Francesco Zizola


With ‘As If We Were Tuna’ I wanted to design a narrative path that offers a complex vision of the ancient and sustainable method of fishing tuna. I am interested in suggesting a metaphor of the eternal conflict between man and nature – a reflection on the hubris of men.

Stories to be Told

As If We Were Tuna

After covering rising sea levels and climate change as part of a NOOR group project, Francesco Zizola was inspired to investigate the damage to underwater ecosystems caused by the ways our worldwide food industries approach fishing. His aim was not only to document the problem, but to shine a light on sustainable solutions. ‘As If We Were Tuna’ explores the ancient fishing practices of the Sardinian Tonnara, where a complex web of traps is used to lead the fish through a maze of chambers to a final death chamber, ensuring only the largest of them are caught. For all its eco-friendly credentials, the culmination of the Tonnara in la mattanza – the killing – is still a brutal battle between man, fish and the elements, which Franco has captured in a multimedia project encompassing both images and video. The project takes its name from the Greek tragedian Aeschylus’ description of a crushing Persian defeat at Salamis.

Q: Why was this an important story for you to tell?

As part of a NOOR group project on climate change, supported by Nikon, I was covering the story of rising sea levels in the Maldives. There I began to understand how much danger our marine life is in, due to overfishing by the worldwide food industry, and I started to research the issue. Five years ago, I decided to focus on the Mediterranean and highlight a sustainable way of getting the food that we need from the sea. I found a number of fishing communities that were struggling to survive and were moving away from industrial fishing practices that were not compatible with their marine ecosystems. That brought me to the last sustainable way of catching bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean – the Tonnara in Sardinia.

Q: What inspired you to cover the story as a multimedia project?

At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches to a book of images about water and sustainability. Alongside this, I decided to shoot a short film to communicate – through a different language – a clear vision of a sustainable fishing process. Since the start of this project, I wanted to create a visual story about the close relationship between the two different worlds under and above the water. Moving images and sound were the perfect tools to create a tense narrative that would catch the viewers ‘as if we were tuna’. This short movie is intended to provoke questions about the relationship between humans and nature.

Q: How did you go about planning your shoot and finding the fishermen?

The film was shot at the same time as the stills, so they were planned together. The fishermen tend to be a part of tight-knit communities – and the tonnaroti definitely are. I had to spend quite a bit of time building trust with them to gain access.

Q: Where did you shoot this project?

‘As If We Were Tuna’ was shot in Sardinia, in the bays of Portoscuso and Portopaglia, in the south-east of the island. Every year there are two months when the tuna pass through these locations, during May and June.

Q: How did you build rapport with the fishermen, so you could work closely with them on the boats?

It was a long process of getting to know each other. I spent time with them and showed them my work, so they were clear on my intentions. Then I got the green light from the fishing company, and the Rais, the head of the fishing operations – a sort of king among the tonnaroti – gave me the first authorisation. Since then, I came back every year for the next five years and was accepted as part of the crew.

Q: What were the biggest challenges for you on the shoot?

Working there for so many years, I slowly discovered more and more details of the process. I decided to explore the opportunity to record different aspects of the same details. It was a huge pleasure to imagine and create solutions for getting original and exclusive images of the entire process. Of course, the final mattanza, where selected tuna are killed, was the most difficult part. The tuna are nervous and dangerous, and while they aren’t aggressive with humans, a thrashing tail could cut you to pieces. This part of the Tonnara is the most photographed, so my aim was to have the closest and most original images. I took part in several mattanzas and every time I shot different images. The most dangerous moment was diving under the net of the death chamber – I was alone and had 30 minutes of hell breaking loose just above my lens. I shot images of the net with the school of trapped tuna from 40m deep, and when the fish were agitated, I went close to them with the risk of being smashed by their violent tail movements. The photographs I took then are as powerful as that moment was.

Q: Your intention was to portray the eternal conflict between man and nature – what is it about the Tonnara that makes it so iconic?

My vision for the project was a metaphor of the relationship between man and nature, as well as a paradox. The Tonnara represents a sophisticated way of catching protein from nature, but it’s still a confrontation between the forces of nature – the sea, the tides, the currents and the pure power of the tuna – and the humans who struggle to catch fish to feed themselves. The process is sustainable and respectful to nature, by selecting the largest tuna, thanks to a trap that was invented around 3,000 years ago, and freeing those that are too young. The trap doesn’t kill the fish: they live in it and keep reproducing until the end. Traps capture only a small part of the schools of tuna that pass through the bay, and they’re dismantled after the tuna migration has passed. The trapping process takes place much as it would have done in ancient times, with the pure strength of the fishermen’s arms. It’s a fair confrontation and the result isn’t predictable, as from the beginning the fish may still escape entrapment. The Tonnara is paradoxical because while it’s sustainable and fair, this method is also extremely violent and bloody in its final phase. That forces us to reflect on the necessity of fishing in order to survive. Perhaps we’ll think twice the next time we face a piece of tuna wrapped in plastic in the supermarket.

Q: Did the narrative of your film shift while you were shooting or editing it?

I spent so many years on the project that it changed shape whenever I was able to add strong images, but the structure was clear since the beginning: following the fish from freedom to the final moments of the catch. And there was always the clear concept of giving importance to the fish as subjects, not just the fishermen.

Q: Which cameras and lenses did you take with you?

I had different cameras for different needs: the Nikon D800D810 and D850, with underwater housings. For underwater photography I tended to use the AF Fisheye-Nikkor 16mm f/2.8D, the AF Nikkor 20mm f/2.8D, and the AF Nikkor 28mm f/2.8D.

Q: What do you want to inspire in readers of this story?

To be more aware of the important issues that we have to face in relation to the natural environment.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring photographers who want to create a multimedia project?

Be open-minded and pursue your content fearlessly.

Meet the other Nikon ambassadors