Not far from Milan, in the bedroom of a haunted house, the ghost hunters were holding a séance. “If there’s someone here,” they called into the darkness, “can you please give us a sign?”
Photographer Barbara Leolini had gone alone into the kitchen to load a new spool of film into her camera, when suddenly, unmistakably, a chair scraped along the floor near her. Everyone heard it.
“I was freaking out,” she tells TIME. “I slept with the lights on for two weeks. We were all there. You just have to believe it.”
It was her very first ghost-hunting trip. Even if she’d been skeptical at first, Leolini now insists on the existence of the paranormal. And she is far from alone—according to a study by Italian magazine Focus, 76% of Italians believe in ghosts, and half of them claim to have seen spirits of the deceased with their own eyes.
The high figure, she presumes, comes from a culture of superstition and Catholic influence. “People believe in the weirdest stuff,” she says. “Maybe we want to believe that after death, there is something more.”
Ghost-hunting, like bird-watching, is motivated by the desire to experience and prove the existence of the supernatural, rather than capture or scare it away. Across Italy, groups like the Ghost Hunter Team (GHT) visit cemeteries, abandoned warehouses and old buildings to collect evidence.
It’s more than just a hobby. Leolini was impressed by the intense passion of those she followed, some of whom had been hunting for as a long as a decade. She noted that ghost hunting demands courage, patience and dedication. “You also need a sense of humor,” she says, “because otherwise it’s just too heavy. I was really scared at certain points.”
Enthusiasts conduct thorough research before venturing to far-flung sites in the middle of the night. They also invest large sums of money on equipment designed to detect potential hoaxing devices, read changes in air flow or energy fields, and even record electronic voice phenomena. According to a member of the GHT, a complete basic kit costs about 4,000 euros—more, of course, if you want the very best.
Determined to visualize the invisible, Leolini interviewed and took portraits of more than a dozen people with their own ghost stories to tell. One of her subjects, whom she was meeting for the first time, greeted her by saying, “Your grandfather, Simone, says hi.” Leolini’s grandfather had been dead for 15 years, and she could not fathom how her subject, a self-professed medium, could have known his name unless she'd communicated with him in the afterlife.
Leolini also photographed notoriously haunted locations around northern Italy, each with an unsettling history. Her project, Echoes, is a combination of portraits, eerie landscapes, abstract mood images and investigation photos provided by the GHT. All of her own photographs were taken on an old Olympus point-and-shoot camera that cost five euros at a flea market, using special effects film handmade by Revolog.
“I was looking for a moody, magical film that could help me find the right feeling for the story,” says Leolini. “And when you shoot this kind of film on a point-and-shoot, you don’t have any control at all beyond pressing a button.”
The result is a series of images bathed in a dreamy palette, with mysterious details that invite viewers to question how they may have occurred.
Echoes, which Leolini completed as her diploma project for the Danish School of Media and Journalism, is just the first chapter of a wider project on paranormal beings. Her next work will focus on witchcraft.
Perhaps there is no concrete proof that the invisible world exists, but for Leolini, there’s also no concrete proof that it doesn’t. “Facts are the sole criteria of reality,” she says. “In the absence of facts, the wise man suspends his judgment.”
Barbara Leolini is a photographer based in Florence, Italy.