Venice is always a city full of water—canals and tides that occasionally cause several inches of ocean to seep into the streets. But on Nov. 13, Venice saw the highest water levels in decades, up to six feet in some places, a flood so destructive that the mayor to declared a state of emergency. Within the week, there was another flood of several feet. Then another.
The extreme flooding is due to a few factors: Climate change and sea level rise have made the tide-related floods more severe. And the city’s canals have been modified to accommodate cruise ships; as a side effect, they now let in more water. For the people who live in Venice, the uptick in floods is another challenge to deal with along with rising rents and infrastructure that caters primarily to visitors. Italian photojournalist Marco Panzetti has been paying regular visits to the city to document the effects of over-tourism for a project called #Venice—a video he shot in August depicts a mammoth cruise ship taking over a scenic view in a residential neighborhood. He was also there during the historic week of flooding, and he documented what the city looked like, and how residents and tourists coped. I spoke to him about what he saw. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Shannon Palus: Do you need special equipment with all that water?
Marco Panzetti: I bought these boots that go to your hips. I have a case for my camera. It’s waterproof, but not very waterproof—just a little bit to avoid crashing the camera with a little bit of water. It was also raining, so I had a cover for me. The big problem is in the lowest part of the city, Piazza San Marco. There, the water reaches higher levels. I was mainly working there, it’s the most iconic place in the city. So there during the big floods, I had the water up to my hips. Those boots were useful, but I had some water coming in. The local photographers are used to it, they know how to do it. There were photographers from other parts of Italy in the same condition I was in.
Did you pick up tricks from local photographers?
There’s a moment when such a big flood happens that they close the lowest part of the city, the main square. They want to avoid tourists from going in—you always have the tourist that puts on a swimsuit and throws himself into the water. When the square is closed, you basically only have photographers and journalists going into the square. You don’t want to end up with photos of other photographers. When the water starts to go down, they reopen the square. So there’s this exact moment when you can have people going into the square, with very high water, and they’re not journalists. You have to be ready.
One of the aspects that I learned by being there, the shops and restaurants on the ground floor, when they have a normal flood, they put wooden barriers at the entrances of their shops. When you go there as a non-Venetian, you think OK, if the water stays below the level of this barrier, they are safe. But it’s not actually true. The water comes into the shop from your toilet as well. The barrier that you have at the door is not very useful. You need to have a pump to pump out the water. But the pump is connected to the electric system. So when the water reaches a certain level, the electricity goes out. It becomes a snowball effect: The more water you have, the more water you will have. Everyone at the ground floor lost almost everything last week.
What did the water smell like?
It smells like sewage. It’s dirty because it comes from the toilets, because of the garbage left out in the streets, and the water takes the garbage in. There were groups of volunteers trying to help by moving the garbage from the street level to a higher level.
Was it hard to walk around in?
Depending on where you are. If you are in the main square or the open spaces, the water is changing faster, it’s not so dirty. If you’re in the small alleys, it becomes very smelly. It’s hard to move. You have to go very slowly, you have to keep your feet close to the ground. If you don’t do that, you start throwing water into the houses of the people, and they get annoyed, and into the other people passing by. People just stay in their houses if they can. If they go out, it’s because they have to do something to protect their house or shop.
You have a beautiful photograph of a bookstore. How were they coping with the flood?
The bookshop is a famous one. It’s called Aqua Alta, meaning high tide. The shop is near a very low area, they know that it is going to be flooded from time to time. They also have a used book policy: They buy books that are used, and they sell them again. They know that this could happen. All the books that were on the floor, or near the floor, were damaged. They’re basically offering them to people. They put them outside, and if you want to pick them up you can. They put out a message on their social media saying “We’ve been flooded.” People started donating money to the bookshop because it’s very beloved, very famous.
They were fatalists, I would say. Their mood was, we knew that this could happen, we will go on. That’s the main mood in the city. Of course there’s desperation; people lost most of their things. There’s a resilience that’s always there. If you live there you have to have that kind of personal strength. The local government declared a state of emergency, so now people who lost part of their house or shop can claim some compensation from the local government. Insurance specifically does not cover damage from water.
Do you get the sense that the government help is enough?
Many small shop owners, and people living on the ground floor, are desperate. They have to rely on the help from the government. Sometimes there’s a feeling that they don’t trust the public authority to help them out. In general, the response to disasters in Italy is slow—also for earthquakes. In Venice specifically, there’s a general mood that the local government is not keeping the city as a livable city. That the local government is giving up, or already gave up, and is trying to make people move out and convert the city into a theme park.
How are tourists handling the floods?
Tourists are enjoying the high tide, and the floods, very much. It’s picturesque. You have a very old city flooded with water. Visually, it’s beautiful. For tourists, it’s another attraction. Tourists don’t realize what a disaster it can be for local people. If you find a beautiful city with water, you just enjoy it.
Are locals annoyed at tourists?
Very much so. If I didn’t introduce myself as a photographer, I had problems. If they see someone taking pictures of local people working to keep their houses or shops dry, they get upset. That’s normal: “We are working to save our house, why are you taking pictures of us?” It’s a feeling that is mounting through the years. You have a city with less than 100,000 citizens, and you have millions of tourists. You don’t have a day where you don’t have tourists in front of your house, taking pictures. When your house is about to be flooded and you find a tourist taking pictures, it’s very annoying.
What do you say to people so you can take pictures?
I show my journalist badge. The reaction changes completely. If they understand that you’re a photographer working, they can remain annoyed and say “we don’t want to have pictures” because they don’t want to be in the news. There are other people saying “We want the world to see this, we want people to see what’s happening to our city.”