One of the highlights of Eroticon 2013 was meeting Mario Cacciottolo and learning all about his amazing Someone Once Told Me project. Within minutes of meeting him, I was completely intrigued. Mario’s work is fun, quirky, moving, sometimes chilling, and I’m very excited that he consented to be interviewed for a Hopeful Romantic. Welcome Mario!
KD: First of all, welcome to a Hopeful Romantic, Mario! It’s a pleasure to have you here. Could you start off by telling my readers a little about the Someone Once Told Me project and what inspired it?
MC: I’m very interested in storytelling – always have been. About six years ago I picked up a camera and decided I wanted to get into portrait photography in particular. Then, one day, I had a thought – how about I use one to do the other? As in, use my camera as a way of getting people’s story out of them, in a very specific way?
Someone Once Told Me (SOTM) sees me ask people to hold up a sketchbook on which they’ve written something memorable that someone once told them. It can be anything, so long as it came from someone else.
I take a picture of them doing so and there’s a new image that goes up on my website every day, with all the previous ones available in a gallery. The subject also explains the story behind why that phrase was said, who said it to them and what their reaction was to hearing those words. The story is written alongside their image – I often use audio to capture people’s stories also.
I’ve had a new image up every day since 8 Sept 2007 and from early June will be travelling for a year around the world, taking many such images, using social media to help me drum up new subjects.
I’m looking for all sorts of people to photograph, all around the world, from different backgrounds and nationalities. The one thing I’ll be asking them is – what’s the most memorable thing you’ve ever been told?
KD: As a writer, I’m always trying to convey an image with my words so that people ‘get the picture.’ Do you find that as a photographer who works with images, is the opposite true? Are you always trying to convey a story?
MC: It’s best if you can do that, for sure. I believe that the most powerful form of photography is one that has a narrative attached, even one that’s implied – if you see an image and your brain starts fizzing, wondering what’s going on with those you can see frozen in time, then that is the best use of photography. I am being quite blunt in getting people to write down a phrase in my photos, leaving only a certain amount to the imagination, but there is room for the viewer to wonder just what it’s all about, before they can read the blurb beneath and find out the story around that person’s choice of quote.
SOTM is quite simple, but it’s powerful and interesting, and the best ideas are the simple ones.
KD: Mario, you do a new picture and a new story every day for your website. How hard is it to keep that up? What do you find the most challenging?
MC: Well, I’ve had to be quite obsessive about it. I’ve never missed having a new photo up every day for what will be six years in September – so that’s more than 2,000 consecutive days now.
I upload seven images every Friday, and they go live automatically each morning in the UK. I just ask, ask, ask people to pose, all the time. I’ve had a few hundred SOTMs sent in to me, which can be done through the site, and I am just always on the lookout. I went to a party the other day, and while everyone else was enjoying a drink and some banter, I never stopped the whole time – asking people, taking photos, looking for new locations in a small flat, recording their stories, talking to the subjects afterwards. By the time I finished, it was time to go home. I’ve done that on more occasions than I can remember.
I’ve taken 5 hour train journeys to visit students on freezing piers, travelled to businesses and charities to photograph their staff on my days off, hung around in the rain at tube stations to get individual shots, and asked all my friends and their friends to take part. I’ve just never stopped asking. When I split with one of my ex-girlfriends, saying I didn’t have much spare time, she said: “It’s nice to know I’m not as important as a website.”
KD: What do you find most rewarding about the Someone Once Told Me project?
MC: Getting personal stories from people when I don’t know them at all. Sometimes I get them very quickly, too. That’s a huge compliment to SOTM and I’m so thrilled that many people like my little idea so much that that they reveal something personal, sometimes painful, about themselves – to someone they don’t know at all.
I’ve had sons tell me what their father said upon their deathbed, and what ex-husbands have told their (tearful) wives. I’ve had a young woman say how much it hurts when their sister calls them fat, and a man from Tasmania talk about what happened during a threesome he was having once.
I also had a student reveal that he was once beaten up by a group of men who then told him: “Oh my God, we got the wrong guy” before giving him a lift home as an apology. He told me that story within 30 seconds of us meeting for the first time – his astonished friends had no idea this had ever happened.
KD: I’m dying to hear all about your upcoming world tour! 23 countries and 1,000 people! And I hear that people everywhere can get involved. Tell us all about it!
MC: I’ve always wanted to travel the world. Even as a boy, growing up on the tiny island of Malta, I used to spread maps on the wall and look at them, wondering what they were like in real life. Years later, when I was fully into the SOTM idea, I knew I couldn’t just end it one day, quietly. While lots of people have submitted photographs to me, I wanted to reach out to them by visiting as many countries as I could, approaching all sorts of people, getting them to tell a story from their lives. So now that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
I’m travelling through Europe, over to Cairo, then South Africa, Dubai, Japan, China and will spend a few months in South Asia, hitting countries such as Thailand, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Then I’ll go to the Philippines and Australia, before flying up to the US and doing a tour there for a couple of months. I’ll return to the UK in May 2014.
I’m looking for as many people as possible to take part in the SOTM world tour. I need people to meet and photograph, places to stay for a few days, people with media connections so I can drum up publicity, volunteers to help translate a sheet of paper that I’ll carry around, explaining just what it is I’m doing.
The initial announcement can be found here SOTM Tour I’ve since tweaked the itinerary, so the more recent updates on my blog, which runs alongside SOTM, will have the latest destinations.
And of course, if you’re not going to be near my travels but want to take part in SOTM, either as a subject or a photographer, you can easily submit a photo through the Your SOTM page on the site. It always buzzes me out for the day whenever someone sends a photo in to me, and shares a story of theirs.
KD: Can you tell us about the Sketchpad sponsorships?
MC: I have used many sketchbooks since SOTM began, turning more than 1,500 pages myself as I’ve taken photographs for the site. I’m now aiming to take 1,000 people’s images, which will mean at least that same number of sketchbook pages will feature on the site in future.
I’m offering people the opportunity to sponsor the sketchbooks that I’ll use. People can do individual months, or blocks of months. I’ve never put my sketchbooks up for sponsorship before, so it’s an exciting opportunity for all concerned.
KD: Can you tell us about the SOTM app from which, I believe all profits from the downloads go to the Operation Smile charity.
MC: I paid for the app myself and decided to give all the profits from it to Operation Smile, which operates on children with cleft palates. I think they do great work and if you point a camera at someone, you often tell them to smile. It must be terrible not to be able to smile properly.
The app, which is for the iPhone, allows the user to take a photo and place a digital scrap of paper over that image. You can then type out the subject’s SOTM message and story then email the whole thing to me, all from your phone. And you’ll do your bit for charity by downloading the app, too.
KD: What was the most shocking thing anyone ever wrote on your sketchpad?
MC: I’ve had one girl admit she was subject to an attempted rape by someone in charge of her school overseas trip, whom she then had to sit next to on the flight home.
I checked that she was ok for me to use the story and image – neither of which identify her – and the image went up.
Another, very powerful shot, tells the story of how a man broke up with a young woman, using words I’ve heard myself, as a lot of people have, I think. It’s quite a raw, emotive image and I can’t look at it for too long.
The saddest story is from a young woman who I met through Twitter and had a coffee with in Camden, London one day. We took her photo next to the freezing lock and I thought nothing more of it. A few weeks later her friend emailed me to say she’d killed herself. I checked with her father about using her image, and it went up on the site, as did his email reply to me. Very, very tragic.
KD: Mario, you have a way of setting people at ease and making them feel like they’ve always known you. Have any of your impromptu conversations and photo sessions led to lasting friendships?
MC: That’s very kind of you! I was lucky enough to be raised in Malta, which is a very warm, friendly place and that’s never left me. Also, I love what I do and I love getting stories from people – that, above all, drives SOTM for me. So when I get to talk to people I want to – have to – win them over so that they will feel comfortable sharing something personal with me. I want them to feel like they can trust me with their story, and that I’ll take good care of it. People often say “oh, my story isn’t very good” but quite often it is really interesting. People just worry about coming up with something seriously profound, or hysterically funny, but so long as they’re honest, that’s what’s most important.
I have made friends, good friends and even got lucky once or twice over the years that I’ve done SOTM, so it’s been a wonderful, life-enriching experience for me. And now I’m going to take it around the world.
KD: We are all shaped by the things that someone once told us. The words we hear impact on us, whether we want them to or not, and it’s undeniable that they have a power.
Mario, this is from your website, and as a lover of words, I was very much struck by it. Words do definitely have power, so I have to ask you, what did someone once tell you that you would write on your sketch pad if I were taking a photo, and what’s the story behind it?
MC: I don’t know when SOTM will end, but if/when it does, the last ever image will be mine.
Until that time, I’m compiling a shortlist – I do have a current number one quote, but I’m keeping that a secret. Whatever I finally choose as my own SOTM, I’ll have it tattooed on me.
I can tell you that a Lebanese man I once interviewed for work – I’m a journalist – told me: “I used to sniff cocaine with Osama bin Laden in a nightclub toilet in London.”
Also, I once asked a female colleague how she was, and she replied: “I’ve left my husband and I’ve got a stalker.”
And a woman I spoke to said she once had a job cold-calling people. She asked if she could speak to a particular woman but her husband replied: “No you bloody well can’t. She’s run off with a black man.”
KD: Thanks so much for stopping by, Mario! It’s been a real pleasure chatting with you. Best of luck on your world tour! I can’t wait to see the piccies!