A project created to document chaos, “because we live in a strange world”

An Instagram profile that captures the obscure, surrealistic side of world news: it's an editorial project born digital to become more than that, and also a reflection of its creator. Or maybe just journalism for the times we are living. The interview.

Curated by Mattia Salvia, Iconografie del XXI secolo is a project that cannot be defined in a single word. Its aim is to reconstruct a picture of our times by setting aside points of view on the world we live in. It does this through an Instagram profile, online articles, paper zines and, recently, a real magazine: “Iconografie del XXI secolo is not a project born in a planned way, with a precise objective in mind. It is something that has taken shape autonomously, by trial and error and on the basis of a perception: that of living in strange times. In my opinion, it is as if the world we live in has entered a phase of systemic chaos. One of those periods that happen between one global hegemony and another. I felt the need and the desire to document this, because I realised that the 21st century is a new century that is being observed and described with old lenses”. 

Iconografie del XXI secolo is therefore a way that Mattia Salvia, journalist and politics editor of Rolling Stones Italia, uses to collect, archive and arrange “little things that by themselves are not relevant, but together give us a key to understand the present”, such as a photo of Bolsonaro getting his dog to sign a law, or a video of a streaming yoga class with the coup in Myanmar in the background. “It is a job I do day by day, post by post, on Instagram and every three months is printed. Last year as a zine, this year as a real magazine”, with Lapham’s Quarterly as the main inspiration. 

Geopolitics and conflicts are central because one of the aims is to document the chaos that explodes in the global system when there is no person capable of exercising a form of hegemony within it.

The three ideal tags that run through this entire collection are #geopolitics, #conflicts and #popcultures. Mattia also confirms this, saying that “unfortunately it is true”. He explains it saying: “Iconografie del XXI secolo is, for better or worse, still my personal view of things happening in the world and not a scientific and neutral one. Geopolitics and conflicts are central because one of the aims is to document the chaos that explodes in the global system when there is no person capable of exercising a form of hegemony within it. This absence manifests itself in two ways. The pop culture is very present in the pictures I collect. I think it depends on the fact that we are living with technologies that greatly facilitate the dissemination and massification of cultural artefacts. In addition to these issues, there is an interest in many dynamics happening far away from Europe. For the first time in a long time, it is relatively easy to get other views of the world”.  

Regarding the collection of pictures and their verification, Mattia replies that he does not really look for images: “Those pictures have always passed in front of my eyes. Partly because of the work I do, which yields me to deal with these themes every day, and partly because of my personal interests and the way I cultivate them. That is to say, I focus on one topic until I run out of material, and then move on to the next. Over the years, I have built up quite an extensive network of sources. It is made up of journalists, local correspondents, photographers, analysts, activists, people who live in particularly interesting areas of the planet. Thus, if something interesting happens, if a noteworthy piece of visual culture is produced, I see it almost immediately. Especially because the things I document – not always, but often – are things that have some viral potential. They are things that make you utter “wow, that is crazy”. So, I tend to trust my sources for verification. But I always look to see if a reliable source has reported it. If there is not, I avoid quoting that content, even if it is true. When I have doubts, I look to see if the content has already been reported in local media. If I have doubts – even if only about the date, I always try to post things from the current year only – I lay off. 

At this point, I asked him: is Instagram a suitable tool to tell reality, or is it just a commercial platform? His answer was equally concise: “the way you approach a mean of communication also changes its function, regardless of its structural features. With Instagram, you can follow the war in Libya from the perspective of a fighter; with TikTok, you can discover the dances of Syrian FSA militiamen. Anthropologically speaking, that is remarkable”. 

The final result of this work are the zines and magazines, which come out once a quarter. They represent a bit of a sum of the various themes that emerge time after time while the archive is being created. “The latest issue, for example, is an archive of Trumpism in Power 2017-2021. To work on these products, which are now full-fledged magazines, I called people as Raffaele Alberto Ventura, Cecilia Sala, Federico Nejrotti, Leonardo Bianchi, almost all of whom are friends or people I follow. However, in 2021, this model will change. Each issue of Iconografie del XXI secolo will be monographic and edited by a single author. The issue on Trumpism already follows this approach”. 

I asked Mattia what he thinks about this one-man band style business model for journalism. Honestly, he does not entirely agree with me, in fact he says that with this project he does not feel he is doing journalism and that this is a quite common misunderstanding. “People often tell me that they get their information through Iconografie del XXI secolo and I tear my hair out”, he explains, adding that the business model whereby a journalist creates, disseminates and values his or her personal brand using digital tools is exploited to create intangible things: a newsletter, a podcast, a blog. Mattia Salvia explains: “I think I am doing something that comes close to small business. Nowadays, those who take care of the material aspects of producing a magazine, from the graphics to the layout and to the editorial aspects, receive a small fee. I do not do it for the money and, to be honest, I do not even know if I would like to do what I do with Iconografie del XXI secolo as a real job.

Opening image: A gadget from the Hong Kong Police Force sold for the National Security Education Day (2021 via Eli Meixler). Courtesy Iconografie del XXI secolo 

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