My journey began in the days of traditional film, shooting lifestyle videos and photos for a variety of fashion brands. Early in my career, I was fortunate to work alongside legendary fashion photographer Bruce Weber. I learned a lot during that decade of my life, but more importantly I fell in love with image-making and storytelling. I have not stopped clicking my camera or rolling film since.
Around 2000 I met a young woman who had a deep love for horses. It was her passion that inspired me to make a study of her with my camera. I began shooting her riding horses any time and place I could. This journey eventually led to a
collection of images of a variety of women doing what they loved. Whether it was dancing, swimming, running, sailing, or soccer, I started to document women and their passions over the next ten years of my life. I ended up with a wonderful collection of images that I had designed into my second photography book, titled John Urbano 1.
Around 2004 I traveled to Panama to shoot a surf film. It was during this trip that I discovered two dangerous, poor neighborhoods with a story that needed to be told. I went in and out of Barraza and El Chorrillo armed with cameras for the next four years. Ultimately, in 2008, I presented the world with my first documentary and photography book, titled Beauty of the Fight. This journey completely changed my life as an image-maker and storyteller.
The dangerous situation taught me how to shoot fast and make quick decisions. I also learned over and over again just how fragile and beautiful life is.
Beauty of the Fight was selected by twenty-nine film festivals and screened in nine countries.
In 2007 I journeyed to Sicily for the first time, on vacation with my aunt and uncle. Sicily is where my grandparents immigrated from in 1960. It was on this trip that I met my great-uncle Charlie, who ultimately became the inspiration and recurring subject-matter for the making of my third photography book, titled Sicilia.
There are two things I’m grateful for that my career has enabled me to do: travel to new countries and collaborate with great creative talent. One person that stands out is Justin Timberlake. He’s so ahead of the game creatively and sonically that it usually takes me a couple months to comprehend what he’s trying to say, explain, or do when I’m working with him. A few other people I’ve been lucky to work with are Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban, and One Direction.
My grandparents, mother, aunts, and Uncle Charlie were my inspiration for sharing Sicily with the world. Growing up with Italian grandparents and an Italian mother, I was surrounded by the culture—everything from the language that my friends in Northern Indiana thought was funny, when my family spoke, to the great cuisine that my grandmother was known for. Sicilian culture has always been a part of my life. When I went to Sicily for the first time, I had to share it—the only way I knew possible: with my camera.
JOHN URBANO PHOTOGRAPHED BY JENNA MENARD
In the summer of 2007 I traveled to Sicily for the first time. I joined my Aunt Fran and Uncle Rick on vacation there, in Taormina. Having grown up with Sicilian grandparents and a Sicilian mother, I was excited to visit the land where my family originated. As I stepped off the plane, I was already in love with the place. I was finally standing on my grandparents’ soil. This was the world I’d heard so many stories about, the country from which my grandparents immigrated, with my mother and my aunts, in 1960. So much seemed oddly familiar: Sicilian mannerisms, people’s faces, the smells, the language, and, of course, the mouthwatering cuisine. About halfway through our stay in Taormina, my Aunt Fran asked me if I wanted to visit our relatives in Grotte. I said, “Of course!” Fran had been to Grotte several times and in 1983 had spent the summer at my great-grandma Licata’s house.
Aunt Fran said I had a great-uncle named Charlie or, in Sicilian, “Lu Ziu Lillo Licata.” She wanted me to meet him.
It’s hard to explain how I felt as we drove into the village. It was like coming home to a place I’d never been to before. As we pulled up to my their house, I could smell the food my great-aunt and great-uncle were cooking, even before we passed through the gate. The dinner table was set. I sat down and feasted on homemade pasta, tomato sauce, sausage, salad, fried zucchini, vegetable soup, and roasted rabbit. During dinner, I started to feel bad because we’d already gone through a couple liters of Uncle Charlie’s homemade wine—I was afraid we were drinking it all. My cousin Salv reassured me there was plenty more where that came from. After dinner, I went into the garage and found hundreds of bottles—and several barrels—full of wine. My uncle said, “There’s more than a thousand liters down here, son.” I asked him what he was going to do with it all, and he replied, “I’m gonna drink it, John!”
Sicily was love at first sight—an emotional roller-coaster. Growing up in an Italian family, I had experienced this country already, from afar, through countless stories, the food, the language, and Sicilian love (aunts grabbing my face and kissing my cheek over and over again or eating so much homemade food I thought I’m gonna die—and then they brought out the main course!). I had no idea that so many of my childhood experiences would come around full circle once I set foot on Sicilian soil; I noticed things so simple that I’d never seen anywhere else in the world, like the way my grandfather used to collect branches for the
barbecue by neatly stacking twigs in a pattern that almost became a sculpture, or how my grandmother had shrines of Mary, statues of Jesus, and the pope’s picture proudly displayed around her home. Walking around Sicily, I experienced deja vu over and over again.
Has it changed? Some things never change, and Sicily might just be such a place. But if I had to pick one way Sicily has changed, I’d say there’s less of the dialect to be heard—the true Sicilian dialect. My grandparents spoke it. My mother spoke it. But the younger generation would rather speak proper Italian.
Uncle Charlie is hard to explain in words because he’s so cinematically larger than life. He’s one of the most interesting people I know. He’s up, he’s down, he’s hot, he’s cold, he’s happy, he’s sad; he sings, he dances, he laughs, he cries, he screams—he never whispers. He’s one of the last old-school Sicilians to come from an era that is almost extinct.
At 86 years old, he’s healthy and never forgets anything. He’s completely original and homemade. If we’re eating chicken, it’s from his farm. If we’re dipping our bread in olive oil, it’s from his trees. If we’re eating fruit, he grew it. If we’re drinking wine, he grew, picked, and pressed the grapes and bottled and fermented it. If the world ended today, I think he’d survive.
Grotte, followed by Cefalu, followed by Taormina, followed by—really—anywhere in Sicily! During the making of my book, I drove aimlessly and without a set route from village to village, meeting people and photographing faces, exploring, learning, and experiencing everything I possibly could. During that journey, I fell in love with each and every place I visited, for different reasons. It might have been as simple as a great cappuccino or a glass of wine, an interesting sculpture, or a faded painting in a church. Or maybe a village where I woke up to a marching band below my balcony and grabbed my camera and started shooting shot after shot.
Every house in the countryside has what they call “house wine.” If you can get your hands on a glass, you won’t be disappointed. Locals use only the grape to make the wine—they don’t add sugar. What this means is that you won’t get a hangover from all the sulfates you find in commercial wine.
You wear black only to weddings and to funerals or if you’re in the Mafia.
Sicilians eat one big meal a day. It starts around one in the afternoon and can go on for hours—course after course.
When someone dies, the villagers post a big sign on a wall and people from all around stop by to read who’s still alive and who’s not. Then they call their friends and repeat what they read on the wall. It’s funny to be in a car and have to pull over to see who’s morto (dead).
The best Sicilian saying I’ve ever heard happens to be from the man on the cover of my book Sicilia: “If you kiss me once, I’ll kiss you 25 times; if you pinch me once, you’ll have a bath of my spit.” I guess Sicilians don’t like to be pinched.
I’ll visit Sicily by the end of the year. My uncle has some wine we need to drink, and he turns 87 this December.
JOHN URBANO PHOTOGRAPHED BY SEAN WUENSCH