© 2018 Marc Ohrem-Leclef


Ongoing - found photographs and letters, screenshots, and original photographs (1940ies-2020)

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 I befriended a group of Italians who were visiting from Bologna. Amongst them was Ulysse, who I fell quietly in love with—my first time.

Over the next twenty years I spent more time on the islands. During the summer of 2018 I befriended two young men–Fakhereddine and Zouhair–who worked on the beach below the house I rented. In the evenings, when their work carrying inflatable mattresses for the tourists up and down the beach was done, they’d climb up the tall, vertical rocks alongside the beach and dive back into the Mediterranean sea from high above. We started making photographs during those brief moments of reprieve and adolescent joy. Summer ended, and we kept in touch via Instagram.

Through their posts and messages I learned that both of them were headed for Australia, in the fall of 2019. It surprised me - what drove two young men, Europeans of Moroccan descent, to leave the very place that for so many North-African migrants—living in conflict areas and economic hardships—represents the ultimate destination? Where is ‘home’ for them? It brought me back to my own journey of leaving Germany, the place where I was raised in a Belgian/German household and where I never felt at home, to the rush of freedom felt during my first months in New York City.

It struck me that Fakhereddine and Zouhair's destination replicated one of the two main migration routes for Sicilians leaving the Eolian Islands in the early 20th century — around the time when Caterina made her way to the other destination, the United States. I had left her letters and the photographs I found in 1992 untouched until 2020 when our patterns of migration connected. Unsure if she is in one of the photographs I found, Caterina’s letters transport me back to my early days in New York, while I ponder the hardships she faced.
In joyous moments of play captured in the Mediterranean I celebrate the element most visibly connecting our histories, without forgetting the mortal danger this water represents for so many.

The only photograph of Ulysses himself does not reveal his face. Against the midday sun, he leans on the railing of a boat that ferried us to Stromboli. The silhouette of his back against the Mediterranean stands in for a kind of longing that transcends geography, yet in my case propelled me to make a new home across the Atlantic, and often drew me to the piers extending from Manhattan's West Side into the Hudson River.

In Ulysse I look back at my journey, framed by the found materials and my ongoing collaboration with Fakherredine and Zouhair (we plan to record more conversations and continue making portraits together). Through our personal lenses, across three different histories and geographies, the work contemplates the broader experience of migration.