There are places that never change, and that is what makes Eraclea Mare so lovable. This tiny village on the Adriatic coast just North of Venice is a lost place with a huge pine forest and the crowded Italian beaches.
Sometimes, I get a coffee in the only four star hotel and for three euros I can log into their network to get some updates via internet, which is otherwise unavailable. It is the perfect place to relax and forget about the normal daily routine.
In August, and especially around Assumption day, this is where I meet my Italian family.
I left the country more than three decades ago, to discover the world and save the planet as an ecologist. I lived and worked in the Amazon basin studying forests and wetlands, and for 15 years now I’ve lived on the French Riviera. But I love to come back to visit my “mamma” in Eraclea Mare every summer for a few days or weeks, every year.
As part of my work as a tropical ecologist, I was on the world’s most paradisiacal beaches. But neither the Caribbean, Great Barrier Reef or Cuban Cayo Largo, the Namibian coast or Vietnam’s Halong Bay can keep up with the feeling of “home”!
In search of this feeling, it is wonderful when things do not change. The men are still playing boccia in their tight bathing trunks, while the women chat standing in the warm sea water reaching up to their thighs. Coloured towels and bright umbrellas shine on the sand dunes. Behind the sand lies the endless pine forest – like a rock in the struggle against the heat of climate change and the ubiquitous real estate sharks. On the wide beach, children build castles in the malleable sand. At lunchtime, a colourful stream of people strolls back across the dunes into the shade of the pine forest for an hour-long lunch with the family. I feel normality, the relaxed feeling of being in an ideal world, in a place where I can switch off. I even find my way back to boredom here, an initially unsettling but then very relaxing feeling.
So far, I have always been deeply immersed in this culture, which makes it difficult to understand this society and question what seems so normal. But this year something is new. And that is my own view.
I have been growing as a street photographer and this discipline has allowed me to mature and see my surroundings through the eyes of Alex Webb or Garry Winogrand. After absorbing the works of Duane Michals, Joel Meyerowitz and Vivian Maier for a few years now, I can’t help but observe the world from a different perspective – even here, where everything is so familiar.
I am slowly learning to lean back into the role of an outside observer and develop a different, new perspective. It is not easy to change the perspective, but when it works, a Martin Parr film suddenly starts playing!
I wanted to avoid photographing skimpy swimwear and plump bodies, so I found a more neutral focus: unicorns and flamingos! There are also begging swans on the beach, but they are kind of boring. The colourful, giant plastic birds, on the other hand, pop in their colours and are omnipresent in their gigantic proportions. They float on the calm water, lie picturesquely on the beach or transform into brightly coloured spots with human legs.
One day, a seven-year-old Austrian boy went missing and life came to a standstill with loudspeaker announcements and police calls. I offered myself to help out as a translator. When I saw the tattoo of a unicorn on the desperate mother’s shoulder blade, I thought: this is a sign. The boy was found after an hour. He had kept on walking on the endless beach and, since everything looks the same, he couldn’t find his way back.
From that day on, I spent the rest of my family vacation looking for colourful plastic unicorns. The coloured plastic stuff in the water literally inspired my holiday ease. In vacation mode, corona stress and everyday work were far away.
Instead of being horrified and worried about the increasing amounts of rubbish and tiny plastic particles in the waters of our beautiful planet, for once I was delighted at the thought of plastic in the sea.
It was easy to go unnoticed with my small camera. The people saw me but did not care at all, they were too relaxed to think anything bad and continued to enjoy the sun and holiday atmosphere. I enjoyed the search for the mythical plastic creatures in horse form and their pink bird counterparts. And suddenly, through my camera, I saw this familiar world with the eyes of a street photographer.
I could observe my own compatriots from a different angle, with a loving smile but also a curious, distant, intrigued feeling.
The change of perspective which I experienced through street photography was a gift. Although I’ve been part of that beach culture for decades, training my eye has now allowed me to step out. Similar to John Steinbeck on his “Travels with Charley”, I can look at my own countrymen from a different, more distant perspective – just by using my camera.
Street photography is perfectly suited to observe, and reproduce, an image of the society that surrounds me. The noblest of all mythical animals, the unicorn, is a symbol of the good and it allowed me to interact with the people and to get a clearer idea of what life is all about here. As long as I was a part of it, I could not really understand what life is about in Northern Italy: what makes people happy, how they live their relaxed lives, the family, the traditions and cultural habits. I have visited foreign countries around the globe and now I realize that this one right here is just as exotic.
So, I drink my delicious cappuccino at the same beach bar as always and I am glad that some places – like Eraclea Mare – never change. And I am thankful that with street photography, I now see everything so much more differentiated and profound than ever before.