Michele Spatari

Alt text: Four young children playing hopscotch on a patch of dusty earth in front of a large building.

This striking image, taken by Canon Ambassador and documentary photographer Michele Spatari in April 2020, shows children playing hopscotch during a Covid-19 screening and testing drive in front of Madala Men's Hostel in Alexandra, South Africa. The country became the epicentre of the pandemic on the continent, accounting for more than half of Africa's diagnosed infections. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/6400 sec, f/2.2 and ISO160. © Michele Spatari

Canon Ambassador and award-winning documentary and news photographer Michele Spatari has captured some of the most significant events in recent history, including the Covid-19 pandemic.

From South Africa's political landscape to the housing crisis in the Italian city of Turin, Michele's hard-hitting images have been featured in some of the world's most prestigious news publications. Today, he is renowned for heart-rending and personal imagery which shines a light on the stories that simply must be told.

Growing up in Bologna, Italy, Michele was captivated by the city's beautiful buildings, and he went on to study architecture at the University of Ferrara. His passion for photography was ignited during a research period in Beirut, Lebanon. "I started developing an idea to study how post-conflict cities react to division," he explains. "I worked for a local NGO architecture firm and started seeing what photographers were doing, then I began using photography as a tool to illustrate what I was trying to say."

It was after returning to Italy to study photography and work freelance that Michele came up with the idea for his multimedia documentary project, Rising Water. A friend had told him that Turin still operates four communal baths to cope with the city's housing crisis, providing a basic service for those living in harsh conditions. "I'm always interested in the relationship between people and where they live, and the housing crisis in Turin was a very prominent topic," he says. "A good friend told me about the public showers, and I thought, 'Wow, this is a great story!' The need for a house, a personal space and the struggle behind that."

Location: South Africa
Specialist areas: Documentary, reportage
Favourite kit: 
Canon EOS R
Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM
A woman wearing a niqab having her temperature checked by a paramedic dressed in protective clothing.

Paramedic Mudau Matamela checks the temperature of a woman suspected of having Covid-19 before installing an oxygen canister in her house in Zakariyya Park, Johannesburg. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM lens at 1/6400 sec, f/1.8 and ISO2000. © Michele Spatari

Michele was a participant in the 2018 Canon Student Programme at Visa pour l'Image, and in the same year he won the Canon Italy Young Photographer Award for Rising Water, which was exhibited across Europe. After that came another career-defining moment: a move to South Africa in 2019 to cover the general election.

Michele now mainly works for Agence France-Presse (AFP) and is based in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he found himself at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. He was assigned by the Italian visual narrative festival Cortona On The Move to document the crisis, and began his own personal project, No Place Like Hope.

"The economy was already struggling, and then it stopped," he says. "So, what happens when you have to lock down a country for three months, in fear of something you can't see? I concentrated mainly on the overcrowded buildings and the shacks of the informal settlements, and later on the food issue. A large part of the population relies on a day-to-day economy: if they don't work that day, they don't eat at night. The people were starving."

A South African woman carries a large bucket of river water on her head across a muddy and barren landscape.

Ndaheni Mashele carrying a bucket of water from the Klein Letaba River near Baleni, in the South African province of Limpopo. Hand-harvested from the banks of this remote river, Baleni salt is developing a growing culinary following, as much for its unique taste as its backstory. The salt, say locals, is sanctified by the spirits of their ancestors and consequently has healing powers. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 28mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1600. © Michele Spatari

A great deal has passed before Michele's lens, but he tries not to take his work home with him. "I feel privileged to do this job, and to do it in South Africa. Of course, it takes a toll, but at the end of the day you pack your bag, you go home, and you're in a safe space – the people you photograph are not," he explains. "You're always a witness, and as a witness you can leave."

During his career, Michele's photographs have featured on the front pages of global publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post. "You don't always know if you're doing a good job, so you see the picture there, and you realise that photo was needed to tell that story," he says. "It's an excuse to be where history happens. That's why I like to tell personal stories, because you can see history from one person's point of view."

What's the proudest moment of your career to date?
"I held an exhibition inside the public showers in Turin for Rising Water, exhibiting the work in the environment in which the images had been shot. All the people I photographed came and we all discussed the work, and how the conditions were now. The conditions for some had improved, but not for others. This was a defining moment where I really saw the value of such a long-term project."

What was it like photographing the 2019 elections in South Africa?
"This was a great event to cover. Long queues on the morning of the elections, packed political rallies, and thousands of people all dressed in red or yellow or blue. It was a defining moment of my career as it taught me how a big agency prepares for such a significant event. I arrived here at election time, so it was like, go to work and figure out the country later!"

What's been the most valuable lesson you've learnt during your career?
"You must be patient. Work hard and what you're trying to do will come out, but you also must be very persistent and consistent. Understand that every single person has a different timeframe in which they feel ready to open up. All the experience I have has brought me to understand what it takes to survive in this industry."

What is next for you? Which ambitions remain unfulfilled?
"I'd like to work on more features and long-term assignments. Just before the pandemic, I started thinking about my next personal project, but it's on hold for now. When you mainly photograph people and they are all wearing masks, you lose expressions and nuances in the pictures. Starting a personal project feels uncertain, because I fear it might be too much related to the health crisis we are going through."

One thing I know

Michele Spatari

"You have to be extremely focused; of course, you can adapt but you have to know why you're here and what stories you want to tell. Be very persistent and have patience. Sometimes people just see the Instagram side of it; behind that there is lots of work. Sometimes you don't get any work, or you can't pursue your personal project because you don't have the money to do that. It all takes time."



Michele Spatari's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs


Canon EOS R

A full-frame 30.3MP sensor with impressive detail, ISO performance and Dual Pixel CMOS AF. "I love the Canon EOS R – it's a huge step forward," says Michele. "I always used to focus and reframe the picture; now I focus, and the camera takes care of it – it's amazing. And I think the Canon colour science is the best, there's no discussion."


Canon RF 35mm F1.8 Macro IS STM

A versatile high-quality 35mm lens that's ideal for street, travel and close-up photography. "I shoot 70% of my pictures with this lens – it's tiny, fast, light and optically superb. If I could choose just one lens it would be this one," says Michele.

Canon RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM

A highly versatile 24-105mm zoom lens offering photographers and filmmakers an ideal balance between performance, portability and image quality. "This is my go-to lens for video; it gives a great freedom for sequencing, thanks to its fast aperture and wide zoom range," says Michele.

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

With its incredible f/1.2 maximum aperture, the super-fast EF 50mm f/1.2L USM is a consummate low-light performer. Michele says: "This is my favourite lens for portraits and landscapes. It beautifully renders the richness of the colours, and it has a very fast aperture that saves you in low-light conditions."

Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM

Ideal for those on the move: this telephoto zoom lens is highly compact yet delivers the kind of image quality that will take your breath away. Michele says: "This sits in my bag for when it's not safe or possible to get close to my subject. I like the f/4 version because it is light on my shoulders compared to others."


Audio recorder

"Most of my projects start with a conversation," says Michele.


Michele says: "I still take notes on paper most of the time, and I love seeing the stack of finished journals on my bookshelf."


"When something breaks down, this has everything I need to try to fix it," says Michele. "From the tiny lens screws to car bolts."

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