The photo agency Contrasto is well known in Italy, where it’s been around now for 25 years. As well as the picture agency, some time ago it launched a book-publishing arm, one that not only promotes its own photographers’ work and that of other major Italian photographers but also reproduces works and translates significant essays and biographies that are largely unknown in Italy. In this, it has a role (and responsibility) to broaden the basin of photography readership and awareness and, ultimately, the status this field occupies within the Italian cultural landscape. Eurogeneration fits into this mould.

Eurogeneration is an ambitious project that includes a book and an exhibition (see listings) – which is perhaps the format in which it works best. It is a time-driven portrait of the many countries that make up the colourful patchwork of contemporary Europe. We see club goers, activists, lovers, priests, fishermen, students, gay and straight couples, families, transvestites; in sum, the large extended community of people living under similar laws, and strict economic guidelines. Local identity meets this freshly woven European one that is still in the process of assessing its position and value.

The book is a compendium of different styles: a digest of modern day European youth. Fourteen photographers (all but one tied to the agency) worked on individually selected subjects in the country of their choice – all 25 EU member states are reviewed – and each photographer was given the freedom of expressing his personal way of approaching and interpreting the subject. The pictures were taken between 1 October and 30 November 2003; the people portrayed were to be roughly between 20 and 30 years old. The photographs were shot in colour and b/w; on film as well as digital, positive and negative, 35mm format and medium format, seemingly all formats aside from colour negative have been used. In the book, the captions – name, age and country and at times profession – are intentionally reduced to a minimum, which, contrary to an editorial approach is perhaps an indication that these images were indeed meant to be enjoyed as a group show.

The overall choice of genres is portraiture, both straight and environmental (set up, arranged, documentary and street photography) the style alternates between one photographer and the other, at times perfectly exposed and sharply focused, at times blurry.

Knowing some of these photographers’ previous work, what I find interesting is the fact they have been pushed into confronting themselves in a project that required them to research and pursue a story on their own, without an assigning editor and within a very strict time frame. Subsequently, they were asked to subject their work to the scrutiny of their close colleagues, therefore having to live with the space constraints each story was to have.

A particularly striking set of pictures, compelling and original also from an editorial point of view, is the one shot in Finland by Luigi Gariglio. The story shows two different approaches the government took in response to the issues of imprisonment. On the one hand we see pictures of the “closed” prison system, with walls, doors and guards. On the other we see an “open” system, a humanising way to redress the relationship between a state and its criminal population. The opening shot shows a smiling blond, sturdy prison guard standing against a stark, white background. In the upper left-hand corner loose wires dangle from above, this disturbance is what obliges the viewer’s eye to hold still and absorb the guard’s serene stare.

Another picture is a shot of a desolately snow-white landscape: trees in the distance elegantly divide the frame in two, a frozen lake and a frosty white sky mirror one another. In the foreground three small sticks mark a square hole, the post-sauna cool down within the confines of an open prison, the caption being the only indication this is not a fishing hole in the middle of a park. Although all his pictures are well thought up, staged and arranged, the parallel with documentary photography is apparent. Yet I feel there is something missing: I can’t help but wonder about the pictures that complete the essay and have been edited out for space’s sake.

Francesco Cocco’s b/w pictures of German football fans are a nice example of a set that works well together. The layout is built using two smaller pictures on the left hand that plays against a larger one spreading out on both pages. The frame is well composed and the action taking place leaves the viewer wondering about the exchange. Shot from behind, the two men are standing up and turned in the camera’s direction, their arms are stretched out and their tattoos in clear view. The viewer’s eye bounces back and forth between the three pictures, each one being a piece in the story.

Mario Spada, a close-up, in-your-face William Klein-style photographer, shot a set of pictures of a far right Flemish political group. The subjects are young punks, caught goofing about perhaps during a booze trip; the joyful expressions on their faces clash with the many symbols tattooed on their bodies, the lingering doubt is if these smiling kids can just as quickly turn into violent racists?

Lorenzo Cicconi Massi, a student of the impressionistic Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli, is given ample space – the entire last chapter. The style is quite diverse compared to what we’ve seen in the previous pages: the highlights are burned, the sky becomes a white backdrop and the black is deeply saturated. The frame is a space in which composition and form is balanced off; people’s outlines and the landscape surrounding them gives off an abstract day dreamy atmosphere.

The photographs are supplemented by six short stories written in Italian that give us a whiff of the air some of the protagonists in these pictures seem to breathe. “I live here, in a terribly mechanical and distracted fashion, I walk along the streets with my arms stretched out, my mind doesn’t register much along the route from home to school…”

Eurogeneration is not beyond criticism. Sometimes, the way the pictures are laid out reminds me too much of agency stock books, sent out to buyers as reference, to be leafed through and shelved. To serve ad agencies, perhaps, whose brief was altered or editorial clients in search of an image for an article whose content then changed. The contributions also run in a slightly chaotic fashion. The flow can be interrupted by varying quality between one author and the next: in short, it lacks tempo.

However, I believe that the photographers’ achievements, as well as the efforts of Contrasto, which invested the money and its editors’ time, is very praiseworthy. I miss not seeing projects like this more often. I think photography can become extremely interesting when you have different voices interacting together. I believe the resulting labour helps the viewer understand the diverse way of experiencing a particular reality; it gives you a real insight into your neighbour’s way of looking at things.

Lucy Conticello