Lessons from Venice

A few thoughts from James during these turbulent times.

Venice is obviously a picturesque place with its gondolas and canals, astonishing architecture, Rialto Bridge, Basilica di San Marco… the list is endless. But really and truly Venice is all about its people. Venetians of all ages are warm, welcoming and so photogenic, plus they are used to cameras, which is great for us photographers. Venice is, of course, also about tourism, but even the tourists make great subject matter. (Yes – fully aware I’m a tourist myself!) 

If you like to observe people, dare to photograph people, or even wish to try, then Venice is the place, because there is a subject on every corner and every corner is itself an astonishing backdrop canvas of renaissance-ness! But Venice has suffered terribly in recent times, from overcrowding to flooding, and now to complete desolation and desertion because of this feckin virus. 

Both Marcus and I have worked in Venice on dozens of occasions, from taking commercial images of the people and culture for advertising campaigns, to leading our regular photographic workshops. Marcus did in fact live for a fair while in the very heart of the city in one of his many past lives. Over the years we have got to know Italy from top to bottom, with our Dolomites and Venice trips in the north, to our commercial shoots as far south as Sicily, where one day we plan to offer workshops in this very underappreciated region. 

Italy is a simply glorious country to explore and photograph, but it is Venice where we have developed the most friendships. Wherever we go, we love to get under the skin of a place, to understand it as much as our tiny minds allow, but mostly to get to know the locals. During these tough times we have been thinking of our friends who reside among the canals. These include the handsome and ever so charming Marco who runs a Moreno Glass shop and Roberto who sells the best Tiramisu on the planet. Along with so much of the city, both of these businesses have been ravaged in recent times by flooding and now the virus has come along to kick them while they are already down. 

I was recently speaking with a friend who we simply call Mr Venice, because he knows everyone and absolutely everything about the place. This is mainly because he used to be the chief fire officer of the city, which is quite an extraordinary job if you stop to think about it. Working among the twisting canals and ram-packed terraced streets, they are as much climbers and scalers as they are firemen. At least they don’t have a shortage of water though!

As a native Venetian and having spent his entire life dodging tourists and diving down back alleys and rat runs to miss the masses, Mr Venice suddenly has the city to himself. As a lifelong resident he is now seeing everything with a fresh set of eyes, the muddy waters are clear, fish can be seen shoaling, the city is quiet. All extraordinary stuff.

The word ‘unprecedented’ is the buzzword of the moment, but it does seem to be ringing true in Piazza San Marco. However, nothing is truly unprecedented and indeed Venice with its extraordinary history is directly connected to us all worldwide today. Yes, we all know of Gondolas and Canals, but did you know that the word ghetto is an Italian word that directly traces back to the city of Venice (worth a Google). 

Another word that has relevance to the situation we all find ourselves in right now and shows that these times are not completely unprecedented, is quarantine. Again an Italian word with direct connection to Venice (worth another Google). Search for the island of Poveglia and the plague, it’s well worth a read if you have time during your isolation, social distancing, lockdown, or indeed if you are quarantined. Fingers crossed it’s not the literal translation of forty days. 

So while we are all trying our best not to be our local community’s next Typhoid Mary, (another Google-worthy search), all of us are experiencing at the very least anything from mild inconvenience to down right disaster. But few communities as a whole have had it as tough in recent times as the folks that live and work in Venice. Let’s hope the future for Venice is a more balanced one. Let’s hope for a terrible pun, that Venice will have another renaissance.

We will return for sure, and with luck, it will be this November to feel the crisp air and witness this majestic city in all its winter glory.  

In the meantime, we will be working hard to provide a little more online content for you all to enjoy during this hideous time. Yes, one of our mantras is getting Off the Beaten Track, as seeing new things is one of life’s great joys. But as referenced above, my retired fireman friend is currently seeing his own patch in a whole new light and this is something we can all learn from. 

Familiarity breeds contempt so they say, but for photographers, familiarity can be a kind of blindness, as you just don’t see the everyday things for what they are. Let us all use these unusual times to appreciate what we all have locally. We can all still go outside, so long as we stay an outstretched monopod length from each other of course. We may not be able to get to the back of beyond unless we live there already, but let’s get photographing our own doorsteps (not literally of course!). 

This is something we may well talk about more in upcoming blog posts / Photography Online shows / social media, etc. So sign up – stay sane – and keep taking pictures. Remember the world is still a wondrous place.

Comments 3

  1. Ali Fairley
  2. Mairi Macaulay

    Great post, James. I was due to go back to Venice this month for a few days with my husband. But, in the meantime I will just have to content myself with going through the photos I took in November when Lynn and I went. The city will still be there when all this is over and we can only hope that businesses will survive until then.

  3. Lynn Fraser

    Mairi and I chatted with Marco in November and he was so fed up with the flooding. Roberto’s staff showed us how high the flood water had got and how much damage it caused. I’ve been thinking how all this is like rubbing salt in a wound and wondering how Marco, Roberto and ‘Mr Venice’ are finding it. A novelty to walk uncrowded streets perhaps, but at what cost?

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