Venice's photographers have awoken!

Understandably, everyone wants to visit Venice at least once in a lifetime.

It’s an enchanting maze submerged in the sea; an artificial island governed by the rules of nature. Strolling through the calli of this uncanny metropolis, you have the feeling of being surrounding by monuments, bridges and palazzi impregnated with history. Yet, on the other hand, you have the feeling of exploring, secretly and silently, a parallel dimension, futuristic and eclectic. Venice is a city of the future…ideally.
IMAGE COURTESY OF FEDERICO SUTERA

But there are different kinds of tourism, and as soon as you start doing the maths (a decreasing population of 57,000 plus 50,000 tourists arriving per day…) it becomes clear that the wrong kind of tourism could be fatal. It needs to managed in a sustainable, ecological and constructive way. One gigantic symbol of the threat posed to Venice – the mammoth cruise ships in the lagoon – has recently united the city’s photographers, environmentalists, academics and journalists to produce some incredible work.  
IMAGE COURTESY OF FEDERICO SUTERA

Raising awareness about the 'big ships issue' is fundamental for the future of Venice, according to Silvio Testa, journalist and activist of the Venetian social movement Comitato No Grandi Navi (“Committee Of No Big Ships”). Testa is the author of two booklets denouncing, on the basis of a considerable number of sources, the high risks of allowing cruise ships to enter Venice. “Pollution, erosion of the sea bottom, dangerous hydrodynamic effects, possible accidents and much more… The lagoon has a fragile ecosystem that needs to be carefully safeguarded,” he tells me.

IMAGE COURTESY OF FEDERICO SUTERA
 

Recently, a group of photographers have taken on these floating Goliaths with a public event promoted by Awakening, an international photographers’ collective. In December 2014, eight large images – four metres by three – of cruise ships crossing the lagoon were displayed in the streets of Venice. The aim of Awakening is to let these striking, large-format images speak for themselves, informing pedestrians about what’s happening to the city. Public spaces are not damaged, only water-based adhesives are used and images are displayed mainly on scaffolds. Photo agencies are also involved in the distribution of the images, among them Getty Images. However, Awakening is funded solely by the photographers of the collective, in order to maintain complete independence.

Marco Secchi, photojournalist and spokesperson of the collective explains: “Awakening was founded in the UK in 2013 and then moved to Italy. Several photographers are Venetians, that is why we started in Venice. Furthermore, Venice is an incredible cultural hub; anything that is done in Venice is very international and raises straight away an international interest. We would like to raise awareness, experimenting new ways of doing photojournalism, using large photo formats displayed in urban spaces as a new way of having an impact in society.” He points out that the “images are accompanied with a short text that includes some information, but the text is as neutral as possible so the image can speak for itself”.

IMAGE COURTESY OF #AWAKENING

Federico Sutera – photographer, contributor to the Awakening project, and co-founder of Isolab, a centre for photography research in Venice – remarks that he likes the idea of bringing images that deal with important social, political, cultural, and educational issues to a wide public. “It’s a slap in the face,” he says, “I believe that, nowadays, images should not only be printed, gathered and showed within the four walls of an exhibition space for few interested people. Photography can have a significant role in raising awareness through periodical, magazines and newspapers. So why not share big format images in public spaces?”

In fact, the Awakening images stayed for months in the Venetian streets and squares, and a few are still visible today.  Thanks to them, people from very different backgrounds seemed to have a very strong positive reaction, embracing the cause. Every day more people are documenting and sharing information, taking part in social movements fighting for a sustainable future of the Venetian lagoon.

IMAGE COURTESY OF #AWAKENING

Outside of Awakening’s action, the internationally renowned photographer Gianni Berengo Gardin has also denounced the alarming Venetian situation with photographs he took between 2012 and 2014. An exhibition with some thirty works simply entitled Venezia e ale grandi navi (Venice and Big Ships) showed at the Negozio Olivetti in Saint Mark’s Square. It was intended to be at the Doge’s Palace, however the recently elected right-wing mayor of Venice denied permission for it to be held there. This unfortunate decision became the object of criticism from across the world and, ironically, helped strengthen the debate for those opposed to the ships.

I asked Gardin about these controversial photographs. “Photography should document reality and be a tool to change the world. These monsters visually plunder my Venice”, he replied. “These photographs are scary and upsetting. They seem to be the result of a photomontage. It is hard to believe that they correspond to reality. But there is no trick, they are true.”

IMAGE COURTESY OF FEDERICO SUTERA


Despite the years of doomsday prophecy, Venice is not sinking. However, as Awakening and Gardin’s fantastic photographs demonstrate, the perpetual arrival of cruise ships isn’t sustainable. Venice rightly thrives on tourists, but this comes with great responsibility. Venice and its lagoon are miraculous, a complicated and fragile system that needs to be preserved with compatible policies, meaningful actions and conscious tourism.