Saturday, August 3, 2013

A True, Present-day Bridge of Sighs--and Lots of Dead Fish

As I type this at 7:40 pm the temperature here in Venice is 31℃ (88℉), but with the humidity it feels like it's 38℃ (100℉). We're at the beginning of a heat wave. Last week--prior to the heat wave--there was a mass die-off of fish in the lagoon, thousands of them could be seen floating everywhere, even in the Grand Canal.

In its best Death in Venice-style, the city's official reassuring response was that this kind of thing wasn't out of the ordinary when the weather turned hot, it's happened before. But last week--unlike today and the forecast for the week ahead--was no hotter than usual; than last summer, for example, and there were no mass die-offs of fish last year.

The slightly more in-depth official response was that the fish suffocated to death; that the warm weather had encouraged the growth of algae in the water which robbed it of oxygen. Of course, algae growth is made much worse by the presence of certain man-made substances in the water, such as phosphates, and there's concern that there may have been a release of other pollutants into the lagoon. Some people have complained of a particularly unpleasant chemical smell on the lagoon, but the official response has been that tests show the chemical plant in Marghera is not at fault.

Gianfrano Bettin, Venice's Councilor of the Environment, was quoted last week as saying that "the situation in the lagoon is quite normal (my emphasis). The absence of wind and currents has caused overall warming of water in the lagoon, which has led to obvious difficulties for native species, especially in the southern and central areas of the lagoon."

This was supposed to be reassuring, but as Venetian blogger Fausto Maroder pointed out in a post about the dead fish on his blog, isn't "the absence of currents" exactly what we have to look forward to whenever (or if ever) the MOSE gates are activated?:

His concern, shared by many others, is that MOSE, along with merely the usual man-made pollutants in the lagoon, and (if we ignore Global Warming as many still want to do) even merely the usual warm temperatures, will turn the mass die-off of fish into the new "quite normal." A deadly new "quite normal."

None of which I actually intended to go into in this post... Instead, my original aim was to remark briefly on the photo above of the illegal vendors (or abusivi) driven to take refuge from the heat and sun in the scant shadows of a parapet on a bridge spanning the Canale dell'Arsenale (easily identified by the pair of obelisks visible in the photo, which also adorn the roof of any palazzo on the Grand Canal in which a commander of the Venetian fleet lived).

On the hottest days of summer such vendors seem to me to be especially fearless of the law, whose would-be enforcers I imagine spend as much time as possible within the air-conditioned walls of their respective departments and as little as possible pounding the paving stones of the Riva. On such afternoons, bridges like the one above look very much like open-air markets, with scores of counterfeit bags, dozens of tripods, and hundreds of pairs of sunglasses displayed on blankets on the ground. The vendors array themselves within whatever strip of shade is available, moving as it does with the slowly passing hours, making small talk, and, I imagine, sighing beneath the unrelenting sun and heat and boredom.

As many Venetians themselves sigh, too, at the sight of the vendors in such complacent numbers: these troops of regulars, seen day-in and day-out, as familiar as the neighborhood pharmacist, but illegitimate. Ir-regulars, you could say. A part of the city fabric, but not part of it, not officially, but always always there.


  1. Please let me ask you not to publish pictures of humans so carefree, specially knowing they are considered 'illegitimate' (in my opinion there is no person illegitimate on this planet, we're all born here.).

    According to European laws you have to ask their consent anyway (, but more important is, you might endanger the people whose pics you're publishing.

    (Sorry, don't want to be a wisenheimer and I'm sure you don't mean any harm to this these poor "outlaws" according to EU immigration laws.)

    1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Brigitte: I did not and do not mean to get the men in the photo above into any trouble and didn't think that the image was clear or large enough of them for them to be identified as individuals. Though I am aware of the hostility directed toward street vendors--unfortunately the anti-gabbiotto facebook page has become a largely racist anti-immigration page since the conclusion of the gabbiotto issue--my intent with the photo was not to make a legal point, but a human one. Anti-immigration types like to suggest such people are living the "good life"; it hardly looks like that to me.

      But the wikipedia article you cite has nothing to do with taking a person's photo in a public place. The law applies to personal data--to banking info, addresses, medical records, credit cards, etc, not to taking a photo. One is allowed to take a photograph of a person who is in a public place in Italy--UNLESS that person is a child. One cannot take a photo of a child, even if he or she is in public, without the permission of his or her parent.

      And can the above actually be considered an incriminating photo even if each of the men were identifiable? Not a single one of them is actually engaged in illegal activity. Of all the men there, who is selling the sunglasses, who the bags? In fact, none of them are photographed selling anything. They are taking shelter from the sun, none of the "illicit merchandise" is in the possession of any one of them... Does this make sense? What do you think?

      I see no way in which the photo could be used as a means of legal prosecution. If the police were interested in documenting such things, surely they could find better evidence than the above photo. Nor, for that matter, can I see how it could be used in any other way to damage the subjects.

    2. If I'm not mistaken, any person in a public space makes his or her image available for viewing and even photographing - if it's not proceeding in offensive and intrusive manner.

      The rest is a matter of a photographer's personal set of rules, his or her moral code. No decent street photographer will shoot people in their intimate and embarassing moments. But getting permission from a person who is being photographed in his public persona in a respectful manner is not obligatory.

  2. I know it's an offence to buy from these guys but has anyone ever been fined for doing so? There doesn't appear to be much enthusiasm for dealing with the problem. And how do the guys with the blue whizzy things make a living? There are so many of them.

    1. There are sometimes headlines in the local paper about a tourist being fined for buying a counterfeit bag, Andrew, but I don't know that it happens very often. I've been meaning to find out about the guys with the flying things from someone who knows many of them, but haven't had time. I also am not sure how they manage to make enough to survive. In any case, hopefully when we return In Sept I can find out more about how they get by.

  3. Sig. Nonloso:
    of course you don't intend to damage the persons in this picture. I follow your blog and I think I understand and mostly agree with your opinion (if not I would not be your reader). I think if their status in Italy is "illegal" they might be in danger of deportation "home" and deserve solidarity and protection of us, who are privileged being "legal" citizens. That is why I would not "show" them carefee (on MY blog). I don't suggest your pciture shows proof of illegal behaviour, just a little thoughtfulness about how it could, might, or might not be used. You may not imagine and surely never know for sure.

    and Sashha, too:
    of course a person can't avoid or prevent from being photographed when in public. But privat persons have the right of their privacy and must not accept their picture being published without their consent. You don't have to ask consent to take a person's pic (though politeness suggests to do so) but you must have the person's consent to publish his/her picture. If not, the person has the right to forbid it and even ask for compensation in case any kind of harm was the result of the publication. (These poor men of course would not go to court to report an offence, the more their privacy should be respected, I think,)

    When they do movies in Venice (I remember "Casanova" and "The Tourist") big signs are put up, declaring who ever passes "this line" or something like, is resigning voluntarily of his/her right of private picture, appearence, voice etc. which might be recorded, for 3000 years. No kidding!
    That's for different reasons (money) but exemplifies the sensitivity of the subject.

    Thanks for discussing!

  4. When I photograph a person in the street I don't need a portrait of someone I must have even a minimal contact with. I photograph him or her as a character at the scene, represented not by his or her real name or biography but just by an image that a person presents. When I photograph an ice cream vendor it means nothing to me if he is called Paolo, Milosh or Rashid - and how many children he has. I just photograph an ice cream vendor. Yes, there is such a school of thought in street photography.

    Another school is more sentimental, it advocates getting to know the person you plan to photograph, talking, sharing, establishing human contact.

    And the second option may sound more PC and nice. Pity the photos it produces are mostly stunted and uninspiring.

    1. Brigitte and Sasha, I appreciate your thoughts on this topic: it's certainly a tricky one that I'm still trying to figure out. Just how tricky it is well represented in the following piece from the NY Times on the subject in France:

      I'd hate to think that the documentation of life in public places--which are rapidly becoming fewer thanks to the privatization fever of the last 33 years--would be left to Hollywood, or advertisers, or tourist boards, or reduced to the narcissistic self-presentations found on facebook and other social media sites. Though, of course, I suppose we'll have no end of surveillance footage to look over...

    2. That's an interesting article, thank you, I've read it and found myself thinking that probably the protesting pedestrians are taking it out on individuals because they feel themselves impotent should they decide to object to the state's surveillance of almost any moment and aspect of their lives that's going on now and will probably become more and more inclusive.

      And a state holds a hypocritical position of pretending to defend one's right to privacy - but only against the "encroachments" of people who are interested in practicing street photography.

    3. I think you're right, Anonymous, as the odds of anyone ever taking my photo in the street and then "doing" anything with it, whether online or in book form, seems incredibly incredibly slim. Whereas the NSA itself has outright admitted that as an American living abroad I can be certain that any communication of mine with someone in the US will be monitored--and each day seems to bring new revelations that the notion of any "privacy" online, even for communications within the boundaries of the US, is a fantasy.

    4. It was my post - somehow the posting through the usual venue, LiveJournal, failed.