Last August, Renée Ricciardi bought a one-way ticket to Italy, packed a suitcase and her camera gear, and traveled across the Atlantic with one goal in mind: photographing bees.
For most people, it would be an odd reason to visit Italy, but for Ricciardi, it fit perfectly. The project united her photography studies – she graduated from Massachusetts College of Art just a few months prior – with her beekeeping hobby and love for Italy.
The idea to undertake such work came together organically over the period of a couple years. In 2011, just as Ricciardi started beekeeping in her spare time, she learned about Italy’s groundbreaking law banning Neonicotinoid pesticides, which are believed to cause the sudden death of worker bees, known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Then, two years later, Ricciardi spent a couple weeks in Venice as part of a college course and left filled with the determination to return to Italy. Shortly after, when she won the Morton Godine Travel Fellowship, it was a done deal.
So, for three months, Ricciardi traveled across Italy, meeting beekeepers and photographing bees. Her adventure started in Agrigento, where a MassArt faculty member introduced her to friends who are apiarists.
“They were the most welcoming, hospitable people I’ve ever met,” she recalls. “They just welcomed me into their lives and I felt like I was really part of their family. They let me photograph their bees but then I also spent the rest of the afternoon with them, photographing the family. It was incredible.”
The hospitality and kindness of the people were a big part of Ricciardi’s experience, as she was welcomed into the homes of beekeepers around Italy, from Sicily to Piedmont and just about everywhere in between. She usually stayed about five days before moving on to her next destination, often selected with some help from current and past hosts.
“Everyone is so connected,” she tells me. “It was like I was part of this underground world of beekeeping. Everyone was saying, ‘I have a friend of a friend who lives here’ or ‘Go over here, I have a friend there.’”
While finding places to visit was easy, Ricciardi admits that taking — or ‘making,’ as she says, suggesting the artistic element of her work — photographs of bees had its challenges. After all, she had to wear a bee suit, including heavy gloves and a mask, while trying to handle her camera and capture beautiful images. Ricciardi worked very slowly, carefully setting up her shots.
“Each one is crafted and thought about, and also narrated in a way,” she says, adding that she was acting more as an artist than a documentarian throughout the project. “With a documentary you need to be constantly telling the truth or photographing things as they happen, which was not the case for me. I set a lot of things up and I created my own narrative, so to speak, and I felt like I was an artist doing those things.”
Ricciardi’s artistry comes through in her photographs, with strikingly detailed images of honeycombs, shots of beekeeping gear lying on the ground and emotive portraits of beekeepers. Through all of these images, she is not actively trying to create a debate about the use of pesticides, but instead is trying to explore the relationship between man and nature while also showing “a golden age of beekeeping,” as she puts it.
Ricciardi also hopes the public views bees differently after seeing her work, which was on display at the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry from January 30 to March 31. “People are afraid of them and people are disgusted by them, but the truth is that they pollinate about one-third of the food we eat, so they’re a staple of our agricultural system,” she says, emphatically. “One out of every three bites we eat comes from bees, so I think they do deserve some respect and some thought.”
Still, Ricciardi is not done with “Bees in Italy” just yet, as she is hoping to continue the project this spring. She explains that, given the seasonality of beekeeping, she feels the need to capture more than just a three-month period to do it justice. And, like before, she has many people in Italy waiting for her with open arms, ready to welcome her once more into both their homes and the country’s tight-knit beekeeping community.