Wandering and Wondering

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Visit to a Jewish Synagogue

Today we visited the Jewish Synagogue in Florence for my World Religions class. The synagogue is located relatively close to where I live and is characterized by a large green dome that is easily visible from many parts of the city. The design is very interesting due to a mix of both Moorish/Islamic and Catholic architectural styles.

Jewish Synagogue in Florence

From 1570 to 1865 there was a Jewish ghetto in Florence where the Piazza della Republica is currently located. When the ghetto was closed down, the Jewish community began building the synagogue and it was officially opened in 1882.

When the Nazis occupied Italy during the second world war, many Jewish families were dressed to look like Catholics and were hidden in private Italian houses. The synagogue itself sustained a lot of damage, but the precious Torah scrolls (on which are written the word of God as it was handed down to Moses on Mt Sinai) were kept safe by hiding them in the countryside.

Many of the scrolls were lost, however, during the great flood of 1966. Even though the synagogue is located quite a long way away from the river, the water level rose to 2 metres above the floor and a faint line is still visible on the walls.

Today there are around 1000 members of the Jewish community who attend the synagogue, and there is a restoration program underway to restore it to its former glory.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Learning Photography

I’ve been reviewing some of my most popular photos on Flickr in terms of the number of times they have been viewed by other people and the number of comments that have been left. It is interesting that one of my most popular photos isn’t very good in terms of the raw image quality (the main reason for this being that it was taken with my camera phone), but simply captures an interesting moment when I was at the train station on the way home from Viareggio:

Chaos at the train station

As was highlighted in the Born into Brothels movie which I recently watched, it just goes to show that you don’t necessarily need to have an expensive camera to shoot great photos (although in certain situations it can certainly help!).

For another popular photo I was lucky enough to press the shutter button on my camera at just the right moment (albeit after several attempts):


The more I learn about photography, the more I realize the huge amount of stuff that I don’t know. It certainly requires a lot of patience. For every single photo you need to wait for the right moment, look for the best angle to shoot from, choose the appropriate camera settings, frame the shot and finally click the shutter button. Then when I get home I need to go through all of the photos, work out why some worked and some didn’t, select the best ones, do some editing if necessary and finally print and/or upload.

A lot of the time I’m still shooting in either full or semi-automatic mode (eg aperture priority or shutter priority). There is still a lot that I need to learn about all of the different manual settings on my camera and the effect they have on the final photo before I’m ready to shoot in full manual mode all of the time.

As my photojournalism lecturer said, the best way to learn photography is to shoot lots of photos and look at lots of photos. No problems for me there: I’m soon going to need another hard drive for my laptop to store all of my photos.

PS: Happy birthday to both Dad and Ben if you are reading this!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Photojournalism Ethics

Today I was out shooting some photos for this week’s photojournalism assignment. We were given a magazine article from which the picture had been removed, and we had to capture an appropriate photo to go with the story. The article, titled Se son fritte siamo fritti from L’espresso magazine, talks about a possible link between eating french fries and cancer. Basically, I needed some photos of people eating at McDonald’s.

For my previous assignments, pretty much everyone in my photos was aware that they were having their picture taken. This assignment, however, required some stealth photography. I generally feel uncomfortable doing this sort of photography, and I had my concerns over the ethics of such an assignment. In recent years photojournalists have had a lot of negative publicity (the worst being when the paparazzi were blamed for Princess Diana’s death) and I don’t want to add to this negative image.

With mixed thoughts in my head, I set out with my trio of cameras (SLR, camera phone and the inbuilt webcam on my laptop). I first visited the McDonalds inside the train station, which has a staircase leading to a raised eating area above the service counters. From the middle of the staircase I had a great view over the top of the service counters, so I got my camera phone out and started taking a few snaps. A staff member must have seen me, because I was kindly asked to move on.

I next visited a McDonalds outside on the street. I found a position on the opposite side of the street from the restaurant where I could sit and watch with my telephoto lens. I got a few good snaps of people leaving the restaurant, as well as a guy who was sitting outside eating, before I decided to venture inside. Putting my SLR away, which would attract far too much attention, I took out my laptop and started taking a few photos with the webcam while pretending to be working on something else. I obviously didn’t disguise myself very well, however, because a staff member cottoned onto what I was doing and made me delete all of the photos I had taken. Luckily I still had the ones I’d taken with my camera phone and SLR.

As I’m writing this blog article back at home, I’m still debating the ethics in my mind. Should I have asked the permission of every single person before taking their photo? If this rule was followed by every photographer, then the majority of the great photos that I saw in a recent World Press Photo exhibit wouldn’t exist.

As a compromise, I’ve decided that I’m not going to upload any of the photos from this assignment to my Flickr website. After all, I wouldn’t want a picture of myself eating McDonalds plastered all over the web. In the future, provided that I don’t have any more assignments like this one, I’ve also decided that the goal of my photography will be to try and highlight the positive aspects of people and places rather than negative aspects. I think this will be particularly important when I visit Africa in the second half of this year, because Africa is too often depicted in the media in a negative sense. Don’t get me wrong: I still think that atrocities such as wars, famine and natural disasters need to be photographed, just not by me. In the end, ethics is about what helps you get to sleep at night, and I personally sleep much better with a positive image in my mind.

For more information on ethics in photography, check out the following websites:
  1. Good summary of the basic ethics for photographers: http://commfaculty.fullerton.edu/lester/writings/photoethics.html
  2. Interesting discussion on ethics in photojournalism: http://photo.net/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg?msg_id=00AZHT
  3. Article about privacy and photography: http://photography.about.com/library/weekly/aa060399.htm

Friday, February 23, 2007

Hooray for the weekend!

For my first couple of weeks in Florence I was diligently keeping my blog up to date with a new post every couple of days, so you may be wondering why this is the first post I’ve made for almost two weeks (although if you’ve been checking my Flickr website you’ll see that I’ve been uploading lots of photos). It certainly hasn’t been for lack of stuff to write about. On the contrary, I’ve been so busy that I simply haven’t had the time to write.

I know what you’re thinking: “You only have 12.5 contact hours per week for university, so you should have plenty of free time. Don’t you spend most of your time just lazing around in bars drinking coffee or strolling around admiring the beautiful buildings and artwork?” This is exactly what I was thinking it would be like before I left, but the reality is a little different. It had been 9 years since I was last at university, and I had forgotten how much time and effort is involved (reading, assignments, studying for tests, etc). Together with all of the extra-curricular activities and field trips that I am involved in, this means that I have very little free time. In fact, I haven’t had a “free” day where I’ve had nothing planned for quite a while, which is why I’m looking forward to this weekend.

To give you an idea of what I’ve been up to over the last couple of weeks, here is a day by day summary (with links to some photos on my Flickr website if you are interested in more details):

Sunday 4th February: In the afternoon I went for a walk around Piazza Michelangelo which has great views of Florence. In the evening we had our university welcome party at a disco called "Space Electronic". Some people stayed up to watch the Super Bowl afterwards, but having no interest in American Football I left fairly early.

The Duomo as viewd from Piazza Michelangelo

Monday: Italian class at midday, followed by an interview with Nicola Cocchi for a photojournalism assignment (see the earlier blog entry that I posted on this). In the evening we headed out to some sports fields to play soccer for a couple of hours in the freezing cold. I hate to admit it, but many of the girls I play with/against put me to shame. Fabrizio, the guy who organizes the Monday night sports, is an ex-professional soccer player.

Monday night soccer

Tuesday: Dance class, World Religions class and Photoshop class. Tuesday is my busiest day in terms of classes. For Photoshop class we got to create a composition using images of Angelina Jolie. In the evening I went to a Connecting Cultures workshop where we learned about some of the false impressions and stereotypes that people have about Italy (such as the stereotype that all Italians love soccer, as mentioned in one of my previous posts).

Wednesday: Italian class in the morning. Study in the afternoon.

Thursday: Photojournalism class in the morning. Initial meeting for the university newsletter in the evening. Over the course of the semester we’ll be publishing a total of 4 newsletters and a magazine.

Meeting to discuss the school newsletter

Friday: Visit to the Vasarian Corridor in the morning. Oltrano walking tour in the afternoon. Cleaning the house in preparation for Ben and Lucille’s visit.

Saturday: Ben and Lucille arrived and after catching up on what they’ve been doing on the rest of their honeymoon and what has been happening back in Australia we visited the Duomo and climbed the Cupolla. In the evening I cooked a roast tomato and spinach pasta.

Red tiled roofs of Florence as viewed from the top of the Duomo
Good food, good wine, good friends

Sunday: Visited Sienna with Ben and Lucille. Took lots of photos of Piazza del Campo for a photojournalism assignment.

Confetti hair. Piazza del Campo.

Monday: Italian class. Cooked some Cannelloni for Ben and Lucille.

Spinach and Ricotta Canneloni

Tuesday: Dance class, World Religions class and Photoshop class. In Photoshop class we began creating a postcard.

Wednesday: Italian class at midday. In the evening we watched a screening of the Italian film L’Ultimo Bacio to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Thursday: Photojournalism class in the morning, newsletter meeting in the evening. The first issue of the newsletter is now out, and contains two articles that I wrote: one about the Vasarian corridor, and one about Nicola Cocchi. You can now officially call me a (photo)journalist. You can read the newsletter here.

Friday: Invited my neighbor Nita over for dinner.

Saturday: Visited the Museo Nazionale Alinari della Fotografia (a photography musem) with Nita. They had an exhibition by photographer Walker Evans on the Great Depression in America.

Sunday: Field trip to Viareggio Carnivale. We got up early in the morning and took the 1.5 hour train ride from Florence to Viareggio. The museum that we had planned on visiting was closed, so we got our Carnivale tickets and watched them setting up some of the floats. By lunchtime the place was packed with people, and I had to wait in line for around 30 minutes to get my “fish and chips” (if you could call it that) for lunch. Despite this, it was a very fun and jovial atmosphere with kids and adults alike running around and spraying everyone with foam and confetti (myself and my camera included). The actual parade started at around 3pm, and the floats were enormous. For a similar type of parade in Australia you would expect barriers to hold people back. At Viareggio, however, everyone was dancing in the streets right alongside the floats. Once the parade finished we headed back to the train station for the ride home and there was absolute chaos as hundreds of people packed the platform. Half of our group got on the wrong train which was about the leave for Rome, but luckily they realised in time and we all made it home safely. For more details, check out my photos or the detailed report by bootsintheoven.

Foam Face. Viareggio Carnivale.

Monday: For this week’s photojournalism assignment we had to follow someone around for a day and create a mini documentary of their life. I chose my neighbor Nita. In the morning I followed her as she took out the trash, went to the Laundromat, did her grocery shopping and had a cappuccino. I then had to duck off to Italian class before meeting up with her again in the afternoon at the office of The Florentine newspaper where she is editor in chief. On Monday evening it was off to soccer again.

Tuesday: Dance class, World Religions class, Photoshop class.

Wednesday: Italian class at midday. In the evening I went to a famous (and expensive) restaurant in Florence called Sabatini with a couple of guys who are studying at Apicius (a cooking/culinary school). We were on an assignment to write a restaurant review for the university newsletter, and I was the official photographer.

Sabatini restaurant

Thursday: We had our photojournalism class in the morning as usual. In the evening we watched movie called Born into Brothels, which is about a group of kids in Calcutta, India, who were born into a brothel. A photographer from New York gives them each a camera and teaches them photography. Highly recommended viewing, especially if you are interested in photography.

Friday (today): This morning we had a catch-up Photoshop class because our teacher will be away next week. The new project we have started working on is to create a self portrait. We were shown some of the tips and tricks for touching up photos. Stay tuned for the final result.

So, as you can see, I’ve been keeping myself quite busy. Not that I’m complaining: it’s all in the name of fun!

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Nicola Cocchi

Piazza Ciompi and surrounding streets in the Santa Croce district of Florence are home to an array of interesting antique shops and stalls. Many Florentines visit the area to hunt out bargains, especially on the last Sunday of every month when the area is closed off to traffic and vendors set up stalls along the streets.

Piazza Ciompi Antique Market

Apart from the sale of antiques, restoration is also an important business. Meet Nicola Cocchi, who operates an antique restoration workshop on Borgo Allegri.

Meet Nicola Cocchi

One of the many tasks which Nicola undertakes as part of his work is the creation of ornamental statuettes. The plaster figure is first created from a silicone mould.

Plaster cast

23.75 carat gold leaf (ie 99% pure gold) is then applied in small pieces until the entire figure is coated.

Applying the gold leaf

Nicola has been doing this kind of work for over 15 years, and has a real passion for his job. “Io amo veramente il mio lavoro”. (I really love my job).

Nicola holding the finished piece

Friday, February 9, 2007

Oltrano walking tour and L'Ippogrifo Stampe D'Arte

Today I went on a walking tour to Oltrano, "the other side of the river", with a small group from university.

Oltrano walking tour

We visited a traditional printing laboratory called L'Ippogrifo Stampe D'Arte, which still uses the same technique that was originally developed in Florence over 500 years ago.

Front entrance to L'Ippogrifo Stampe d'Arte

The store is owned and operated by artist Gianni Raffaelli and his wife. After some brief introductions, Gianni was kind enough to explain the printing process to us.

Artist Gianni Raffaelli explains the printing process

Originally, this printing technique was mainly used for the printing of technical documents:

Original print of a technical document

These days it is only used for art:

Original print of a landscape in Rome

To create the prints, a copper plate is first coated with a protective wax and the artwork is drawn into the wax.

Creating the copper etching

The plate is then immersed in acid, which eats away at the exposed copper and forms etchings.

Copper etching from which the prints are made

The next step involves coating the copper etching with ink.

Coating the etching with ink

Finally, the copper etching is placed underneath a sheet of paper and passed through a press.

Placing the etching and paper in the press

At the end, we have a fabulous original print!

The finished print

All in all it was a great afternoon out in Florence. Many thanks to Gianni Raffaelli and his wife for their time.

Oltrano walking tour group photo

From the left: Michael, Kelly, Candice, Martina (our leader) and Ishmael.

Oltrano walking tour group photo

From the left: Michael, Kelly, Darren (photographer), Martina (our leader) and Ishmael.

Vasarian Corridor

The Vasarian Corridor is a secret passageway high above the streets of Florence that runs one kilometre from the Uffizi Gallery, over the Ponte Vecchio, to the Palazzo Pitti.

Vasarian Corridor

The corridor houses a large number of prestigious paintings and self portraits from the 16th to the 20th century.

Artwork lining the walls of the Vasarian Corridor

Normally the corridor isn't open to the general public, as evidenced by these two guards at the Palazzo Pitti entrance.

Guarding the entrance to the Vasarian Corridor

Study Abroad Italy students were given an exclusive opportunity to see inside the corridor, something that many locals have never experienced.

Walking through the Vasarian Corridor

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Highs and Lows (Alto e Basso)

My first week in Florence was a bit surreal. One minute I would be chatting online to friends and listening to music as though I hadn’t left home, and the next minute I would walk out my front door onto the streets of Florence and wonder how I got here.

In the last week or so some of the initial excitement has started to wear off. Although most days I’m still on a high there have been a few days where a little frustration and loneliness have gotten the better of me. When I first met my neighbor Nita and asked her how she found living in Florence, she mentioned that when she is feeling a bit down it can feel worse than it really is, because friends and family are far away (although now that she has been living here 3 years, she has obviously made a lot of new friends).

Last weekend, for instance, I had a bit of a cold and was struggling with my Italian, wondering if I should drop back to an easier level. Being all alone in my apartment, I was also feeling a bit lonely. The “odd one out” feeling didn’t help either (only Australian at the university, only person in my age group, only guy in the dance class).

My gloomy outlook quickly turned around, however, as soon as Monday came around and I was back at university with a bit of human contact. It was good to talk to other students and find out that they are also struggling with their Italian, so I realized that I wasn’t alone.The other great cure for loneliness while travelling is the Internet. Nita is letting me share her wireless internet connection, meaning that I can be online almost permanently at both home and university (where they also have wireless). The only problem with Nita’s internet connection is that it has frequent drop-outs. At one stage last week it was down for a couple of days. Like most people these days, I’ve become so dependent on the internet that when the connection is down it is almost like losing a body part.

Conversations in Italian (Conversazione in Italiano)

These are some of the [very] small conversations I’ve been having over the last few days as I try out my Italian. As well as helping to improve my Italian skills, talking with the locals also helps improve my understanding of the culture. Disclaimer: My interpretation and translation of the conversations are subject to error.

Highlighting my ignorance about the time of year when basil is grown, I had the following conversation with a signora at the Sant’ Ambrogio fresh produce market:

Darren: [Pointing to a green looking herb that looks similar to basil]. “E questa basillico?” (Is this basil?).
Signora: [With a laugh]. “No, non e questa basillico! E troppo freddo per basillico.” (No, this isn’t basil! It is too cold for basil.)

The following conversation I had with an Italian student at a “Connecting Cultures” workshop run by the university highlighted my false impression that all Italians love soccer:

Darren: “Gioci calico?” (Do you play soccer?).
Italian student: “No, non mi piace calcio" (No, I don’t like soccer).

Not expecting anyone, I was surprised the other day when the doorbell rang in my apartment:

Darren: [Answering the intercom]. “Buongiorno” (Good morning).
Postman: “Buongiorno. Puoi aprire la porta, per favore? Sono il postino.” (Good morning. Can you please open the door? I am the postman.)
Darren: [Buzzing him in]. “Si, certo”. (Yes, certainly).

All of the mailboxes are located inside the security door for the block of apartments, so whenever the mailman has some mail to deliver, he needs someone to let him in. I’m not sure what happens to the mail when nobody is home.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Football suspended in Italy

A friend Chris alterted me to the breaking news that football has been suspended in Italy after a police officer was killed during a riot at a match in Sicily. More info in this article.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Kingsley's Crossing

I attended my first photojournalism class today. Feels like it should be an interesting course. At the very least, it will force me to become less shy about going up and chatting to random people that I meet, which I haven't been so good at in the past. Amongst other things, the lecturer showed us a very moving piece of photojournalism entitled "Kingsley's Crossing" by French photojournalist Olivier Jobard:

Click on the above image to view the photos.

The Flashpacker Phenomenon

My old uni friend Guy (aka "Gusto") just alerted me to the new term "flashpacker", which I hadn't heard about before. The Flashpacker Diaries website describes flashpackers as follows:

"They are individuals who are perhaps a little older than the post-Uni, pre-life 21 year old backpacker, who have a larger budget but less time. Flashpacking is for those people who prefer a little quality and have the means to pay for it."
I took the Flashpacker Quiz, and got all C's apart from question 4 (although I would like to buy 20 acres of protected equatorial rainforest, I don't have quite that much money to throw around). Even though I generally dislike stereotypes, I guess that makes me an official "flashpacker".

There is also an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Photo Cafe

Found this really cool photo screensaver called PhotoCafe which can download photos from the web, including flickr, and display them along with photos from your local machine.