2015 Italy: Salento Review Magazine, Fall Issue

Interview with Rebecca Arnold  [In English]


Click for original Article. Cover not photographed by Rebecca Arnold

Click for original Article. Cover not photographed by Rebecca Arnold

1.    [Salento Review]  From celebrities to the refugees camps, two extremes of the human condition, what’s that like? Is it a way to find another Rebecca?

[Rebecca Arnold]  It makes life interesting. And stretches the breadth of my human experience, my understanding of others, and myself. For over 15 years I’ve done photo editorial and production work on large commercial photo campaigns. I love collaborating with deeply creative, talented people – famous or not. They’re flexible and free spirited, yet sure of themselves and vulnerable. We connect in a creative space, surf that wave together, and produce a product ultimately seen by millions.

On the flip side, in my volunteer photography work with nonprofits around the world, I may be standing in a UN container in the middle of the Jordanian desert, bonding with Syrian refugee kids in an art therapy class. Or I’m sipping chai tea with an elderly couple next to their thatched-roof huts in Uganda. Taking in their gentle, pure dispositions, unadulterated by modern pop culture. Or I’m in St. Damien’s hospital in Haiti. A girl in a make-shift wheelchair smiles – how do I connect with her and take a photo, without knowing any French-Creole?

All these contrasts allow me to explore my never ending fascination with human nature.


2.    The developed and developing countries are just coordinates separating a rich and frantic world from the rest...or are they also places within the souls inside each of us?

Yes, I think we all have the potential in all of us. If other humans are experiencing something, we are all capable of it too, if our environments and cultures ask it of us. Cultures can vary greatly, but deep inside, we have fundamental similarities.


3.    At some point in your life you wondered what you could do for Africa. And you've gone to that distant place, full of wars and misery.  What can westerners concretely do to go beyond a banal rhetoric?

Africa isn’t a land full of war and misery; each country has an upper, middle and lower class, the latter is just the largest, and it’s particularly poor. There is struggle, but also joy. It simply doesn’t make the news. How do we fix the hardship that is? Invest in African business and industry, educate and inspire children so they can become the productive members of society they wish to be…and maybe they’ll someday replace corrupt governments.


4.    You have been in dozens of countries and met the most diverse cultural habits, the most varied natural and historical contexts. What struck you about Salento?

Salento is still relatively quiet, authentic, simple, and has lovely highlights.

I traveled through Italy in 1994. Thirty-seven countries later, it’s still my favorite. In 2012 I began coming regularly. I longed for the old Italy where beauty is everywhere, people are amiable, food is fresh, and the summer sun warms my shoulders. Where history is all around you -- so palpable, part of your subconscious slips somewhere into it, severing your ties to modernity, expanding your soul into a timelessness...

I find this in Salento. My antidote, my compliment, to New York. Though I love to explore extremes in the world, Salento has a particularly comfortable balance of slow living, plus creature comforts. Its pace has me slow down, and lets the simple, innate version of myself resettle delicately within me..

Click to expand. Photos by Rebecca Arnold

And the people are so friendly. I connect effort-free with friends and strangers alike. Here’s a story showing Salento’s kindness from a visit to charming Acaya...

It felt like I had all of Acaya to myself, even the tiny castle with its fairytale moat. Walking the streets, I passed a young mother in a doorway who pointed out a bird’s nest in her mailbox. When I stopped to pet a dog (pictured above), his owner appeared in a doorway. A painter, he invited me inside to see his works. I was hungry, I'd missed lunch, and though it was too early for dinner, he walked me to a restaurant nearby. It had a lovely, simple courtyard with flowers and vines. He explained my plight to the owner, mentioning I was from New York. The owner threw his arms overhead, “NEW YORRRK!” Italians and New Yorkers have an entertaining mutual adoration. The owner quickly set up a plastic table in the middle of the empty courtyard. Then a plastic chair. Then fluffed a table cloth onto it, and gestured that I take a seat.

When I finished my risotto and wine, he asked me what brought me to the region. I tried explaining that I’d had a photo exhibit of my nonprofit work called “The Others Inside Me” for the City of Lecce, for a belated International Women’s Day event. My Italian being too pathetic, I pulled out my phone. Undo.it (Italy's largest online arts site) did press about it, I pulled up the link, and his daughter read it aloud. He listened closely, then cleared my plates. I asked for the check, but he politely said: “You give to nonprofits, there is no bill. It’s on the house.” In that moment, the world seemed right. Salento took care of me. All was well… I thanked him for such a kind gesture, and said I’d return someday. He handed me a card: “Trattoria Acaya.”


5.    And what do you think is rather a limit to Salento's human and cultural potential development? 

There’s something New York is genius at. Different from the rest of America, which is more traditional. NY doesn’t care who you are, or aren’t. Doesn’t care about what you’re wearing, where you’re from, nor your education. If you show up and prove you’re good, it promptly opens its door to you, and shows you to the stairs that ascend as high as your capabilities take you.

Salento is lovely, but I have noticed that the freedom to buoy up and become productive quickly in a career seems a bit gridlocked due to a more rigid, hierarchal structure. Italy’s traditions and customs work beautifully in areas like food and craftsmanship, but has its drawbacks in other areas like business. It’s difficult to see the ambition and optimism of its youth abated.

I relate. My abilities weren’t recognized until I moved to the big cities. Then, without any education in my field, I shot to the top in under two years in my photo editorial business. Today, in my third occupation, Self Development Coaching and Mentoring, I work with the United Nations, the Dalai Lama Fellows, and international youth summits, and I often advise people to listen to their inner truth, find an environment they can expand in, and soar!


Click to expand. Photo by Rebecca Arnold

6.    When you leave for the States, what [do] you like to bring with you from this territory where you have been coming back often in the last few years?

A case of olive oil, or warm sfoglia di mele [apple pastry] from Lecce’s Café Crem! Kidding aside, I bring with me the gift that travel gives: a way of being that is different from what I’m accustomed to. One that transcends the typical, limiting context my brain has a habit of constructing. And a deeper sense of southern Italian ease and slowness. An acceptance of how things are, instead of this American neurosis to fix, change, or improve. Let it be… Enjoy being… This I take with me.