Building a Framework for Creative Freedom with Chiara Zonca

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Chiara Zonca’s minimalist landscapes evoke a profound solitude and ethereal atmosphere. Her use of colours and meticulous composition casts the natural environment in an otherworldly light. Chiara is diligently building a framework for her creative practice to further explore ideas of place, belonging, the ecstasy of solitude, and the healing wonder of nature in her work. 

Words by Andy Summons

Photography by Chiara Zonca

Chiara’s passion for photography and travel came from her memories of family road trips. Her dad had a camera that shot slide film and his friends took photos too. Her parents and their friends often went camping – capturing the trip and candid moments along the way. After the trip, they would meet up regularly to share the photos and relive the candid moments projected onto the wall by a slide projector.

“My family has always been a bunch of travellers and we went on adventures, road trips and camped in Corsica, stuff like that. My Dad would take candid pictures – random pictures of his friends and now, because they were quite old, they’re quite stylish – the cool type of film photography images that a lot of people strive to recreate now. But they were genuine candid moments. The regular catch ups to look at the road trip photos made me fall in love with photography as a way to document and experience travel. I thought it was really cool.” 

Chiara loves the idea of sharing photographs in that setting with friends. She even tried to revivify the slide projector but, much like her dad’s old cameras, it was broken and beyond repair. From these childhood memories and her dad’s photography hobby, a slow burn began with Chiara’s own photography.

“My photography evolved very slowly. I always knew I wanted to do something creative but I was a kid so I didn’t really care that much. The problem was when, after high school, you have that moment where you think, what am I going to do with my life? What am I going to study at university? Some people know, whereas in my case I was lost for a good few months, just kind of wondering. And then I ended up deciding to study photography at university because all my doubts and all my thoughts kept bringing me back to photography. I thought, I wanted to do something creative and I’m good at judging images, I’m good at this type of stuff, but I don’t know if I want to be a movie director or something else – you dream big at that age. At the end of the day, I thought if I studied photography, it’s going to give me the basics for a lot of different options as opposed to studying something more specific.”

“I just couldn’t do the 9-5 job anymore, I couldn’t work in the city, and that was the second time that I got closer to photography.”

It was the right decision too. Chiara enjoyed her studies for the next three years. Digital photography was still prohibitively expensive so the focus was more on film photography. She learnt how to develop and print film, she learnt fashion and reportage, studio lighting, it was a comprehensive course. But then self-doubt struck and she couldn’t shake it. 

“It became too intimidating so after those three years I was like, oh I’m not sure I want to be a photographer so I became a video editor because I was really good at it. Whereas in photography there were people who were so much better. So I was like, I can’t compete with that, I’m just gonna do my own thing. The course gave me the basics, which I then used to develop my career in graphic design and video editing. For years, I put photography on the back burner. And then after years and years of working as a video editor I had a bit of a mental breakdown. I just couldn’t do the 9-5 job anymore, I couldn’t work in the city, and that was the second time that I got closer to photography. I decided to start travelling, and photography became, like for my Dad, a way to document my travels initially. But this time, I was more mature and I’d studied so it evolved so much more than those original thoughts.”

“That trip was pivotal – I could see landscapes in a way that I’d never seen before.”

A trip to America would be her third and the biggest leap towards photography. As she began planning her trip, she rediscovered a classic camera she’d let be since university.

“I took some time off for a holiday and decided to go to the USA. And coincidentally at that time, I remembered that my Dad gave me a Hasselblad camera for my birthday. It’s a super cool medium format film camera. I’d only used it for classes and then I left it in a corner gathering dust. I thought the trip to the USA might be a good excuse to take this camera back, and learn how to use it again. It needed fixing because after all those years it didn’t work anymore so I had to repair it, and wondered whether it was even worth it.”

Armed with a newly serviced Hasselblad and a need to get away from London and her job, she landed in America ready to reconnect with nature.

“At the time, I knew I wasn’t happy but I didn’t know why. That trip was pivotal – I could see landscapes in a way that I’d never seen before. I’d never done camping trips on my own. I was always a city person, very into bars and trendy places, like a completely different person. On this trip I decided to go camping, walking in the desert, I decided to do all these things that I’d never wanted to do before. And I discovered I actually liked them. I discovered so many things about myself – that trip was the beginning. And then I started using my camera a lot more so photography became a way for me to exercise my anxieties from then on. I didn’t consider it a viable profession at the time, I was just having fun with it, which I think is the best way ever to fall in love with the medium again.”

The trip was a Pandora’s Box of sorts. While it changed Chiara’s outlook on life she was left with a lingering sorrow. She’d fallen in love with the landscape of her personal revelations. She didn’t want to leave Joshua Tree National Park – what if this feeling of self-assurance disappeared when she returned to her job in London? After she returned to London, Chiara moved slowly but purposefully towards spending more time on her photography.

“I was in Joshua Tree National Park looking at those rock mountains in the background, cacti everywhere, and I could see for miles. And I was like, I want to live here, I just want to be here, and I can’t. I have to go back to London to a job, so how do I make it work? I realised I was living in a city that was wrong for me for so many reasons, and I was working in a profession that gave me a lot, but wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time and creativity. I was sad in that moment but it was very empowering because from that moment everything I did was to get to the point where I am now. So it was definitely the first, and most important trip I’ve taken in a very long time.”

Looking back on her photographs from this trip she calls them “very green” but she cherishes them regardless and some of her film photographs from that time were published. They represent a positive change towards happiness, towards photography.

“I started with a travel approach to photography, because I thought that was the most exciting thing for me to do at that time. I wanted to travel, I wanted to break free from London and photography was essentially a way to document that – it wasn’t much more than that.”

Soon, this documentation approach to photography lost it’s interest and she began exploring fine art in her work, which led her to develop more storytelling in her images too.

“I found myself drawn to a fine art approach more than travel because it lets me experiment more. The way I see things is more suited to fine art at the moment. And lately I’ve been chasing the concept of storytelling as an approach, rather than aesthetics. A lack of storytelling was my problem early on. I was always conditioned by how pretty something looked, and even in editing I would just prioritise colours and how they work together because I have a graphic designer’s eye. So it’s very hard for me to break free from that. In the new project I’m working on now, I’m focusing solely on storytelling first, and then making everything else fall into place. So it’s been an evolution from travel to fine art.” 

“It’s not because I don’t like photographing people, houses or anything that shows a human presence, it’s just because I don’t like what feels modern and ‘too real’.

While Chiara loves landscapes and creating shots that beg you to lose yourself in them. For a long time she had an enduring distaste for capturing people in landscapes – or cars, houses, anything really. At first, she mistook it for an aversion to taking portraits, but realised that wasn’t the case. It was part of her larger process to simplify her work, to strip it right back to the bare, timeless essentials.

“It’s not because I don’t like photographing people, houses or anything that shows a human presence, it’s just because I don’t like what feels modern and ‘too real’. I understood that basically my style is escaping from reality and to actually create a self-contained utopic world based on dreams and nostalgia. So landscape wise, I’ve been simplifying my landscapes a lot in the past few years. It’s becoming an exercise in surrealism, in seeing the landscape within the landscape, so if you’re in front of a massive wide open landscape, I always enjoy framing it, and I’m going to select exactly what I want to see inside this big vista. For my latest project, I’ve been slowly starting to shoot people, houses, and architecture. I haven’t shown any of that to anyone yet because I’m petrified of what people would think, that it’s so different from what I’ve done, but I need to do it sooner or later. In doing so, I want to put my purpose in. So anything that’s too real, I’m not interested, so I’ve been creating a little world of my own.” 

“It’s always been about creating my own universe and a lot of my ideas come from dreams. I like the surreal aspect of creating your own reality in your work.”

Chiara’s dreamy style and desire to transport people away from reality and create her own has origins in her childhood when her parents cautioned her against dreaming too much. Lucky for us, she didn’t listen. She avoided the idea of ‘normal’ as if it was fatal.

“It’s always been about creating my own universe and a lot of my ideas come from dreams. I like the surreal aspect of creating your own reality in your work. A lot of people I’ve been meeting since I moved to Canada – they’re all a bit weird in a cool way, they live in the woods – they have their own world and their own sense of what’s real and what’s not. Moving forward, I think my work will always talk about three topics. Solitude – the fact that solitude is not necessarily a bad thing, what it does to you psychologically. A sense of belonging because I’m very weird when it comes to that – I need to move every two or three weeks otherwise I go crazy. I’m a serial nomad, but at the same time I feel a very deep rooted sense of belonging for certain places in the world. And lastly, utopia – what people believe that is.” 

Chiara’s inimitable style combines alluring landscape scenes with vintage hues and an otherworldly cinematic quality. Her inspirations come from classic names in photography as well as an unusual source – 1970s Italian horror movies. Chiara has built a robust platform for further stylistic explorations, which she says we’re likely to see later this year. 

“When I first started photography I got exposed to all the big ones like Ansel Adams, Vivian Maier, Cartier Bresson, anyone who was anyone we studied, so I must have had some sort of original inspiration there. Then I remember falling in love with Eggleston’s colours. Even now I look at his pictures and his colours are phenomenal. So I take bits from a lot of different things. But my major source of inspiration is movies – all the 70s movies, especially Italian horror films and Spaghetti Westerns and those kind of colours. Most times I don’t realise I’m inspired by something until later, like I’ve seen certain things online, and I was like, oh this is a still from a film I’ve seen ages ago and it looks so similar to one of my pictures. So inspiration is a bit weird and I don’t actively seek it from one specific source.”

“All my favourite photographs go really badly on Instagram, it’s funny.”

Aside from cinematic inspirations that wash across her work, Chiara also looks to social media for ideas. She loves using Pinterest to research different moods or ideas for an image.

“I love Pinterest – it’s categorisation is insane, and it’s actually becoming a big part of my process. I start usually with an idea in mind, whether it’s a location or something more evolved than that. And then, once I know the type of mood I’m after I’ll go to Pintererst and quickly look for something. And the moment you find something you like, you just click on it and then there are so many more images loading in, and you can grasp the mood you’re after very quickly I find. So I use that a lot, but just for the mood. In my latest body of work I needed to create a specific retro vibe, so I used Pinterest for the interiors.” 

While she uses Pinterest to research moods and details for images, she views social media as an extension of your folio rather than a means to launch your career. Just because something doesn’t land well on Instagram doesn’t mean it’s a bad image. Most of Chiara’s favourite images flop on Instagram.

“Social media is a bit of a double edged sword. It’s great for advertising, I think. A lot of editors and photography producers do look at Instagram, funnily enough for work, so you cannot just lock yourself out of it. But having said that, if you get drawn into the liking and the following and everything like that, then it’s very detrimental. You almost just want to use it as an alternative to your portfolio or your website, but not necessarily as something that will kickstart your career. It took me a while to realise this but just because you don’t get likes for something, doesn’t mean you’re not going to get hired for a job. Luckily the outside world and Instagram are very separate still. So I’m learning, just like a lot of people, to deal with it but it’s not always easy. All my favourite photographs go really badly on Instagram, it’s funny. And in the past I’d post pictures that I thought look good just to get the attention and just to get the Instagram game up, but now I’ve just gotten tired of it, because they have this new algorithm and they’re not even showing your audience all of your work anyways. So I just kind of use it as this refreshing time out. I only post exactly what I like, I don’t even care if people don’t like it anymore. At least I can say I’m posting work I’m proud of.” 

Just as her approach to social media has changed, Chiara’s creative process has also evolved and continues to change. She’s gone from half planning, half exploring to a more deliberative and art directed approach.

“Before, it was more about travel, so I would love to go to a certain location and I would just organise it from a travel perspective and be like, what do I want to shoot there? What are the best views there? I would leave a lot to improvisation, maybe 50/50 I would say. So 50% would be organised at least with what I wanted to see, the other 50% was me with my camera going around and just getting good light everywhere. The problem with that process is at the end of the day you come back with certain pictures, but when it’s time to collect them into a series of work, you don’t know what to say – you don’t know why you’re shooting. And that’s fine with travel, you’re just promoting a location. But for me, I needed more. I needed to create work with purpose. So in order to do that for my latest series, I sat down a year ago and thought about what I wanted to create and why. So I decided to make it like an autobiographical piece on finding freedom in nature – a cathartic experience in nature. So I drafted the story, and from there, I started to heavily storyboard it, so it was almost like I was creating a film. Every shot was planned, not to every single detail, but for every shot I had a list, I had locations, I kind of art directed it a bit more.” 

Some photographers need to feel that connection to the raw creative energy associated with spontaneity, but Chiara’s considered approach has worked so far and she’s thrilled with the results. She still leaves room for spontaneity – using her film camera to capture details – and her art directed images are achieving the results she wants.

“When I shot this latest series, all the shots that were art directed are the ones that are probably going to end up as prints. I still kept my 35mm camera for spontaneity and I did a lot of details and a lot of things in between with it – and they are still very good – and I’m probably going to use them, because this project will become a book one day. So it’s excellent because that gives me details, and books really need that kind of grounding – not everything can be a hero shot. So it’s quite good because you can get both worlds.” 

“I’m not afraid to say that I have one favourite lens for my camera – that is the 50mm – I don’t shoot with anything else.”

I asked Chiara whether she was a gear nerd or saw cameras as a means to a creative outcome. She was self-deprecating but knew what she liked – arguably more important that knowing the ins and outs of every aspect of the latest gear.

“I should get better but for me it’s literally a means to an end. Once I have it, a new camera or a flashy new toy I get excited and I study it and the nerdy side in me surfaces but then after a couple of months of sitting with it, I’ll happily use it for the rest of my life. For example, I’m not afraid to say that I have one favourite lens for my camera – that is the 50mm – I don’t shoot with anything else. I used to have three lenses, and then I started leaving them behind, and now I just use one. I’m very simple in what I need. I like the 50mm because it’s usually closest to what my eye can see. I don’t like lenses that alter my personal vision too much, because I want it to look like it’s the human eye seeing things.” 

My main camera for digital work is the 5D Mark III – so pretty old, I haven’t upgraded it. I’m using digital less and less. My Hasselblad from back in the day is my main film camera. My first camera, I don’t remember the name, Canon EOS 300 probably is still my 35mm camera. It’s super old again, but it does the job – I’ve had it forever. And recently I’ve upgraded to a super flashy large format film camera which I’m super excited about because it feels like the next step and I’m really ready for that. I want to see how that will translate my work, but I’m pretty positive, I think it will suit my style.” 

When she’s travelling, Chiara always has her 35mm camera on hand – she uses it to document her life as a visual diary. Her more deliberative creative practice has led her closer to film photography as she tires of the crisp, dry precision of digital photography.

“I started having a problem with how crisp digital is – how neat and commercial it looks. I didn’t think in the beginning it was a tone thing, you know a lot of photographers say, ‘oh film has got the best tones’ but I always felt that I was pretty good at editing digital photos anyway so I never felt that was an issue, it was more about the creaminess. Film is creamy, it’s got a bit of oomph that digital doesn’t and once you start noticing that more and more you start thinking, I want my work to be like that. When I started shooting film, I was rubbish at it so for a long time. I thought I didn’t understand film, that digital is so much better. But now I’m getting a bit better, and actually I started scanning film in super high resolution so I can edit them and treat them as if they were digital, so this gives me all the freedom in the world.” 

Follow Chiara on Instagram (and her film account while you’re at it) to see exactly the work she likes.

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Chiara Zonca

Chiara Zonca is an artist currently living in Western Canada. Her mystical aesthetic evokes dreamy landscapes that seem to exist beyond time and place. Otherworldly colours and brilliant framing in Chiara’s work implores you to slow down and meditate on the beauty of our natural world. Chiara shoots with Urth lens filters.