When I asked to chat they responded by slapping my fixer in the face and swinging a metal chain at his head, telling us as we turned away that if they were to see us on this street again they would, “fucking kill us”.
Armed with chains and pockets full of cocaine, gangs of young men control the neighbourhood of Mestre, overseeing the prostitutes who sub lease their street corners. Men and women lay strung out on park benches while homeless musicians fill the lyrical silence. The street is named Via Piave and locals tell me it’s “famous”.
Mestre is Venice’s (Italy) closet neighbour in the Comune di Venezia (City of Venice). Nine kilometres from the historic island it takes less than ten minutes by bus to reach the modern industrial suburb of the mainland. Via Piave is the town’s main street and stretches over one kilometre beginning at the train station platform.
Quietened by the daylight it is only as the light recedes into the sun that the blanket concealing this underground industry can be lifted. All between the ages of 20-35 the gang of young men occupy the park benches at the top of the street closest to the train station. When I asked to chat they responded by slapping my fixer in the face and swinging a metal chain at his head, telling us as we turned away that if they were to see us on this street again they would, “fucking kill us”. The ladies who emerge from the surrounding hotel rooms at which they are often kept during the day range between the ages of 20 to 50 years old. Many of eastern European or South American origin; most of whom I spoke with were able to speak the language including Connie and Marcelies while others were unable to communicate beyond that of the necessities of their occupation.
To the right I see a small park named Piazza Donatori Di Sangue (Square of Blood Donors) with a white arched bench spanning about 4 or 5 metres wide. About 7 or so men sit, relaxed. Some strung out with their necks reclined ninety degrees backwards staring at the moonlight sky with dilated pupils. They sit chatting to a young South American girl. I wonder over and ask to take her photo. She refuses but then quickly changes her mind when Fransisco, my friend and fixer, tells her I’m from Australia. She immediately strikes a pose, left leg slightly raised stepping on a bike rack with her right hand gripping the railing. She shows her profile but turns slightly towards the camera. This pose is one similar to that created by Playboy as one which has claimed the term ‘sexy’. She tells me she will take off all her clothes right here in the street if I can take a good photo. I respond, “No thank you, you don’t need to do that.”…
I attempt to chat with this gentleman at the bus stop prior to him falling asleep. He can barely string a sentence together and stinks of alcohol. I ask if I can photograph him. He agrees but quickly falls asleep. I take his portrait. The young couple are having a conversation in the background. I can’t hear what they are talking about.
On any given night ten women can be seen working the street with the most common areas immediately surrounding the train station. Standing predominately on corners they move smoothly and quietly under the light of the street lamps. Their skin is illuminated for a brief moment as they attempt to catch the attention of the male passers by, as if playing a catch and release game between a man’s desire and the chase. Only this game is flawed and always ends the same way. If you pay the money you get the girl. All of this happening in direct sight of their male pimps who generally in their 40s or higher, circulating on push bikes or in near by cars keeping a close eye on all interactions.
Under the midnight shadow of a bus stop sits a man and his wife – I can only assume she is the man’s wife could be simply a friend. She sits there smoking a cigarette with four empty long necks of Birra Moretti at her feet. As I approach the pair the sound ceases plunging Via Piave into silence. I ask if he can continue to fill the street with music and he agrees.
Underneath a streetlight I pause; politely refuse a blowjob.
“What is your name?” she doesn’t wish to tell me.
“Can I please take your portrait? She accepts.
“Do you want some drugs? Some coke? She asks.
I turn my head towards the park benches and see her puppeteer.
He eyeballs me. His stare suggesting,
“If you’re not going to fuck her then buy some coke,”
“If your not going to do either then get the fuck out of here.”
I turn back towards her and politely decline her offer.
I thank her for her time and she slips silently back into the darkness.
In 1570 post the plague the population of Venice hit its peak with 190,000 residents. Over the next 400 years, due to further epidemics and the mass exodus of the early 20th century, the number of Venetians dropped by over 130,000 to where it now sits at just shy of 60, 000 people. With packed bags, potential job opportunities in Mestre’s chemical and oil plants these once residents of one of the world’s most beautiful cities headed to the mainland chasing affordable housing. Leaving in their place the 55, 000 approximate tourists who visit the city each day and subsequently pump an estimated 150-million euros into the annual economy boosting an incredible arts sector as one result. Unfortunately this is a double-edged sword as many locals protest the ships and it’s occupants. “No grandi navi” (No big ships) is the slogan of these protests, as it is believed these ships are destroying the cities fabric landscape while contributing to a loss of culture overrun with hotels.
This policeman was patrolling Via Piave on the night I photographed him.
USA Today puts Venice as one of the top ten most expensive cities to live in Europe. Subsequently with Italy’s open border policy thousands of migrants each year find refuge in the country. Some manage to find work within Venice, like Bangladeshi waitress Sharmin, who unfortunately is forced out of the islands rental market as she has a family to feed on a smaller income. Many people manage to find work within Mestre and surrounding suburbs including Marghera working in the business industry but the sad reality is that some either choose or are forced into prostitution. Street prostitution is legal in Italy, hence why these girls work so candidly on Via Piave.
… She lowers her self to all fours and begins to crawl around the pavement. One of the bench sitters leans in and grabs her right breast. She finishes her performance and I use this as a good time to ask the young South American her name. She tells me Connie Chavez and gives me a web address that I can contact her on. The whole time we chat she continues to grab my balls whilst I continue to jolt my torso away. She wants to put my lens inside her she tells me while rubbing it as if giving it a hand job. I thank her for her time and give her a kiss on either cheek.
I close up portrait of Connie on the left and an unnamed gentleman on the right. This gentleman is the one grabbing Connie’s breast in the above photo.
He stares at Connie’s ass while she is bent over touching the ground. He has a smile. In the darkness she holds his attention. Connie is the star of this performance.
Venice is truly one of the most magical places on the planet, a labyrinth of canals where the water seems to move to its own constant beat like a jazz musician clicking his fingers. Palaces become cliff faces plunging deep below the waters surface. The stone paved walkways pull you into a blissful reverie of a distant time. Unfortunately anything attempting to burst the bubble of this dream holiday and wedding destination is shoved across the connecting bridge. The contrast is overwhelming when comparing this to a playground of sexual exploitation, drug abuse and homelessness.
With a dream, there exists an underlying nightmare. And with the break of daylight what remains in Mestre is only reminisces; a momentary memory flash – a used condom on the footpath. Only this nightmare is recurring.
Aaron Bradbrook is a documentary photographer based in Perth, Western Australia. He obtained an undergraduate degree in Photography and Journalism from Edith Cowan University with brief international study periods at Arizona State University, USA and Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Bangladesh. In 2012 he was awarded the winner of UNCOVER award recognising new Australian talent at the Perth Centre For Photography for his series BORDERLAND.