamyia 7, Leica M6 and the Panoramic Hasselblad X-pan. The worse, counter trend as it sounds, is my digital Canon 5D, which is a great digital camera, don’t get me wrong, but qualitatively less striking than an Hasselblad or a Leica.

Your secret and magical tool, you have always when you shoot?

Well, you might be surprised but I would just say: feeling my heart pounding in my chest when I know I took a great photo and the sensation of freedom in my stomach. These are the 2 only magical tools I use.

Your two best photographers and why?

Jonas Benediksen is a really cool Magnum photographer, I love his ability of creating beautiful images and Nan Goldin for her unique eye for light.

This afternoon you are in London and then back to NYC, do you have an interesting photography exhibition at the moment to suggest to our readers here in London?

Well, last week I was reading about an exhibition, that is going to open very soon on July 26th, the Foto8 summer show at the HOST gallery in London. It is a selection of 2500 individual images by photographers from the five continents made by British Magazine Foto8.

For furthr info:

NY Times article: