For photographers who are used to finding creative expression by interacting with their external world, the pandemic proved to be a challenging obstacle. Many artists were forced to turn inwards, documenting their turmoil and tight surroundings, experimenting with new ways to record the darkness coursing through these troubling times. But for photographer Davide Bertuccio, a friendship that proved more joyful than oppressive was recorded through the lens of his camera through the ups and downs of the past two years.

In his series The Silent Clapping of Their Hands, Bertuccio introduces us to Claudio Madia, a sixty-year-old former television presenter living inside a colorful house of theatrical rooms in Milan. Before the pandemic hit, Madia was organizing circus shows and living an equally prismatic life. But during the lockdowns, he isolated inside his autobiographical Circincà—his “circus at home”—where Bertuccio explains “he was left without an audience, except for those he had drawn himself on his walls”.

Exploring Madia’s story of resilience, Cat Lachowskyj speaks with Davide Bertuccio for LensCulture about how he met his quirky friend, and how his new, intimate project brought him out of his creative comfort zone.

Claudio while he trains in juggling. Normally at least an hour a day is devoted to practicing their numbers for the show. © Davide Bertuccio

Cat Lachowskyj: This project is about a man named Claudio Madia, who seems to be a real character. How did you get the chance to meet him?

Davide Bertuccio: When I was a child, Claudio was a television presenter, so that is how I knew about him. But in October 2019, before the pandemic, I was working on some projects in Germany, and my photo editor told me about a man who created circus shows in his house. I went there with my creative partner, and we found ourselves inside this magical home.

CL: How did the project evolve from those initial meetings?

DB: The more I spent time with Claudio, the more magical everything became. He painted every room in his house, and each space represents a piece of his life story. I normally work with a progression of a story, developing a plot for the work, but this time I decided to create photographs that were more grounded in emotion and feelings about life. Throughout the quarantine in Milan, Claudio was incredibly resilient, even though he had to close down his circus.

Claudio while he rests observed by his silent audience inside his Circincà. The stands, in common life, become the bed of Claudio and his children when they come to visit him. © Davide Bertuccio

CL: When I look at how your work has progressed, you have a persistent fascination with lighting in your images. Even in your portraiture, you allow it to dance across a person’s face and act as an accessory. What types of light are important to you as a photographer?

DB: I love morning light, and blue evening light. Photographers talk about golden hour a lot, but I prefer blue. When I work on a project, I start with the story, and then I start thinking about the composition as time goes on. I really like geometrical perspectives in photos, and I prefer working with a shallow depth of field. The lighting in this project stands out a bit more because it’s more confidential, somehow.

Smoke in Claudio’s kitchen. The whole house was painted and designed by him in his image and likeness. According to him, each room represents its own personality. © Davide Bertuccio

CL: I agree. When I look back at your other work, and compare it to this project, there is a level of intimacy you’ve breached that feels warmer. There is definitely a thread in how you work with light, but there is a shift in atmosphere.

DB: I couldn’t organize this work the way I’m used to, because Claudio is a free man. I couldn’t pose him or plan things. I might call and ask if I could come to his place at a certain time, and even though he agreed, I would show up and he wouldn’t be there. So every time I was with him, I was taking photographs without organization, which is quite different from how I normally plan projects.

CL: How did you come up with the title for this series?

DB: There was a moment when Claudio was practicing a performance, and at the end he paused for when the audience would be clapping—but there was no audience and there was no clapping. At that moment I thought to myself: this is the title. It encapsulates the feeling that he has with his audience—always looking for them, for the clapping of their hands. But the pandemic halted that.

Claudio while he trains in the morning hanging from a metal bar mounted in the kitchen of his house. In addition to being a circus performer, he is also an acrobat and takes care of his body every day, even at the age of sixty. © Davide Bertuccio

CL: You took these photographs just before and just after the lockdowns, and they tell a story about the pandemic that feels very different than a lot of the work we have seen coming out of our respective situations. Why did you want to share this with people amidst all these other interpretations?

DB: I never really thought about why. Normally, when I take photos or make a project, I look for a story, but this series happened far more organically. Claudio’s life is not simple, and yet he is full of joy, and the photos are full of color. It’s a story full of surprises, which feels important. Normally I work with a goal in mind, but this is an accidental story. There is a lot of news about COVID-19 and Milan, but this offers up a balance to that darker coverage.

Editor’s note: We discovered Davide’s heartwarming project in LensCulture’s HOME International Photography Prize 2021. For more inspiring discoveries, check out all the other winners, jurors’ picks and finalists here.