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Viaggio in Bonifica is a project involving 12 photographers marking the 100th anniversary of the land reclamation works around the Venice lagoon. I was commissioned to photograph the four major rivers of the area: Sile, Piave, Livenza and Tagliamento. The following text accompanied my images in the book and exhibition. 

In 2016 the English poet, Kae Tempest, was commissioned by the BBC to write a piece about Dungeness: a somewhat disquieting, barren landscape on the coast of England. In it she asked herself, “How do you write a poem about a place that is a poem?” A similar question came to mind when I started photographing the area of the land reclamation around the Venice Lagoon and its four main rivers: Piave, Sile, Livenza and Tagliamento. I already knew the Piave well after shooting a project around it some years ago: occasionally beautiful, loaded with history, it is one of Europe's most artificialised rivers. The Sile I had explored by bicycle with my family: an elegant river that seemed to flow as gently as its name. The Livenza and Tagliamento were less known to me but I soon discovered a kind of poetry along their riverbanks too.

These rivers have seen their nature altered over the centuries; their courses diverted away from Venice as they flow into the lagoon, their banks raised artificially with earth and concrete, a wide no-man’s land often running beside them between the river and the road, itself raised in safety as if on a platform. These are the signs of a managed landscape but also of a new landscape created by the Bonifica. A landscape that never existed in the past, that is at the same time natural yet unnatural, beautiful yet brutal.


I had these things in mind as I considered how to approach the project, how to respond to a place that is so strangely balanced between the functional and the poetic. Of course rivers are always poetic; their banks, bridges and the very flow of their waters are loaded with symbolism. However, the idea of the poetic carries a certain distrust amongst Documentary Landscape photographers. There's a sense that serious photography should be detached and impersonal with little place for visual seduction. At university I remember studying the English photographer, PH Emerson, who made a series of images in the late 1800s around the Norfolk Broads: another region where land and water merge. Emerson was at odds with his contemporaries in the art establishment. He hated the elaborately manipulated ‘tableau’ photographs of the time and their pretentious claims to art. Instead he argued the case for straight photography, confident enough to describe and document the social landscape with its own visual language. What I admired most about Emerson was his ability to combine this idea of straight documentation with a very personal and often poetic interpretation. This would become my approach to the project: hoping to find a balance between documenting the rivers and their environment and offering a personal sense of what the place actually feels like.


The images presented here were shot through the winter months, using an old Hasselblad film camera and travelling up and down the rivers by bicycle: a kind of Winterreise that for sure effected my relationship with the place I was photographing. It’s a difficult, fragile landscape whose charms are often hidden. That is probably why it remains off the radar of most photographers. But charm, and poetry, can be found here and I hope that these images, together with those of other photographers in the project, will begin to offer a visual identity to this unusual yet fascinating landscape.


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