Mario Dondero carried this daily newspaper in his heart, almost like it was a mission. And the newspaper was fond of him, too. This is the sentimental, professional and political relationship between the photojournalist Dondero and il manifesto, which began with the newspaper’s birth and his expulsion from the Italian Communist Party in far off 1969, and continued with the paper’s debut in April 1971 and went on uninterrupted until he died, on Sunday, at 87.
Dondero was exactly the photographer that il manifesto wanted. He took sharp, clear pictures. He was always at the right place at the right moment, from the most recent war to the most alternative gathering, from the artistic and literary establishment to the most distant periphery, always at home anywhere in the world — globalized before its time — and involved in photography because he was interested in human beings and flesh and blood. Whatever happened after the shutter click was secondary.
This is the way we have always seen, felt and understood this master of communication. It’s always been like this for all of us at il manifesto, from our days at Via Tomacelli all the way up to now, in our small office on Via Bargoni. Our passion has always been requited.
“I have known Rossana Rossanda since 1949 when she managed the House of Culture in Milan… I began in 1951,” insisted Dondero, his memory undimmed. “And I also can’t forget Luciana Castellina’s, Lucio Magri’s and Valentino Parlato’s disappointment at the moment of their expulsion from the Italian Communist Party.” That moment wasn’t just striking to il manifesto’s founders, the people he named; it was significant for him as well.
“I was very, very Communist,” he recalled, “and I will be to the bitter end. I have not changed one iota of my ideologies since my start as a young partisan.”
He reminisced about the staff of il manifesto and the fear that overcame it when our colleague and friend was kidnapped in Iraq, then rescued and then shot by U.S. soldiers. An Italian intelligence agent was killed. “Nine years ago, the night when Giuliana Sgrena was released… I remember the happiness, because we didn’t know, then the hurt, desperation due to uncertainty, Giuliana’s survival, Calipari’s murder. That moment represents all of the stress of our age.”
Il manifesto for him was “a factory of new photojournalism.” However, il manifesto quotidiano was born with a spartan approach: columns on the front page with a summary as the title and the only typeface variations being the headline, body copy and italics.
Then things changed, first with the improvement of these pages but also with regard to new events of great consequence, domestic and international, in the last 40 years.
Therefore the pictures, sometimes with their false consciousness and presumption of objectivity, breaking inexorably undermining even the heretic journalism “on the wrong side,” made by ideas, points of view in single, elegant lead columns.
Dondero’s pictures began to arrive, after having crossed the four corners of the world, from Algeria to Casamance, from Laos to Cuba, but always careful of the folds of European metropolises, too, with his own particular insistence on the use of only black and white to restore truth’s weightlessness, often invisible.
Regarding war, Dondero always refused to be an embedded foreign correspondent, following army platoons, and rejected that instrumental formula of involvement in the conflict. He stayed back with his camera — his inseparable weapon of choice, Leica — ready to capture the moment of human slaughter and its inherent bloodshed.
Coming to il manifesto for him meant participating in a “collective flight,” he said.
“Mario has arrived” and so everyone stands up from their desks to run and greet him. It has always been that way. Among desks and computers, he held his arms around women and men, kissed everyone. He’s gotten us all on film, like he was walking into the comfortable light of his home, Fermo.
“I have more rolls of undeveloped film of Luigi Pintor than you guys even know… I do a lot of rolls that sometimes don’t even develop,” he said. Therefore, there was a deposit of photos regarding the il manifesto in Dondero’s heart, the newspaper that become only “fishwrapping paper” the day after, as suggested by Luigi Pintor, the guardian of time’s decay.
Dondero’s pictures were always original: like sparks, often transcendent, like epiphanies but at the same moment time-limited, humble and with the ability to reduce a high moment under the light and dark contrasts that catch the act or the secret moment uniquely.
His Paris suburbs are a school of the contemporary gaze on the new metropolitan experience of Western European countries. It is a layer of emotions in the short historical period of time in this century and in urban topography.
Dondero looked for and often found the life that, secretly, daily replicates material experience, always with Leica and his dark room, in quiet, rigorous passion. Looking for, with a spark, the seductive human light.