The Lagoon

by Dax

Thousands of people flock to Venice each day to endulge themselves in romantic strolls and views of the canals, the bridges and the piazzas, and the overpriced food and ice cream. I guess somewhere in the back of their minds there’s a vague recollection of a documentary or news or tiny bit of extra info served along some seasonal news about Venice, that mentioned this historical city sinking. Watching the sites, minding the crowd they forget about it. And honestly, why not. They’re tourists, what can they do. It’s the way things have been done for ages in Venice. Crowds of people trodding on uneven streets that are sinking beneath their weight, and water buses and taxis (and gondolas of course) going back and fourth every minute of the day, creating waves that pound the cracked walls of buildings and weaken the foundations.

Venice is just an island built on wooden poles. Most of the wood came from Slovenia’s Karst region. But the island is only the heart of a very big body. And as we know the heart is affected by other parts of the body. When things aren’t well elsewhere in the system, the heart will suffer as well. Kill a vital organ and the heart dies as well. In that sense, the Venice lagoon is the entire body. It covers 550 square kilometers. So I guess the famous island is almost in proportion to the human heart and it’s body. Only 8% of the area is land. Everything else is shallow waters.

Speaking of mere anatomy, the head, sort of the thickest organ and the frontline of the protection of the lagoon are probably the barrier islands of Lido and Pellestrina. They protect the lagoon from high waves coming from the Adriatic. They are also enforced by a strong coastline and a high breakwater wall called the murazzi. There are more than 50 internal organs – the islands, and 1,500 km of vascular system – a network of canals. Sure, it looks like the rest is the sea, but you could be standing in the middle of a vast body of water and have the water up to your chest, because the avarage depth of the lagoon is only 1,5 m.

The mouth of the lagoon are the inlets Lido, Malamocco and Chioggia. Like a human body, this one also ingests a lot of junk food like oil tankers and excessively huge cruise ships that displace a lot of water and cause waves that are damaging in the long term. And the long term is pretty much over. The body has too frequent digestive problems, the reflux in this case could just as well be the acqua alta or high tides, and the disappearing salt marshes or barene, together with the deepening shallow waters and mudflats or velme could be described as gradual liver failure. So here comes the diet.

My mom tried tens of diets in recent years. All of them had fancy names and not that much effect. But then again, the diet itself wasn’t to blame. So when she came up with another one, I aptly named it “GOBBLELESS”. A bit of a tonguetwister in English, but quite a nice name in Slovenian: “Manžri”. And it sounds French and fancy. Didn’t work though. But that’s the same diet used for Venice.

The Consorzio Venezia Nuova has been doing work around the lagoon to protect the islands, the salt marshes and mudflats for decades. Their biggest project however is the controversial MOSE project of the barriers. It’s like shutting the overeater’s mouth. Four barriers will be installed in the three inlets. The barriers consist of gates that can be independently raised to protect the lagoon from high water. Otherwise the gates lay safely flat on the bottom of the inlet. So that’s the new diet, but we kind of know that the ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising and … In the very long run, our dieter will probably start overeating again and I guess nothing will save him from heart failure eventually. But you never know.

I realized a while ago that many of my documentary stories have something to do about saving. “Saving the Sad Lake” – a story about saving lake Cerknica in Slovenia from permanently drying out. “Saving the Marble Trout” – saving the autochton Marble Trout from extinction. And now I’m doing a story about saving the Venetian lagoon, a large ecosystem fueled by the channels and consisting of the same velme and barene that are disappearing. In fact, the first two stories are the reason I’m doing this one at all. And I really like it.

However, my visual style and editing changed a lot since then. I always seem to embark on a sinking ship and even when I’m bailing out I get on a leaking liferaft. So two years ago I decided to keep to my own recognizable style, the one that got me Slovenia Press Photo Awards, but it’s black & white, strong contrast, high structure, grain – basically Kodak black & white films, usually 400. That’s all fine and dandy, but since monochrome images have always been harder to market and are next to impossible to market now, unless you’re one of the crème de la crème from VII, Noor, Magnum and maybe some other (VU, Getty Reportage), a relatively unknown photographer like me has a snowball’s chance in hell to make it. Yes, it’s important, because my last name isn’t exactly Trump. I have to make money and this is how I do it. And no, I am NOT doing all these stories for money (of course not! I’m happy to get half of what I spend on them.), but if I want to continue producing them, well, I need to get money from somewhere. Anyway, even though I have an edit in colour, a distinct aesthetic style in that version as well, it’s still hard to let go of BW. It’s easier now, though, because I have a colour style that is really great. And I really like these kinds of stories whether they’re in BW or colour.

The work for this story for Terre Sauvage magazine should have three phases, now it seem it’ll be four. The bulk of all the work was done during my first visit in mid September. I was there with a French journalist and I have to emphasise right away that I’m not used to such professional journalists here. Everything was at waaaay higher levels of professional skills. The questions, the detailed understanding of the story, the conversations, interviews …

Pretty long way from our country where national television sends a cameraman to a press conference to film it and hands him a piece of paper with questions on it, because they don’t have “money” to send a journalist, and a stills camera to take some pictures for the website as well. It is also very far from too many journalists here, who ask downright dumb questions and then accept whatever answer they get without any subquestions or clearing out of stuff that maybe isn’t really explained enough.

We’ve seen practically everything on our first day. We didn’t mean to, but we were actually looking for a map of the lagoon. Amazingly, it’s like searching for a map of Vladivostok in Rio De Janeiro. We went to gas stations, a tourist information centre in Marghera, then we went to Venice itself, to the railway station, then to Marco Polo airport and to some three or four information desks and kiosks… No success. We even drove to a shopping center in Mestre to try and find it in a book store, but again without success. So we just gave up. Well, that was a good start.

The people were very kind. Two days into our stay we were locals. We found a great restaurant in a nearby village, later we found a place where they make awesome sandwiches, and a place with homemade sweets to kill for. I think they put some drugs into those doughnuts, because I’m genuinly addicted. I’d drive from Slovenia to Venice in the morning just to have that doughnut for breakfast. When we were there, I even braved the dangerous crossings of a road where one wrong step would get your mind off those doughnuts and on all over a big speeding truck! The biggest obstacle on our way was the most horrible road I’ve ever seen. It’s the Venice – Chioggia motorway. Cars and even the biggest trucks go almost a 100 km/h, there’s no traffic lights, no crossings no sidewalks and not even any margins for cyclists. That would still be ok, but there are villages and bus stops along this extremelly busy road. And a lot of suicidal people! They actually ride bicycles along it, some even with small children. (Ok, sometimes I’d get that.) But I’d cross it a hundred times for that doughnut. :)

In four days we took a tour of the lagoon, visited the WWF park, went patroling with the police and took a tour of the MOSE construction site of the flood gates. I stayed another three days after the journalist left. I needed shots of some areas that are important in the story of the protection of the lagoon. What happened was that I walked more than I walked in two years combined. In three days, I covered some 40 km on foot. Oh, sure it doesn’t sound much, but consider the time in which I did it (up to 15 km in 3-4h) and the fact that I was carrying a shitload of equipment! After two days, I wanted to saw my legs off, but I abandoned the idea, because I wasn’t going to search for a saw in the entire Veneto area (who knows, they don’t even have maps :)).

On my final day, I went to bid farewell to my love, the vanilla cream filled doughnut, and I was on my way to the north lagoon. Little did I know that the entire population of Venetian mosquitos was planning an ambush. So I got very deep into the lagoon, among the canals, the barene and the velme, and all the rotting vegetation. It was almost dark. Perfect timing. You could hear the thousands of mosquitoes laughing. After five minutes feeling like a punch bowl with the entire party sticking their straws in me and drinking I was anemic. :) Luckily I had a scarf. For all of those who make fun of photographers wearing a scarf, well, good luck with the bloodsuckers without it. The last time I took so many non-action pictures so fast was on a plane over a carthusia when I could hear the costs piling up with every minute in the air. :) So after the speed shooting I jumped in my car and drove off.

It turned out getting into the lagoon by car wasn’t as difficult as getting back on the A2 highway towards Slovenia. Especially if you have a navigational moron in your car. My GPS navigation is totally demented. She (because it’s a woman’s voice, don’t have a fit, please) gave me problems on my way to Venice as well. Wanted to see Gorizia for some reason, so she kept insisting I get off the A2 and head there. I was almost parallel to the lagoon, when she still insisted I go back to Gorizia. Hopeless romantic. This is the gps that used to go EVERYWHERE over the Loibl pass. Fears dark places. It used to demand a U turn in the middle of the Karawanken tunnel. Vengeful. Out of spite, it didn’t want to find the Loibl pass – when we were in Klagenfurt!!!! You can imagine I’m quite pissed off with this thing.

So here I am, my legs begging me to cut them off, trapped in a dark small metal casket with a couple of mosquitoes hiding in dark shadows, three hours to get home and the bitch decides she wants to see Trieste. And she wanted to see every single village on our way there. Finally I told her to go f* herself and just followed the first sign towards the A2 when I spotted it. And I was home in no time. Well, not exactly. I was in Slovenia in no time, but Slovenian highways are more like noways. I waited in traffic for over an hour. Typical. And the story is far from over. There’s still many things to photograph.