The Italian capital of Rome is a truly fascinating and beautiful city to visit. Enjoying great weather for much of the year, its inhabitants live a large portion of their lives out on the street: making it a particularly suitable destination for street photography. In order to get the best out of the Eternal City, though, you’ll need to know where to go and how to behave. This short guide to street photography in Rome will get you up to speed.
Climate and Light
Whether it’s the cool and delicate pastel shades of early spring; or the deep shadows, blazing highlights, and brilliant blue sky of high summer; Rome is blessed with some of the most beautiful light in the world. Depending on the season, here you can capture images resembling anything from sublime Renaissance paintings to Alex Webb’s mysterious, shadow-dissected street photography from Haiti.
The extreme heat of July and August is probably best avoided. In any case it’s largely avoided by the Romans themselves, who all head off to the mountains or beach – leaving you with a vastly reduced number of potential subjects for your photos. Aside from this though, Rome’s generally excellent climate makes the city a good street photography destination for much of the year. Even during the brief winter months, temperatures rarely drop below about 40 Degrees Fahrenheit/5 degrees Celsius. It also tends not to rain a great deal, so if you’re lucky every day will be a shooting day.
People and Places
While there’s no shortage of interesting scenarios to be found on the streets of Rome themselves, much of this city’s social life is lived in the piazzas. And if you want to get a feel for the true pulse of the city, there’s no better place to start than in morning markets or during the late afternoon promenade in public squares.
Naturally though, the high level of tourism in Rome means that many of the people you’ll see on the streets in the center of town or around the popular historical sites are not in fact Romans. As Martin Parr clearly demonstrates, the grotesque carnival of mass tourism can be a great subject for street photography. And the long lines and crowds gathered at the entrances to popular tourist attractions can be particularly good places to shoot a captive subject.
Yet Rome also has plenty of its own local characters to offer too. You just need to know where to find them. Sure, some can likely be tracked down to the rapidly thinning reserves of wild Rome still to be found at the fringes of touristy neighborhoods such as Trastevere or Monti. But mostly if you want to capture real Romans in their natural habitat you’ll need to step away from the more popular tourist areas and venture into less picturesque parts of town.
A ride out to any of the metro stations on the city’s A Line south of San Giovanni will deposit you squarely in the city’s postwar suburbs. This is where ordinary middle- and working-class Romans live, work, shop, and eat. Although you may come across an occasional ramshackle reminder of the city’s glorious antiquity (the Parco degli Acquedotti or the Appia Antica for example), for the most part these districts are made up of ugly ‘60s and 70s apartment blocks. But what they lack in architectural charm they more than make up for in authentic street life.
While this part of the city is perfectly safe (you’d need to travel quite far out before coming across any real sketchiness) just bear in mind that as an outsider you are a lot more likely to stick out in this part of town than you would amidst the hordes of tourists in the center of Rome. Depending on your shooting style, this may or may not be a good thing.
Dangers and Annoyances
The Roman Welcome
To outsiders, the Roman attitude can seem quite confrontational. Even people who move to the Eternal City from other parts of Italy often complain about the rude and aggressive treatment they receive from store owners and random members of the public out on the street.
But ask any true Roman and they’ll tell you that it’s all talk. Rarely does the bravado come to much beyond insults (typically insults directed at your deceased relatives).
Still, while the surly manner of certain citizens shouldn’t discourage you from doing street photography in Rome, even just being subjected to a barrage of verbal abuse can put a downer on things. If you do find yourself on the receiving end of some “Roman hospitality” as a result of your photographic exploits, the best solution is probably just to raise your hands and lower your head in an admission of guilt – and walk away. The Roman doesn’t want things to end up violent any more than you do, and they are likely just bluffing in the hope that you’ll back-off. Better not to disappoint them.
Reckless motorists are likely to be the main, or indeed only, serious threat to your well-being when shooting street photography in Rome. Be particularly careful not to walk distractedly down the middle of the street, as Rome’s hazardous drivers can be found hurtling at breakneck speeds through even the narrow vicoli in the old center.
Yet sticking to the sidewalk doesn’t entirely remove you from harm’s way either. This is because in Rome scooters are generally parked on the sidewalk. And in order to be parked on the sidewalk, they are often also ridden on the sidewalk. What’s more, there’s evidently an unwritten law that states that the owner will want to put their scooter exactly where you happen to be standing.
Clearly this adds an extra degree of risk to street photography in Rome. Ideally you’ll develop eyes in the back of your head, but, failing that, perhaps avoid walking backwards with the camera up to your eye.
Pickpockets and Bag Snatchers
As with most major European cities, Rome has a notable problem with pickpockets. Particularly on its rickety and stinking public transport system.
Many Romans blame this activity entirely on Romany gypsies from Eastern Europe. While some Romany are no doubt involved in petty crime (be particularly wary of gangs of small children in Termini Station or on the Metro), the truth is that Italy has its fair share of home-grown criminality to offer visitors too.
Anyone conspicuously engaging in street photography in Rome may potentially come to the attention of unsavory characters – attracted by the shine of a new lens or an alluring brand-name camera. The older and more beat up your camera looks, the less likely it is that thieves will be interested in it. Covering the body (and especially the brand name) with black electrical tape will help to make your camera appear a lot less desirable than the next tourist’s shiny toy – hopefully deflecting the avaricious glare of light-fingered miscreants elsewhere.
Thankfully the once common Roman pastime of snatching bags from the back of a Vespa has largely gone out of fashion over the last couple of decades. Still, you’d perhaps be wise not to tempt fate by walking right next to the curb with a camera slung casually over your roadside shoulder: either keep it on the side of your body that’s furthest from the road, or wear the strap diagonally across your chest.
Also keep one hand firmly on your camera when in crowded areas or using public transport; otherwise you might find that although the strap is still hanging reassuringly over your shoulder, its valuable cargo has been removed with a single stealthy movement of a switchblade.