© 2018 Marc Ohrem-Leclef


Found photographs and letters, vernacular images and original photographs (1940s/1992-ongoing)

I have never met Caterina Liberatore. In the summer of 1992, at age twenty-one and about to begin studying photography in Germany, I spent a vacation on Lipari, the largest of the Eolian Islands in Sicily (Italy). Enjoying a new kind of freedom found on my rented Vespa, I roamed around the island on my own, camera in hand.

One afternoon I came across an abandoned home, missing doors and most windows; inside, exposed to the elements I found old letters and black and white photographs strewn across the floor. I noticed that the photographs were made in New York, and many decades old. Damaged, but clearly precious, I took a few with me. Soon after my find, I befriended a group of Italians who were visiting from Bologna. Amongst them was Ulisse, with whom I fell quietly in love—my first time.

Over the next twenty years, I became a photographer, moved to New York, and lost touch with the “ragazzi di Bologna”. But I continued to spend time on the Eolian Islands. During the summer of 2018, I befriended two young men, Fakher and Zouhair, who worked on the beach below the cottage I rented on Salina. At sunset, after work, they’d climb the tall rocks flanking the beach and dive into the Mediterranean from high above. Stromboli’s eruptions were faintly visible in the distance. We started making photographs during these brief moments of freedom and joy.

When I look at these photos, I relive the thrill of their leaps and hear their laughter upon surfacing. But I also contemplate the mortal danger these waters represent for so many on their journey from North Africa to Europe. Those rocks we climbed together become metaphors: as both a place of refuge and as insurmountable barriers.

A year after we met, Fakher and Zouhair left Salina to look for work in Australia. In the early 20th century, their destination had been a main draw for Sicilians leaving the Eolian Islands, the same time when Caterina made her way to the other favored destination, the United States. I was inspired to rediscover Caterina’s letters. Reading about her longing to sit for a meal with her family back home on the island transports me to the emotions I felt during my early days in New York.

Caterina’s letters eventually led me to a beach on the Hudson River, steps from the house in Dobbs Ferry where she wrote them in the 1940s. Here, as the afternoon sun danced on the river’s surface, I met Karen. I shared my journey with her, and a new collaboration by the water developed, echoing my work with Fakher and Zouhair.

In Ulisse, I follow the lines of footpaths, roads, boats, pieces of mail, and–most viscerally–the pull of the water, on an unspoken journey of discovery and of memory. Traversing geographies and decades, our stories might seem unrelated. Yet, these pathways share a deep-seated quest for belonging, driven by the push and pull of desire and memory: the desire to become a truer version of ourselves and the memory of the people and places we’ve left behind.

Subverting the role of the photograph as a means of memory-keeping, in Ulisse the photographs act as stand-ins for a kind of memory: the only photograph of Ulisse does not reveal his face; against the midday sun, he leans on the railing of a boat. The silhouette of his back against the Mediterranean suggests a kind of longing that transcends my affection for him, the kind of longing that drew me across the Atlantic to the piers on Manhattan’s West Side, where queerness was omnipresent and alive.

The deep-seated desires that propel us to seek an opportunity, a new home, distance from a fractured family, a temporary respite from daily life, freedom–some version of these longings is known to most of us. Ulisse offers up different paths to access this reckoning within ourselves, and to empathize with those who fight–and struggle–to pursue their dreams.