Yvonne de Rosa relives a 1930 crime scene in Italy and explores notions of honour, femicide and guilt. She speaks with Donatella Montrone about the fruits of this investigation, her latest photobook Negativo 1930.
Her name was Nina, and by all accounts she was beautiful. It was the summer of 1930, in a remote village on the outskirts of Naples, where Nina and Peppino, a local fisherman, both lived. They became lovers and would meet in secret at the lighthouse near the marina. Nina soon became pregnant, then she was found dead – she’d been strangled. Photographer Yvonne de Rosa was so captivated by this story of clandestine love and intrigue, relayed to her several years ago by Nina’s niece Anna, that she set about retracing the couple’s steps, visiting the various sites where Nina had loved, and died.
As the story goes, Nina had told her lover she was pregnant. Aware that she had wantonly sacrificed her dignity, she’d hoped Peppino would marry her to appease her father and restore the family’s honour. But instead Peppino became enraged and killed her. He then discarded her body at sea. Two weeks after her disappearance, her corpse was found by two fisherman. It was barely recognisable – the salt water had corroded her hair and she was bald. The lighthouse’s custodian later found tufts of Nina’s hair near the water’s edge. He gave them to Nina’s mother as a keepsake.
Police investigations soon uncovered Nina’s pregnancy. So incensed was her father on learning that his young daughter had had sex outside marriage, that he denounced her in death, insisting she be buried in a communal ossuary, with no funeral, and no one paying their respects.
Peppino was charged with Nina’s murder, tried in court, and found guilty.
After the court case the family vowed never to speak of Nina, whose actions had visited such shame on the family that both her sisters struggled to find husbands.
They all maintained their silence until many years later Anna, nine years old niece, (born from Nina’s youngest sister) began having visions of a bald, pregnant lady.
Some of the villagers started visions too.They all prayed, attempting to exorcise the spirit until one day, almost 70 years after Nina’s death,and many preyers for her aunt Nina from her niece Anna, one of the villagers heard a voice from the beyond bid the village farewell. “I am leaving forever for a long trip”
De Rosa’s interest in this little-known tale, fraught with patriarchy and shame and lore, was not inspired by a morbid fascination in murder; rather, it spoke to her interest in femicide, in a country where domestic abuse remains “the most pervasive form of violence against women”, according to the United Nations. The result of this exploration was
Negativo 1930, in which de Rosa delves into the themes of grief, honour, guilt and conjuring.
‘I visited Anna several times over a few years, and we talked at length of the events surrounding her aunt’s death. She took me to key locations and the places where Nina’s spirit was “seen” by witnesses,’ explains de Rosa, herself a native of Naples. ‘I was especially interested in this story because Nina was not only murdered, she was also abandoned by her family in death – no funeral, no headstone, no cemetery, no flowers, nowhere to pray for her.’
Anna bears the burden of ‘Family guilt’ and remedied their injustice to Nina a generation later. She basically recreated Nina and took care of her. It was this notion of ‘inherited guilt’ that guided De Rosa’s work.
As in many Greek tragedies the hero (Anna) inherited the family guilt without even realising it.
This concept is explained by a theory : “transgenerational transmission of a trauma” , which states that trauma can be transferred from the first generation of trauma survivors to the second and further generations of offspring of the survivors via complex post-traumatic stress disorder mechanisms. From Freud (1912) to our days, this is still a subject of many anthropological and sociological studies.
‘Negativo 1930 combines contemporary “spirit” and infrared photographs with images of landscape and some key locations, alongside re-enactments of events and my own interpretation of what was, at the time, a sordid story,’ explains de Rosa. ‘This photographic journey examines the apocryphal nature of a woman’s need to right the cultural wrongs of a community. I explore parallel perceptions and the realities of femicide, faith, fact and possibly fiction, between the “real world” and the “other side”, linked together through the photographic negative.’
The objects she photographs to illustrate Nina’s story – details of rituals, what represents an aborted foetus, an old metal instrument once used in the termination of pregnancies, (legal abortion, a chance that Nina would not ever had considered, as in many countries stil today), a lock of hair – are significant in that they reflect the testimonies of the storytellers. They validate and corroborate; they represent proofs.
Negativo 1930, is different in style and composition from much of de Rosa’s documentary work. It’s more subtle and leaves the viewer questioning. It creates a narrative by piecing together remnants of a story and alluding to experiences and feelings rather than capturing
them in real-time. ‘Each of my projects is the result of a process. It begins with my fascination or interest in a story, and then a lengthy study of it,’ she says. Only then does De Rosa decide how to represent it, ‘so each style is linked to subject. With Negativo 1930, I also investigate “the other side” – I visited a place where something happened, but it did not happen while I was there. It happened in another dimension, and there are traces of it. In my research, I like to observe the interaction between past and present. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of an absence of the present. I retrieve photographs and objects. I recover stories,’ she says.