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Sometimes I cannot smile

Piergiorgio Casotti

“If the populations of mainland Canada, Denmark or the United States had suicide rates comparable to those of their Inuit populations, national emergencies would be declared.

I often ponder life and death. I decompose the pieces, dismantle elements in an attempt to rationally analyse them and then recompose and reconstruct the fragments, only to end up with a different equation each time. You need the right place to reflect and Greenland was that place for me. Life and death, black and white, an extreme environment for the most extreme act a human being can ever make: suicide. Opposing dichotomies revealing all their ruthlessness. East Greenland is all this. So it was with all my questions and wonderings that I found myself flying as a modern pioneer ready to “discover” one of the last unexplored lands, about to face my fears and anxieties. I was flying to Kulusuk, East Greenland’s only landing point. Approaching Greenland is like crossing an imaginary line. A boundary that marks the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of a parallel universe. In Greenland nature takes over, it takes possession of rationality and gives a meaning to daily life. Greenland narrates a deafening silence. A voice whispering indefinable and inscrutable emotions. It’s a “far” journey that to Greenland. Up there, our conception of life and death shakes, priorities are inverted, elements shuffled. It’s an archaic, fatalist, dichotomous approach to life. Black or white, with no shades in between, raw and cruel. It’s about surviving. In Greenland one doesn’t live, at best one survives, both physically and psychologically. And so you hear Elvira saying “I try to have fun but sometimes I cannot smile”. And gradually you sense the subtle and intimate war many young people fight against violence, boredom and emptiness, a struggle that has always been the “raison d’être” of young generations, the difference being that in Greenland many of them lose that battle. Here twenty percent of youths aged between 15 and 25 try to end their lives every year. Two percent of them succeed. Suicide here is experienced differently from the rest of the world. It’s not perceived as the ultimate desperate act of a single person; suicide is considered an exit strategy that’s deeply ingrained in the local culture. Children grow up and assimilate it just like learning to speak, instinctively, like breathing. It’s the ancient manner of solving problems, distortedly handed down over generations. It’s hard to think about the future when you cannot see what a different future could be like. Around, only signs of the past and the frightening present. No jobs, a lot of boredom. Since 2009, I have been going to East Greenland trying to paint the social, cultural and environmental landscape of this region and its community, with no psychologists and with local government for decades being in denial of a societal affliction that, according to experts, goes back to the dawn of this civilization. People who have embraced me as one of their own; a community I created a deep, personal attachment with and that I feel and consider my own by now.

ME. I finally got back from Tinit in one of the more memorable days ever since 2009. I got a snowmobile ride back but we took a “long-cut” for almost 4 hours wandering through glaciers and over huge, untouched snow fields over the highest mountains, overlooking the fjord full of icebergs and with fog making its way in. What a view and what a feeling. Freedom, wilderness, Being away for quite some days there’s quite a lot to report. Both good and funny ones and a sad one. Today I was informed on Saturday morning a young guy took his life in Tasiilaq. Two bears were hunted last week. Coke (Coca Cola) is finished in Tiniteqilaaq and the next supply will arrive with the next ship...maybe mid June!!! Being this a holy week why not having a drink for it? Unfortunately many people will start their “drinking” habits from today, making it probably a 4/5 days drunk period. I spent a lot of time with Kaaleraaq and had great time. We had time to thoroughly talk about his life, fears, regrets and hopes. It’s been nice. I really like Tinit

as well. Probably one can feel better Greenland there, in the villages, rather than here in Tasiilaq. So small and lost in the “white”. When you approach it from the glacier it’s just a black spot on a white background. Night is coming. Some sort of night appearance is on tonight. A big help given by heavy, grey, dark clouds over Tasiilaq all day long. It’s being raining all day and the wind was blowing around 70 km/h. But the football’s championship has been played. Today we had the final match. Few minutes earlier that day I met Ole on the street and he gave me a present. He made his first Tupilaq of his life and gave it to me. I don’t know...I thought it was great. I am angry. I am worried about a person here. A very good friend. I am worried... She keeps telling me it’s all right but I see emptiness, resignation, fear in her eyes. Spending whole days watching inside. She knows she can talk to me...she did in the past...but now it’s like she has given up...hope I’m wrong...maybe I am but still can’t help but thinking about it. Friday was the wedding day. Saturday was the drinking day. Sunday was the sleeping day. “A polar bear attacks using just his left arm. If he lifts his right one don’t be worried“ — Greenlandic hunters. “No more ice-cream. Maybe it will arrive with the ship in august.” — Geerda shop. Yesterday I couldn’t find Peter’s grave. There’s no name on the graves. I knew he was there somewhere... It’s late again and cups of coffee are not helping. Saturday morning is party time here in Tasiilaq. Today I got very emotional and I left (again) a part of my heart here. I took a walk through the empty town, few people around, chilly air, the bay full of icebergs imperceptibly yet constantly sliding on the dark water. I remembered why I do like here so much. It’s almost midnight here in Tasiilaq and I am watching the ocean from my window. I like to write when it’s dark and that’s a problem now. The sun sets just behind the mountains but still alive and kicking, climbing again over them in three hours. It’s weird. Outside the sound of the night...but it’s not night. It’s quite. Also dogs have stopped howling...just few people walking back home from the bar. Yesterday I was afraid I would have to start over but “tonight” I met again many of my friends and that drove me emotional. A year has passed and they are still so happy to see me again. A year has passed, Tasiilaq is the same but many people have or will change. Some went away, some will.

VOICES. I live alone now. I think I don’t like to live with him anymore. I can’t sleep in the night when they are drunk, or play music loud. I feel they never want to do something in the future. They don’t care. And I am tired of...I want to do something in the future. You shot yourself? Where? In my heart. I still got the bullet. Do you remember that day? Yes. I wasn’t drinking. I remember that day. I was out with my girlfriend and we talked about our life and I had a bad day and I said to my girlfriend I want to try it, the suicide, and shot myself. I run to my father’s house. And get the rifle and...I was outside and shot myself. It happened there in 2004. If I want to be strong again I write a song and play it with the keyboard and sing it. “In Christmas day I had a bad day about my mom cause I miss her and when I think when I was a child I have tried the funniest things with my mom...and now I can’t...I don’t like my life anymore cause I miss my family. Why did you leave me? Do you love me? Maybe. Maybe not?“

Sometimes I feel bad. Sometimes I cry just a little bit, but not too much. When I feel bad sometimes I write songs about them and I feel better after. If you are conceived as weak then you can’t survive, so you have to be strong. There’s this cultural drum dance that can expel one out of the village. “You can just go and live in the nature by yourself or start your own family but you are no longer accepted here in this community”.

So in the old culture this was a form of

suicide where instead of taking your own life you just went out in the nature and be on your own. When there was an old person who couldn’t do anything for society, he or she went out and never came back. It was a way of surviving. Now it’s changed. Instead of going out in the nature you take a shotgun or hang yourself or... “People just have fun and don’t talk. They just keep it inside...just like me. I try to have fun, but sometimes I cannot smile.” When my adoptive parents had their wedding anniversary, my real parents did not have a present. So they gave me to them. The 3rd of August 1989. Just because they did not have a present they gave me up. Right when I was born.

And I have lived with them ever since. I used to think “why did they leave me?” But I am happy that I didn’t grow up with my real parents. They drink around their children. I usually never cry. It takes a lot, but sometimes my eyes get filled with tears when I am about to sleep, because I think about my son and my grandfather. I am tired of my life... Growing up, I never thought I would become a sailor. First time the idea crossed my mind was when my teacher suggested it. When I arrived in Denmark I was very shy at first but after a while I got used to it and it was okay. We were in the city of Frederikshavn, and after some time we went to England. We stayed in England for a while. It was very nice. And later we went to Norway. I understand Danish but I am not good at speaking it. So when I was in Norway I decided to go back to Greenland. Even though I understand Danish, I have problems speaking it, so I just went home. But now I have sent an application to Paamiut to try being a sailor again. I thought about what to do if I finish it. I would maybe go to school in Sisimiut to get better in Danish and English.

That’s a round circle. You cannot say the main issue for this huge suicides number is alcohol because it has to be related to family problems and these family problems have to be related to alcohol and so on. If you ask someone here, including me, “Who has someone, a close friend or family member who committed suicide?” then they say “Me”. Probably 90% of the Greenlandic population knows a close friend or a family member who committed suicide. She destroyed my life. She only cared about herself. She didn’t give me money, I didn’t eat so much because she used the money for alcohol. I don’t think so. My life is getting better now. And I feel good for the first time since I was 9. Life and death have totally another meaning in Greenland definitely. You might go hunting today and if you don’t come back...then there was a reason for this. Nature takes over. The next minute you are’s like storm and quite. It comes and it goes and you’re just a little piece of that. You can’t do anything. I have a story of a very very smart boy. He has grown up with his grandpa here in Tinit. He went to school in Tasiilaq...bright bright boy. But his grandpa asked him to come back because he missed him so...and the boy did so. And he missed his future. I did not finish elementary school in Tasiilaq. I went back here. I did not study for a few years after. I lived with my grandfather for 16 years. When I was just a child and first came here, he used to take me out for fishing and sailing. Those 16 years I lived with him for, I always went out sailing, fishing and stuff like that with him. Every now and then we also went out hunting...I used to spend all my time with him. We used to put nets in the water together, go out fishing for Ammassats and other fishes. When winter arrived we also went out hunting on the ice. We also did something called “Qamadduni”. We dressed in white to match the ice, laying on the ice waiting for seals. It is a hunting method. I have done everything with him, because he started taking me with him when I was very young. Yes. In June 2006, after I played football, I went home, and when I looked out of my window I saw a bear. Then...I blacked out, and when I got to myself again, I was upstairs. I didn’t know what to do, so I called my mom, I told her about the bear. She said “What? What?” And she told me we could get out and take a look at it. In 2006 I was 16 years old, so I were not allowed to kill a bear. When we arrived at the place where the bear was, it was already dead. So we helped taking the bear from that place and down by the water of the village. When we arrived by the water a lot of people came down, they were all yelling “Hurray, Hurray, Hurray!” And of course they started flensing the bear, and after a while they finished. And that is the story of the first time I was a part of a bear catch, in 2006. When a bear is caught, the one that sees the bear first, gets the skin and the head. I do not know what the one that kills the bear gets. But also the first three or four people who touch it get a lot of meat. And I don’t know why the one that sees the bear first, gets the skin and head. I think it was like that in the old days.

Sometimes I cannot smile Piergiorgio Casotti Photographs and Text Š 2009-2013 Piergiorgio Casotti - Book project: 3/3 - Book dummy published in 3 copies in 2013 Printed in Italy with HP Indigo by LITOGRAFIA BRUNI srl, Pomezia This book is dedicated to my parents for their fundamental support throughout hard and difficult years. I heartily thank Alex Majoli for his great inspiration and for being able to transfer me the courage to dare and be myself in my photographs. A deep, warm gratitude towards all my Greenlandic and Danish friends who pricelessly helped me during my trips: Micheal Waaentz, Hans Larsen, Ole Nuko, Eluna Pivat and her family, Lisbeth Glistrup, Kaaleraq Larsen, Noa, Joan, Kasper, Jimmy, Anja, Majken, Martha. For the decisive help in the realization of this work and the great moral support, for the suggestions and critiques, I deeply thank Chiara Capodici, Fiorenza Pinna, Francesca Severini, Salvatore Santoro, Daria Birang, Giovanna Calvenzi, Marc Schroeder, Italo Morales, Sachiyo Sekiguchi. A heartfelt hug to Marc Davidson. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author Piergiorgio Casotti.

»Sometimes I cannot smile«  

Piergiorgio Casotti

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