Back when photographic devices needed a strip of silver halide infused gelatin-coated transparent plastic rolled up inside them in order to save an image, cameras were ascribed with god-like powers. Anyone who traveled to eastern Europe or Africa 20 or 30 years ago with a camera came back with a story of the locals cowering before the Nikon begging to be saved from the inevitable click of the shutter, fearing the resulting image would rip the very soul out of a good, God-fearing person. We of the industrial world laughed at the very thought. And we clicked away, didn’t we?
But let’s rethink this soul thing. And let’s start with a fish.
This week has been a banner week for municipalities to try to save their local markets from camera-toting tourist groups who buy next to nothing. Groups of 15 or more tourists visiting the iconic La Boqueria market in Barcelona are to be banned. The locals can’t seem to shop in comfort after tour buses have disgorged their load of tourists and a single guide unlikely to be trained as well as a sheepdog to keep the mob slightly off to the side of oncoming shoppers. It’s important for the selfie-stick crowd to get the perfect shot. It’s clear to the casual observer that everybody should be seen in a photo with a large grouper behind them…
These invading hordes are killing the markets, unfortunately, because they block aisles and don’t buy anything.
The iconic Rialto fish market opened on the edge of the Grand Canal in 1097. Only now is it facing its demise. Imagine.
Mr Vio and his family rise at 3am and work 12 hours a day buying seafood from local fishermen and selling their produce at the market.
He remembers when Venetian women would be lining up for the daily catch before they arrived. Now tourists come to look but rarely buy anything.
“If I charged a euro for every photo they take, I would be a millionaire,” he says. “Tourists do not have a seafood culture, they do not know how to cook fish.” — Historic Venice fish market fights for survival as local shoppers are replaced by snap-happy tourists
So here we are. Are we ripping the soul out of European food markets with our cameras? Fisherman Andrea Vio thinks so: “The market is the soul of the city, it is a sign of life. Venice is all about seafood and the market is at the heart of it. Little attention is being paid to the soul of this city.”
In 2012 there was still a sense of humor among the vendors in the Rialto fish market. The fish introduced themselves in a little makeshift tableau.
When the humor goes, can the soul be far behind?
I love food markets around the globe. I know many, many American tourists do too. The thing is, why aren’t we demanding the fresh fish like you see in the Rialto market or La Boqueria? Do we actually prefer our old fish chunks, more than half of which are labeled incorrectly, marinating in their own bacteria inside a Styrofoam tray wrapped in air-tight plastic so we don’t pass out when we smell the stench of the rotting fish we are thinking of purchasing because it’s good for us (a steal at $19.95 a pound!). Why aren’t we out in the streets demanding the kinds of markets we’re so in love with when we vacation overseas?
Better yet, why don’t we sneak off to the Rialto market at the crack of dawn to see it getting set up. Why don’t we sidle up to a Venetian housewife and ask her what she sees that she likes? Why don’t we ask her how she cooks it? Why don’t we be polite and motion for her to go first in ordering her fish? Why don’t we buy some fish and go to our rental apartment and cook it up just like she does?
It’s all about preserving the soul of a place. And eating well. You can’t beat that with a selfie stick.