Tue | Dec 12, 2017

Italian takes Passa Passa photos to the world

Published:Sunday | August 28, 2011 | 12:00 AM
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Sadeke Brooks, Staff Reporter

Though it was just supposed to be a vacation to Jamaica, photographer Alessandro Zuek Simonetti ended up documenting his visit to Passa Passa in west Kingston in the form of a book called Small Kings.

The Italian photographer, who is based in New York, said he came to Jamaica in December 2009 to celebrate his birthday in a different environment from that which he was accustomed to.

"I was trying to escape from the craziness knowing I was going to get into a different kind of craziness, but one that is more genuine and warmer than New York's," he told The Sunday Gleaner.

Simonetti explained that prior to his visit to Kingston, he met with a friend in New York, a journalist named Anicée Gaddis, who had fallen in love with Jamaica's culture.

"She was the first to mention Passa Passa as one of the most legit and important street dances in Kingston and I asked her to bring me there. She was comfortable with the idea of going to Tivoli Gardens even though most of our Jamaican friends were trying to convince us not to go since they didn't know if the idea of two strangers coming in with cameras would be welcome," Simonetti said.

"But I felt comfortable as soon as we got to Passa Passa. Through a good friend in Jamaica, I touched base with the promoters of Passa Passa and Swatch International to make sure it was okay for me to document the street party, and when I got a positive response, I loaded my Nikon 35mm with Black and White film, a particular one that isn't in production any longer, and I went to shoot."

Simonetti said he arrived at the venue about 3 a.m., just a little before the party reached its peak. This was just in time to get a drink at the bar and food from a vendor.

"In a few hours, I started to feel the soles of my feet getting hotter and the party started to hit a peak. It was an amazing experience for me. I think the fact that I was witnessing everything from an outside point of view helped me to get a really pure and unconditioned vision of Passa Passa," he said.

Eye-opening experience

Prior to that 2009 visit to Jamaica, Simonetti did not know much about the island. His views of the country came from the reggae records and bands he listened to in Europe and the shoots he did with artistes like Mikey Dread, the Skatalites and Mikal Rose. However, this new experience was eye-opening.

"In Jamaica, I had the chance to experience several different environments in my trips around the island, from the uptown scene to the streets of Tivoli. I would say that Jamaica is a complex and beautiful experience that has informed my photography. It's definitely a place I like to experience in a deep way," Simonetti said.

Small Kings, Simonetti said, was made with lively pictures showcasing Passa Passa and text by Anicée Gaddis .

The handcrafted book was edited by Automatic Books, a small publishing company based in Venice, Italy, that printed and bound the book by hand. They were later distributed in New York and Europe.

Since being released, he said the publication has been getting a good response.

"The publication I released titled Small Kings got great feedback, not only by lovers of the subject, but from a huge range of people interested in art and photography. A lot of readers of lifestyle blogs and music blogs had a chance to see the photos and read Anicée Gaddis' text, which gave to the images more voice. Actually, I consider the text she wrote to be an art piece unto itself," Simonetti told The Sunday Gleaner, adding that he wants to show the pictures at an art gallery in New York.

Theme issue

But the Passa Passa pictures are not the only pictures that Simonetti has taken in Jamaica, as he has been back to the island twice since his first visit.

"I'm actually editing a series of photographs I shot for a theme issue of BIG magazine that will focus exclusively on Jamaica. The last time I went, I got a chance to shoot a story about surfing in Jamaica, a series of portraits of The Sunshine Girls, and I documented 400-metre sprinter Jermaine Gonzales during his personal training at Bull Bay. I also went to a Premier League soccer match in Portmore. And I shot the boxer Sakima Mullings at the Bruisin' Gym where he trains in Stony Hill. The Small Kings photos will be part of the BIG magazine publication, which Anicée is the editorial director of," he explained.

With the wonderful experience he had at Passa Passa, Simonetti said he returned to the venue afterwards to see Tivoli Gardens during the day. However, he was faced with disappointment.

"I wanted to see Tivoli during the daytime even if I knew I was not going to feel the same vibes I felt that night during the party. The Passa Passa speakers were facing the wall, unplugged. I got pretty sad when they told me that after the conflicts, the party got shut down. I consider dancehall as a really relevant cultural aspect of Jamaica and I hope that the Tivoli party will be back in full effect," he said.