Gone stray. How I find myself involved in a documentary project about stray and colony cats
In the beginning, it was not a photo project. It was just me going to take photos in a park where a huge colony of stray cats live. I had started taking photos of cats when I adopted my two cats three years earlier. That was something I had never done before; I had never had a cat, not even as a child. I knew nothing about cats. Honestly, I was not a pet person at all before adopting them. They totally changed the way I felt about having pets at home and it became natural to me to grab my camera to make memories of our daily life together. However, after three years I needed new subjects. So when one of my friends told me about the park, I went there on my first day off from work. Just 40 minutes from home. I had never heard about it before. It used to be an Army Fort until it was shut down in the early 90s. Now it’s a public park.
Some of the old buildings are used as offices and restaurants. Others are abandoned and almost crumbling down.
The park is known for its colony of cats; they’ve been living there since forever. There are also two cat sanctuaries. Volunteers of the two sanctuaries take care of them, providing them with fresh food and water every single day and medical care when required.
The first time I went there I spent almost three hours shooting. I loved it there, seeing so many cats napping in the tall grass or chilling on the ground enjoying the warm sun. It was clear those cats were in good health and well taken care of. I went back there the week after that, and the next, and the next … and so on for a whole year. Every time I shot new photos; every time I met new cats I hadn’t seen before. As months went by I began to know that park and those cats better. I had not realized it back then, but after a few months I was not going there just to take photos of cats anymore. I was getting familiar with them; I was getting involved in their lives, I got to know them by name as I had the chance to talk to the volunteers who worked there. I got to know what their favorite places were. Cats are territorial animals. They like to stay in the same places, but they change according to the seasons. So with each new month, depending on the weather, new photo opportunities arose. From the very beginning I liked most reserved cats that napped or chilled in abandoned buildings. It was not easy to take photos of them because as soon as they heard a noise they were gone. So I had to move as quiet as possible. Besides those places were dark, so technically it was hard to shoot there.
The only available light came from a few windows. And that’s where I had to shoot from. I couldn’t go in there. Some windows were broken, some were left open so cats could go there to sleep or stay dry and warm on rainy days or cold winter nights. My going there to take photos was a real adventure. Every time I went back home with a new capture I realized it was another small piece of their story. By then the decision was taken – I wanted to tell their story with my photos. I wanted people to know them. I wanted to show people how those cats lived and how special that place was, thanks to the volunteers who looked after them.
From the very beginning I shot photos in black and white. It was not a stylistic decision at first but it came natural to me. When I was there I saw the world in black and white. After a year of intense shooting, I realized what a huge number of photos I had taken. And it was only at that time that I felt I needed to try to organize them. To my greatest surprise I realized that it was not necessary. They were already organized. All my shots could be divided into four or five basic subjects.
The year after that I kept going to that park once a week. I still do. I’m still working on those original basic subjects, but after two years I still bump into new situations and meet new cats. That place is magical for me. It always presents something new, even if I don’t look for it. I never go there with a clear idea on my mind. I never go there thinking ‘Ok, today I want to shoot that cat napping on that window.’ It doesn’t work like that. First of all, whenever I go there with such an idea in mind, I never find the cat or the situation I was looking for. And even if I do, I’ve noticed that even if the shot might be technically good there’s something missing. Because it’s shot with my mind and not with my soul. That’s why I never do that. That’s why I go there with a free mind and an open soul. I go there and wait until that park and those cats give me a special moment to capture. Every shot is an unexpected gift to me. Nothing is planned beforehand. Sometimes I go there early in the morning, as soon as the park opens, when all offices and restaurants are still closed and there’s no one around. Just the cats and me. It’s quiet; silence everywhere.
Being with them makes me feel good. And special too. After two years I’ve come to think that those cats know that I’m there for them. They know I want to document their real life and they show it to me. That’s why, as time went by, I decided to keep shooting in black and white. It helps me concentrate on the essential and show it to people. That’s why among my photos there are no small kitties nor romantic situations. There are no stereotyped images that are usually seen in social media. But there are no pityful images either. I do not want people to feel sorry for them. They don’t need that. They are taken care of, they are not out in the street. But I want to raise compassion, which is different, and I want to make people get to know these stray cats and where they live. I try to do this with respect for them to show how dignified and beautiful they are.