Back in January when, already fed up with winter, I decided to take this blog south for a while, I assumed that by spring I’d be ready to go back up north and continue exploring the gardens of Tuscany. But March 20 has come and gone and the weather people are still going on about snow flurries and freezing rain and wind chill factors. So, until the spirit of spring makes a solid appearance – and by that I mean no more dustings of snow overnight, no more ugly gray piles of frozen mush and grit blocking the roads – you can add your own favourite winter uglies to the list – until then, I’m staying put.
In the meantime, since we’ve already visited all the gardens I had planned to look at during this winter getaway, this might be a good time to explore one of the most controversial issues in photography these days. I was completely put off balance when it came up during the Q&A following one of my talks. One of the members of the audience observed that there were no gardeners in any of the photos I had just shown them and he wondered how the gardens were maintained. I stood there, not knowing what to say – or think.
He was right, of course. In fact I had worked very hard to get as few people as possible in those photos. I forget what I came up with by way of reply, but it got me rethinking the whole to shoot (we’re talking ‘photo-talk’ here!) or not to shoot people thing. It’s caused a lot of unpleasant encounters locally. One that really stuck in my mind was the father who was strolling around Dundas Square, a rare open area in downtown Toronto, with his young son. He was taking a few photos when one of the people in the square rushed at him, gave him a good punch and smashed his camera.
It all seems to boil down to two diametrically opposed, and seemingly irreconcilable points of view. On the one hand are those who take the position that if you’re in a public space, you can ‘shoot’ whatever and whomever you want. On the other are those who say you cannot take any photos whatsoever of children under a certain age, or of older people without their consent, which of course eliminates most of the population since children and the elderly are usually in the company of the people you might be allowed to photograph.
Fortunately, so far my experience has been without incident. In fact – and this may have something to do with the fact that I take a lot more photos when travelling around Italy than when I’m home – not only do the people I’m photographing not mind, they seem to enjoy the interest. I know this because I don’t have any fancy telephoto lenses – just the standard ‘kit’ lens that the camera came with – so when it comes to people, I have to get pretty close – so close they know what I’m up to. And whenever I can, I ask for permission, as I did one day in Trani.
I was lucky. The fishing boats had just returned and the far side of the quay was lined with stalls. There weren’t a lot of customers – just a few anziani (elderly people). I strolled around, watching, listening to the orders being placed.
I loved the colours of the fish against the turquoise bin, so got a bit closer to take a photo. As I fiddled with my camera’s settings, one of the anziani sidled up to me – he was standing very close, even by Italian standards – and started talking to me. I had a hard time making out what he was saying. It wasn’t just the missing teeth or that he was using a lot of dialect. He struck me as a bit ‘off’. From the bits I could make out, it sounded like he was inviting me to his place. Then one of the other customers told him to shush – “Lasciala tranquilla!” (Leave her alone. ) She smiled at me and shrugged, confirming what I had sensed. I took a photo of the fish. But not of the old man.
At a stall close by things were different. Here was a much bigger selection and while he waited for customers to arrive, the vendor passed the time visiting with a couple of pals.
When I asked ‘Posso?’ (May I?), pointing at my camera, he struck this surprisingly serious pose, but I figured he got to choose how he was going to be portrayed. His pals made a few comments that I didn’t catch (I speak ‘standard’ Italian – can barely understand anything whenever anyone switches over to dialect – even less when the comments involve certain parts of the body…) It was astonishing to see how quickly he changed gears – coming up with all sorts of more ‘interesting’ shots whose significance was totally lost on me.
All of which was leading up to a demonstration of how to slurp a long, wormy-looking thing he pulled out of one of the fish – don’t ask me – I spent my Italian formative years in Tuscany – I know nothing about the fish in Puglia. This of course produced the desired effect and they all burst out laughing when I gasped in disgust, as they knew I would.
Probably the photo that has touched me the most is one I took many years ago in Umbria. I had taken my travelling companions to Deruta, which is where most of the ceramica (pottery) made in Italy actually comes from, in spite of what is painted on the bottom of items you see in stores all over the country (more on that later…). Since I’d been before, it didn’t take me long to find a few pieces I’d so far managed to resist. While my companions looked around, the owner and I chatted – about life in Italy, the struggling economy, all the seemingly insurmountable problems facing the younger generation and then, probably eager for a break from the daily doom and gloom, he asked about my travel plans. I told him about the local markets, vineyards, cooking classes, hilltop villages that we were going to visit. When I mentioned that our next destination was Assisi, he suggested – actually he insisted – I go to Collepino, just a short drive east of Assisi.
Collepino is the quintessential medieval hamlet. In less than five minutes you can walk from one end to the other. There is one piazza. And whatever you think of those blue chairs and table, you have to admit, they do go well with the plumbago growing up the wall next to them.
On the other side of the piazza were four people. How many afternoons, how many years had they spent together in the tiny piazza? I had taken up photography only a short while before and was even more shy than I am now about taking photos of people – don’t want to intrude/offend etc. – but there was something about them that pushed me to ask, “Dispiace se faccio la foto?” (Would you mind if I took your photo?) The fellow on the left jumped right up and said he would get out of view to make the photo “più bello” (more beautiful) and the one with the cane went to take his hat off. “No,no, no” I said, “è bello così!” (it’s beautiful just the way you are!)
I like the way the two men are looking straight into the camera and you can just make out the hint of a smile on the woman knitting in the back, her feet resting on her slippers. After, I went over to to show them the photo, thinking they might like to see how bello it had turned out. They all leaned over to have a look at the lens viewer – all except the woman wearing the dark glasses. To my chagrin, I realized she was blind.
There is however, one situation where I rarely have any qualms about taking photos of people. Weddings. They are already such public affairs in Italy where couples are married first at City Hall and from there proceed, usually on foot, (and how the women manage on those stilettos is beyond me) to the church nearby, where they are married again.
I arrived just in time to tour the biggest of the windmills before it was closed to the public. This was where the reception was being held. As the sun started to set, it was easy to see why they had chosen this location.
One time when I was staying along the Amalfi Coast I took a side trip to Paestum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with the largest and best preserved collection of Greek temples outside Greece.
In 600 BC Greek settlers founded a colony they called Poseidonia after Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea. The settlement flourished for centuries until 273 BC when the Romans arrived and, in their customary fashion, proceeded to take over, starting with renaming the colony Paestum. Plagued by wars and then malaria, the settlement was eventually abandoned.
The temples were so mesmerizing I almost missed the wedding party.
Sometimes when I’m taking pictures, I get so involved with what is going on in my viewfinder I lose sight (terrible pun!) of the possibility that others might be watching me – as if I’m hidden under some magic cloak of invisibility.
I was on my way to the centro storico of Lecce, the capital of Puglia, aka ‘The Florence of the South’, when I happened upon this scene. The bridal party seemed to be wandering all over the intersection and miraculously no-one honked or tried to whiz past them. This was definitely not Rome.
Since I was headed in the same direction, I slowed down a bit, thinking to take a few more photos – hidden as always under my cloak of invisibility.
The forecast was bleak when I set out the next day for La Cutura, a fabulous botanical garden about an hour’s drive south of Lecce. Dark clouds threatened all morning, but I managed to tour most of the gardens before it started to pour. The rain continued during lunch and the drive back. Since I was only going to be in Lecce for a couple of days, I began to worry that I wasn’t going to get any more photos of the historic centre. But after a couple of hours it finally let up. I wasn’t the only one who had been hoping the rain would end.
Of all the wedding scenes I’ve come across, this one, in the centre of Sorrento, is probably my favourite.
I’m still torn on the whole business. Many people have told me they like the photos with people in them, and sometimes even encourage me to put in a few more. Is it because those photos make it easier for them to imagine being in the place? Or provide a sense of scale they can relate to? Or create a greater sense of connection?
I just hope the people in my photos see it this way too.