Venice, a city so famous it appears everywhere–on postcards, guidebooks, films and fashion shoots, advertising Italy to the world. Abroad, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t at least heard its name, and photographers from all over flock to the capital of Veneto to try and capture its ephemeral magic. But when you’re from Venice or have roots in the city, you see its canals and narrow streets in a different light. How do you go about capturing it on film then, conveying the real, living side of Venice and the variety of cultures that really make up the place?
It’s the very start of September and summer is gradually drawing to a close. In London, the seemingly endless spell of sunshine has finally broken and given in to that classic British grey with a hint of drizzle. Yet in Milan it’s apparently still sunny and summer is holding on–for a few more weeks at least. “It’s actually a bit too hot,” sighs photographer Riccardo Dubitante as he begins to enthusiastically tell me about his summer trip to Venice. It’s become a fairly regular excursion, one he makes at least once a year when he goes back to the Veneto region–to Venice and to his father’s hometown of Caorle.
Although summers as a child and teenager were usually spent in the tiny seaside town, about an hour away from Venice, whenever his family made day trips to the city, it would be to see the “most touristic things”. It was only when adulthood hit that he really delved deeper into another side of the Venetian islands. Through a camera lens, the young photographer began to examine his roots and look closer at this region that raised his father, helping Riccardo reconnect with his past. After a somewhat troubled adolescence–during which he admits he had a “very conflicted relationship” with his parents–photography seems to have become a common ground.
During Riccardo’s youth, both Venice and his father represented tradition. But Milan (where Riccardo grew up) was more modern and “dynamic”, and Riccardo felt he fit in better there, especially when he was struggling with his identity. His father “always represented that kind of old mentality of masculinity” and hence, when he was exploring his sexuality, Riccardo says he “had to push [his father] back”. Photography is often a way to process personal experience, and taking a camera to the place where his father came from has now allowed Riccardo to see this tradition in a different light. For Riccardo, photography has been an anecdote, a way of coming to terms with his childhood and reconnecting with his father. “I’m now really proud of my roots,” he tells me, but it seems to have taken quite some time for him to get to this point. Maybe we all do this to some extent when we grow up. We see our usual surroundings as rather mundane, uninteresting or even detrimental until we elect to look again with a new lens. Much like taking a friend around the town in which you grew up, a camera makes you look twice and appreciate the beautiful and the interesting, no matter how small they may be.
Riccardo followed an unconventional path into photography. It wasn’t until he moved to London to study a masters in film studies that he really started taking photographs. “I asked my parents for a camera as a gift for my graduation here in Milan, and so when I moved to London, I just started taking pictures. I didn’t really have any ambition at all; it was just for fun,” he explains. Film was always his main aim, but upon returning to Milan and applying for internships in the film industry, prospective employers were always more interested in the pictures on his Tumblr account and would employ him for photography jobs instead.
“I didn’t choose photography, photography chose me,” he laughs. We chat about imposter syndrome, something many young creatives can relate to, myself included. Riccardo is fairly young in the profession and although he’s clearly passionate about his job, he confesses it’s a tricky path to follow in Italy. This is acutely felt “when you come from a middle class family”, where being a photographer isn’t really seen as a conventional or stable way of making a living. Yet even if it’s not seen as the most “normal” sort of career to choose, these young photographers–who are growing up exposed to a greater diversity of influences, people and surroundings–are the ones producing the most dynamic and evocative work in recent years. Giving these creatives space, both literally and metaphorically, is essential for diverse representation and viewpoints. Riccardo isn’t the only one. There is a whole host of young photographers, the length of the peninsula, capturing on camera what Italy really means to them.
Having started out as a (self-taught) fashion photographer, Riccardo is slowly expanding his repertoire into documentary photography. His images have been featured several times in Vogue Italia, but the film photographs he took for Italy Segreta on his most recent trip to Venice are his firsts to be taken specifically for a commission. Does he think he’ll move away from commercial fashion photography to focus more on reportage (which he’s clearly got an eye for)? “That’s a good question,” he hesitates, “I mean I would definitely love to do this more… I’m trying to find a way to make it work together [with the fashion photography].”
To find the subjects for these photos, Riccardo “really had to push [himself] because Venice is so iconic, so museum-like. It’s been represented in every possible way, so it’s always a bit tricky for a photographer to find a way to represent something actually new.” He walked a lot and steered clear of the tourist attractions and monuments, “I started really digging into the different neighbourhoods. I found things that I wasn’t aware of.” These explorations allowed him to see Venice in a different light, to be proud of its (somewhat hidden) diversity and to realise that, although it’s not Milan, the city is “still dynamic”.
He certainly went beyond the main tourist thoroughfares for these sepia-tinged, film photographs: elderly ladies clad in sunglasses and enjoying their morning coffee, a young fishmonger stood proudly behind his fish, a nun doing her weekly shop in the market. Yet I am struck by one image in particular, one that represents a side of Venice not usually photographed. A pair of Orthodox Jewish men stand grinning at the camera. Arm in arm, one’s dressed predominantly in black, the other in white. I ask Riccardo for the story behind the photograph. “It’s actually at the very entrance of the Venetian ghetto at the main square. I saw these two guys… and immediately could see the composition, the point of view. They have different heights, one was mainly dressed in black with a hat, the other was with a white shirt, but they both very much represent the custom of this part of Venice. They’re both distinctively Jewish.”
Although the pair apparently spoke little Italian they seemed “very cool and easygoing”–something that comes across clearly in the image. He took several photos–trying to avoid the classic arm-in-arm shot–but in the end felt that the first was the most natural. After all, the aim of the project was for the images “to not be so staged” (as most photographs in Venice are) and “to have that kind of spontaneity.”
The Venetian ghetto is widely considered to be the oldest in Europe–dating back to the 16th century–but isn’t particularly well-known amongst visitors. It’s located in Cannaregio, in the northern part of the city, and is one of Riccardo’s favourite spots for taking pictures of the locals. He explains: “There are very different communities there…and it hasn’t been explored as much. I was stalking that poor market [in the neighbourhood] for three days because people told me that it’s one of the few spots where you can find real, local people.”
Riccardo looked for the diversity that the average visitor, and his childhood self, wouldn’t expect to come across in Venice. And in this series, we see just how dynamic the city can be: there’s the Orthodox Jewish men, a nun shopping in the market, a fish vendor, children playing, those who commute via boat. These are the locals, the people who really make up Venice.
I ask about his favourite place in Venice, what else is hidden behind the obvious tourist sights, winding streets and plethora of little photogenic bridges. He is keen to tell me of a recent discovery. Strolling around the city this summer, he came upon a monastery next to San Francesco della Vigna (in the Castello area of the city). Within the monastery, hidden away from all but the most intrepid, there was a tiny, hidden chapel. “I was about to leave the church, then I saw it,” he recalls. “You had to actually go down stairs to get into it, and at the bottom there was this beautiful painting by Bellini.” This hidden gem, majestic and unexpected, is just one of the many secrets that the city has to offer–secrets that, through the eyes and images of the young photographer, the rest of the world is finally getting a glimpse of too.