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ART INDEX: Lisetta Carmi

Lisetta Carmi (1924, Genoa, Italy – Cisternino, Brindisi, Italy), the incredible Italian photographer and leader in social and gender matters, died this week at the age of 98. Born into a bourgeois family with Jewish origins, during the fascist period, Lisetta was forced to abandon her studies and move to Switzerland. There she began to study piano. This pushed her to study on her own, something she would continue to do long after the end of fascism, for the rest of her life.

In 1964 she moved back to Genoa, started to work as a musician and teach piano lessons. In those years, she also became more and more drawn to photography. The aspect that intrigued her the most was the political and social power of photography. She decided to leave her pianist career behind and to dedicate herself completely to photography. Thus, she started her journey through existential research by capturing others through her pictures.

One of her most recent reportages of social commentary is the one about the dock workers of Genoa, Italy, her hometown. These dock workers were forced to live inhuman conditions and Lisetta didn’t feel like standing by and watching what would happen. She took part in their demonstrations and decided to document their work and conditions through her pictures, drawing international attention to their cause. In fact, those pictures were displayed in worldwide acclaimed exhibitions, such as the Italsider series of 1962 and the Genova Porto series of 1964. They have had huge success all around the globe.

Italsider Genova 1964 © Lisetta Carmi

Other than being very well known in the labor class demonstrations, Lisetta was also close to the intellectual scene of mid-century Europe and took pictures of many intellectuals such as the American poet Ezra Pound, the Italian artist Lucio Fontana, the Italian writer Leonardo Sciascia, and the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

In the 60s and 70s, Lisetta also traveled around the world, going from Ireland, to Afghanistan, to Palestine, to South America. In her travels, she always had a special eye for the kids she encountered, producing very touching and raw documentary images of the conditions they lived in.

Afghanistan, 1972 © Lisetta Carmi

In 1972 Lisetta’s book Travestiti, or Transvestites, was published by the Essedi publishing house of Rome, but it was such a scandal that bookstores refused to display it in their stores or, sometimes, to sell it altogether. Lisetta’s way of portraying trans women was so revolutionary for the time. She was among the first to deal with sexual orientation and gender issues. She was a pioneer, ahead of her times and misunderstood by her contemporaries. This book that used to be almost illegally sold, has, over the years, affirmed itself as one of the masterpieces of Italian photography. It is the work for which Lisetta Carmi is mostly known for today. She understood how important it is for anyone to have the right to express one’s identity in the way that best suits them and she documented it all through her photography. Through her nonconformist gaze, Lisetta has always told the stories of the invisible, showing the world the harsh reality of social injustices.

Lisetta Carmi, Travestiti, Genova, 1965 © Lisetta Carmi

In 1976 she abandoned her photography and three years later opened her own ashram in Cisternino, a small town in Southern Italy. She has devoted herself to the spreading the message of her Himalaya’s master Babaji Mahavatar. In the meantime, she has also collaborated with the most established international magazines, and she kept organizing photography exhibitions.

The worth of her works has appreciated with time and in the last few years she has seen a spike in her turnover, as you can see from the picture below. Lisetta’s work has finally been getting the attention it deserves.

Lisetta Carmi’s turnover from 2000 to 2020 (


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