Good Morning Joe. Please can you tell us a little about yourself and how you became interested in photography?
First, may I thank you for the privilege of this interview.
I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey and grew up a very happy child in Union City, NJ. As a child the saddest thing was that my father, who grew up in Sicily, died when I was 13. This event has coloured and shaped my entire life.
I spent the major part of my adult life teaching photography in a middle school here in Brooklyn, NY. It was something I always wanted to do, but never thought I’d have a chance to do, so I never gave it a second thought and then it was dumped in my lap so to speak. There were two cameras and two enlargers at the school and I proudly say I developed (no pun intended) a very reputable program over the course of 20 years. Ironically, I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 26, which was quite a while ago!
As far as instruction, I am completely self -taught, having gotten my first camera from my father-in-law of my first marriage. The camera had no light meter so I wrote down every exposure and under what conditions I shot until I really learned light.
I read everything I could get my hands on and I still have the major periodical that taught me everything. It was an issue of a magazine called Modern Photography and the article was entitled, “Everything you Need to Know about 35mm Photography” Even though we are in the digital age, I consider it still to be a classic of basic fundamental photography.
While the technology changes, the science remains the same. A special thanks goes out to Jim Marsh, who needed a place for his enlarger and used my basement. It was Jim who taught me how to print.
My photography now is really relegated to my images of Sicily, many of which can be found on my blog siciliabedda-beddasicilia.blogspot.com
I have ideas for lots of projects but four grandchildren happily fill up a major part of my life.
One project in particular, is finding, interviewing and photographing people who were born in Sicily, emigrated and then went back, a story in reverse so to speak. We’ll see what happens with this, but if anyone knows of people in this category, I would be forever grateful to speak to them.
Can you please explain to us your connections to the island of Sicily?
I grew up in an Italian culture. My mom was born here, also in New Jersey of parents from Campobasso on the mainland and my father was raised with his three brothers and two sisters in Sicily before he and two brothers separately emigrated to the U.S. I used to sit and look over my dads’ shoulder as he wrote letters home every week. Phone calls were out of the question.
My mother who passed away in 2002 was as wonderful as any child could ask for but I was always a daddy’s boy. My mom was the disciplinarian and he always protected me! When he died, there was a hole in my heart which I carried with me, mostly unconsciously, until 1988 when I made my first trip to Sicily with my wife Susan whom I credit with being the driving force in my finding my father’s family, connecting, building a relationship and giving me the closure I never had.
On that trip, we happened to drive to Nissoria (EN) where my two aunts and uncle lived. Fortunately, there was a guy from Queens NY staying with them who did all the translating as I knew only American-Italian which was just a combination of Italian words, real or imagined. I never got the story of why this guy was there or his connection but this was a beginning.
It wasn’t until about 15 years later, when my wife Susan noticed that most of my photos, whether here or there, were of older men. She stated the obvious; “Joe, you are looking for your father”. After having been to Venice to photograph Carnevale three times, she said, it is time you went to Sicily to find your family. The obviousness of this statement changed my life. Fast forwarding, In October of 2003, I believe it was, I wrote an e mail to the ‘comune’ in Leonforte where I knew my cousin was (the aunts and uncle had all passed away by this time). I was almost glad they didn’t respond because of my language fears and the thought of having them believe I was a relative.
Anyway, the following February I went to Carnevale in Acireale, Sicily “armed” with a photo book of our entire family including my cousin Angela when she was a child. One Friday it poured and all the events were cancelled for the day. I said, what the heck, and I decided to drive to Leonforte trying to time my drive so the ‘comune’ would be closed for ‘pranzo’ and maybe for the weekend! Well, they were open! I took a deep breath, walked in and introduced myself. All of a sudden I was mobbed and apologies were given for not having gotten back to me. They remembered the email as soon as I introduced myself!
We chatted, they took all my information again and promised to do a search and get back to me. This being the town where my dad grew up, I did not want to leave so I just walked the town looking for the oldest people I could find to ask if they knew anyone with the last name Zarba not knowing that in Sicily it is pronounced differently as Zarba`. After a few hours of ‘No, mi (or ci) dispiace”, I decided to return to Acireale.
As I was going down the hill, a little old fiat cinquecento pulled in front of me, motioned for me to get out of the car. The man inside was the same man, Gianmaria, I met in the ‘comune’. He handed me a post it with information and told me to, “Go back into town, go to a bar and ask for help. THIS IS YOUR RELATIVE”!
I reluctantly did just that and a man in the first bar I went into KNEW my cousin so we walked to her apartment, (which is the same apartment my father and his siblings grew up in) rang the bell and this woman and her daughter came down. He told them, “This gentleman is from New York and SAYS he is a relative of yours”. I showed her the book and she knew it was true because there she was with her mother, aunt and uncle.as well as those who emigrated. The story goes on and on but I could feel the hole finally closing.
How did it feel to finally visit Leonforte, the town that is so important to your family?
It is one thing to visit the town but can you imagine going to the same home your father or mother grew up in? I still get goose pimples thinking of it! Of course it has been renovated but walking the three floors is a journey in my father’s mind and shoes. I imagine conversations he may have had with his parents, brothers or sisters. I imagine what it may have looked like one hundred years ago as he was born in 1902. It is something so personal that trying to describe it takes away from the actual experience.
I hope you enjoyed this extract of the interview. To see the rest of the questions please go to - http://www.sicilianconnections.com/?c=15336.
A selection of Joe Zarba’s Sicilian photography is available to buy at http://www.sicilianconnections.com/Art-Store_11457.html.
A presto :-)
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Monday, 4 March 2013
My Interview with Joe Zarba - Renowned Sicilian-American Photographer
Buongiorno a tutti! I recently interviewed a friend of mine, Joe Zarba, who is a very talented photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Joe's parents were born and raised in Italy and 10 years ago he started to research his ancestral town of Leonforte in Sicily. I would like to share some of this interview with you as it gives a great insight into his photography and is an inspiration to those researching their own Sicilian ancestry -