On 27 October 1962, President of the Italian Petrol Company (ENI) Enrico Mattei died after the plane he was traveling on, the Morane Saulnier, crashed near Pavia. The plane took off the airport of Catania, where Mattei had just concluded an official meeting about his plans to turn south-Eastern Sicily into a major centre of Italian post-fascism petrol revolution, similarly to what he had done with other parts of Italy. Few days later, he was supposed to fly to Algeria to sign an agreement which would guarantee Italy considerable control over oil production in the African country.
Following his unprecedented business efforts, Italy had become an all-to-real competitor of US-led petrol development in Europe and Africa. It was not until 2005 that Italian investigators confirmed that the plane crash in which Mattei, British journalist William McHale, and the pilot lost their lives, was not an accident as initially supposed. Someone wanted Mattei to die.
55 years later, a vast coastal area in Eastern Sicily, covering approximately 40 squared-kilometers from the city of Siracusa to the town of Augusta, looks today like a curious mix of natural beauty and industrial offensiveness. The area is home to one of the largest petrochemical plants in Europe. Driving around its territory, it is not uncommon to catch oneself being overwhelmed simultaneously by the elegance of its historical remains and natural landscapes, and by the utter coldness and aesthetic decadence of its industrial titans.
The story of Sicily’s industrial rise is one of excitement as much as of unresolved injustice. In less than a decade, the Region went from a solely agricultural and maritime economy to one of industrial globalization and hope. Sicilians quickly, and gladly, went from a condition of extreme poverty, alternated by occasional production from agriculture and fishery, to one of capitalist industrial employment with fixed working hours, and fixed salaries.
No one had imagined that the photographs of the new industries taken by the improvised capitalist Sicilians would today end up in drawers as symbols of disease, infirmity, and death. The 1950s and 60s had promised a heritage of renaissance, economic stability, and higher standards of living. Instead, people from Augusta and nearby territories are largely either unemployed, due to increasing foreign oil competition, or sick. Or both. “The occupational blackmail”, they now call it, whereby everyone knows how the industries illegally dumped their toxic products in that area over fifty years, but no one complains to keep the few available jobs.
As a rich past blends with a dry present, the people of Augusta bear the burden of an unsolvable state of uncertainty, against the background of a government which fails to listen to their voices, at times angry, at times desperate. Whatever happened in the past seems bound to remain buried, like the toxic substances underneath the buildings, streets and soil of Augusta. The mysteries of the past, including Mattei’s death and its indirect connection with Sicily’s industrial revolution, resemble those of the present.
“This is how we walked on the moon” is a project that mixes a documentary approach to one of mystery and metaphors. It combines photographic inquiry with writing interpretation by journalist Eileen Quinn. By working on the archives of Augusta’s past, as filtered by the eyes and words of the people interviewed and photographed, it wishes to express the gap between development and tragedy that characterizes its present circumstances. Ultimately, it is a project about the unresolved deception of a people, and of their realization that the mistakes committed half a century ago are to be paid by the innocents.
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