When Sandra Cattaneo Adorno accepted an invitation to attend a five-day photography course with her daughter — a gift for her 60th birthday — she never thought about just how big of a present it would be. Back then, she had barely taken pictures, let alone held a proper camera.
Fast forward five years, and Cattaneo Adorno is working on her second book on street photography after exhibiting her pictures in New York, Miami and Berlin and amassing a hefty 33,000 followers on Instagram.
“I feel like the luckiest person in the world,” she tells me. “[This is] something I never knew was there, and I got it as a gift. I’m just like a child again!”
A World Tour Through Images
When we talk, Cattaneo Adorno is in Barbados. I have been following the trip through her snaps on social media — silhouettes of men, women and children fishing in a mesmerizing play of light at the shores of the Caribbean nation. A few clicks back through her Instagram channel and the landscape changes. I am now seeing contours of bodies doing acrobatics in the California coast. Click back even further, and we are on the dazzling beaches of Rio de Janeiro where dark figures are contrasted against the glistening waves. It’s a world tour of a very mobile woman captured through still images.
Even before she took up photography, Cattaneo Adorno was already traveling far and wide.
“I am very different from most people; I don’t like staying in one place for a long time. I feel comfortable moving every two weeks. I love the change,” she tells me.
It’s fortunate that her life circumstances are compatible with that love: being a Brazilian married to an Italian whose businesses are scattered throughout the world — as are their children — globe-trotting has become somewhat second nature to her.
An Antidote to Perfectionism
But before turning 60, her trips had been mostly work trips. Sitting on the board of several family businesses as well as an art foundation meant she was managing employees and attending meetings from Houston to London.
“I was always focused on administration,” she says. “That’s what I did my whole life. I was never the artsy person in the family. I like to take care of the things that I have. I have a pride in organizing everything and in things working well around me — everything in its place.”
In fact, Cattaneo Adorno is the kind of person who has mastered the art of planning to such a degree that it includes laminated itineraries of most activities, be it a board meeting or a family weekend getaway. But while that level of perfectionism certainly comes in handy, it can often be all consuming.
“I was always planning a lot, doing a lot of things that now I don’t think I needed to waste so much time on,” she says. “I stopped being so perfectionist in the small things and I looked at the bigger picture.”
Love at First Click
It turns out that taking pictures is what gave her this ability to look at the bigger picture. Which brings us back to the summer of 2013, and Alex Webb’s photography course in Barcelona. “Gwen was doing a minor in photography at university, and she said, ‘Mum, why don’t you come with me to this course?’ ” she recalls. “I looked at her and thought: ‘Oh God.’ But I went for the fun of it.”
It was love at first click. “I had no idea how to use this camera, and I was obviously the worst of the class,” she says. “But for some reason, I don’t know why, I really found it fascinating. It was very funny. I had never thought of doing photography but something clicked and I loved it.”
Opening Doors Through Her Lens
It’s now been five years that Cattaneo Adorno and her camera have been going steady. Far from being a mere device, the camera became a portal of sorts through which new worlds and experiences opened up to her.
“I’m not a very social person,” she says. “The camera helps me because it’s a companion in this loneliness — a fantastic companion. It also took me out of my bubble. I had this bubble in which I was brought up, and the camera makes me connect to different people that I wouldn’t otherwise.”
What started as a vacation hobby soon developed into an everyday activity. As she dove deeper into her new passion, she met people and picked up other skills along the way. She learned how to edit her photos, making her Instagram channel public to showcase her work. This enabled her to connect with other photographers and people from the industry.
“It’s a really nice community,” she says. “There are obviously some weirdos, but I have discovered many, many people whom I like a lot on Instagram. They encourage me.”
I Am a Photographer!
Over the years her online following grew. In 2016, one of her pictures was chosen to be exhibited in London’s Somerset House — one of 60 out of the 150,000 entries for the street photography category.
“That was the moment I said, ‘Wow! It means I am a photographer after all,’ ” says Cattaneo Adorno.
It has been an upward trajectory ever since. In 2016, she was commended by the Sony World Photography Awards, and published by LensCulture shortly after. This was followed by an exhibition at the Independent Photographer Show in Berlin and at the first Women Street Photographers exhibition in New York last December.
She also published her first book The Other Half of the Sky last year, and is currently working on the second.
“One of my teachers told me to wait to do the book,” she says. “He said l would become much better later. My answer was that I don’t have much longer. I am not 20. Maybe my first book won’t be the best book, but I want to produce it now! I don’t want to wait.”
The Benefits of Being Older
Age hasn’t just given Cattaneo Adorno a newfound sense of audacity and impatience. As she sees it, it has also given her a visual maturity and perspicacity that has informed her photography.
“What I think helped me a lot is all the art I was exposed to in Italy,” she says. “It helped train my eye. I was seeing and observing without noticing it. My brain had things inside that I had catalogued.”
Conversely, exercising her eye as a photographer has helped her fine tune her skills as a businesswoman.
“When I go to a board meeting now, I am paying a lot of attention to expressions,” she says. “I pay attention to what is not being said. It is in me nowadays. It is part of me, being observatory.”
Starting out at a later age also put things into perspective. Having the stakes lower made what could have been a stressful trajectory very pleasant.
“I’m not insecure,” she says. “I’m happy with what I did in my life. It [photography] won’t define me. It’s not life or death; it’s a plus. But, for some people this is the only thing, and they suffer a lot of anxiety. It’s been nice to help out or give a hand too. It’s tough like hell for young people to make a name as a photographer.”
But most of all, accidentally stumbling into photography at 60 has made Cattaneo Adorno incredibly grateful.
“I’m so lucky,” she says. “I don’t know how many things all of us have in us and we die without knowing we are good at.”
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