It's true that I had just come back from the island of Lampedusa, where I’d been documenting, with my camera, the latest Mediterranean migrant boat tragedy. I could understand why Lee thought I might not want to take on something as ‘frivolous’ as working for a hotel magazine. But what I try to do, in all my work, is to include the human factor. For a story to be a story, it has to revolve around people. And this was exactly what Lee was asking me to do: help tell stories about people and places in and around the Amalfi Coast for the Sirenuse Journal. He told me he didn’t want the kind of photographer who worked for glossy travel magazines. He wanted photos that looked real.
Ten years on, I can honestly say that phone call changed my life.
The first time I went to Le Sirenuse, I took the epic Circumvesuviana, a train that has turned its ramshackle wagons and lack of punctuality into a badge of pride. It was raining, and looking at the outline of Vesuvius blurred through the film of water on the windows, I asked myself what I would find when I got to Positano.
I was greeted on arrival by the dashing, simpatico Leonardo on the front desk. Later I would learn that his nickname was ‘Leonard Delon’, due to his resemblance to the great French actor Alain Delon. And then, finally, I met Lee. It was raining in Positano too, but we set to work immediately – by far the best way to break the ice.
While chatting, we walked towards Positano’s ‘other’ beach, Fornillo, where I talked to some local fishermen and persuaded them to let me make portraits of them while Lee jotted down their comments in one of the black Moleskine notebooks he always carries with him. And already, I now reflect, we were doing something different: showing how beautiful Positano could be, how full of stories, on a rainy fall afternoon, when it goes back to being just for locals, moving to a slower rhythm.
That evening, at dinner, I met Antonio and Carla Sersale for the first time, and they made me feel instantly at home, as they have ever since. It’s this, for me, that makes Le Sirenuse special: the way that it makes you feel at home. Few hotels have that talent.
Over the next ten years, I would get to know Positano and the Amalfi Coast in depth. Lee and I have told so many stories together of people, landscapes, culture, art, food and wine. And over the years my rapport with the Sersales changed. They became friends. I see them in Naples as well as Positano these days. I’ve eaten some of the best mozzarellas in the world with them, sitting on a wall by the side of the road in Castelvolturno, picking the succulent cheeses up with our hands, as is de rigueur, and devouring them in great bites with the juice running down our chins.
I’ve done seemingly never-ending degustazioni with them at Concettina ai Tre Santi, the pizzeria run by our mutual friend, the legendary Ciro Oliva. We’ve been on long motorbike rides together, threading the curves of the spectacular Amalfi Drive road. More recently, I’ve also got to know Antonio and Carla’s sons, Aldo and Francesco, who have been working full time in the hotel for almost three years now, side by side. Tradition and respect for timeless values are intimately connected, here as in a lot of other family business I admire, with a vision that reaches far into the future.
It's not easy, as a photographer, to tell the story of Le Sirenuse. I believe that things that are very beautiful are also very difficult to capture in an image, whether it be analogue or digital. Positano, and Le Sirenuse, has no lack of very beautiful things. It’s a challenge.
In all these years, I have never taken a photo using artificial light. I always prefer the natural kind – a light you can’t control, a light that never ceases to surprise me and move me. Think of those Positano evenings when, for a few brief minutes, the sky turns a shade somewhere between pink, blue, yellow and magenta. I saw one of those sunsets just a few days ago, when I was on the restaurant terrace taking photos of the waiters’ briefing that happens before each evening’s dinner service. The light was unforgettable. The staff were just as in awe of it as I was. They spontaneously linked arms and started singing O’ surdat ‘nammurat (‘The Lovelorn Soldier’), a famous Neapolitan song.
I have been privileged to work with such special people over the last decade, people who inspire and stimulate me. The key word here, I think, is ‘welcome’. I have been welcomed by the Sersale family and the extended family of all those who work at the hotel, and become a part of it. In my work here, as elsewhere in the world, I try to keep the idea of ‘welcoming’ front and centre.
Words and photos © Roberto Salomone
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